A Salute to the Women Pioneers of Marathon Running
When I started running as a 12-year-old girl through the woods and fields around my home, I felt an unexpected sense of freedom and a joy so deep it created a seemingly effortless movement of my body, my rhythmic breath finding an echo with the nature around me.
I had no way of even imagining then that only 10 years earlier, in 1966, the world had saluted the first woman ever to cross the finish line in the world’s most renowned marathon race—the Boston Marathon.
Her name was Bobbi Gibb and she ran despite not being officially allowed to compete in the prestigious 26.2 mile race from Hopkinton to Boston. After all, the Marathon was a men’s domain. Our female bodies would be hurt by it, they said. It was far too risky for a woman to attempt.
And so I, like many other women, just did what felt natural to us—we ran! We enjoyed the benefits of being healthy and happy.
When I grew up in East Germany, it was a country that cared for its children and women. We received support and encouragement as our young talents emerged. My early memories of running are joyful and playful. By the time I was in high school, running had become together with my studies the focal points of my life.
It was then I started learning about women whose love for music, art, science, and sport had led them to excel no matter what were the barriers they faced. It was breathtaking to find out how driven, passionate, and accomplished so many women were. I was amazed at the outstanding accomplishments so many of them had achieved in their respective fields.
Because I loved running so much, the women pioneers of running—with their fearless drive to break new records in distance and time—became my role models. And there were many.
In the ’70s and ’80s, the effects of the Cold War limited our access to international news. The Berlin Wall divided my home city of Berlin into East and West zones. Although it was difficult in the East, whenever we could, we followed with amazement the women who participated in international competitions. One example for us was the 1,500 meter race—the longest one allowed for women in the 1972 Olympics in Munich. And then there were the inspiring women who broke ground in my home country.
My first coach, who was independent enough to pass on to us some news from the West, said one day to me: “Uta, there are women running in marathons in New York City, Boston, and in many other places, and right here in Germany as well.” He then told me about some of them, like Grete Waitz. “They are fast in the marathon,” he said, “and maybe one day you can do it, too.” I was just 15 at the time.
Many years later, I would learn about the great runs by Liane Winter, Christa Vahlensieck, Nina Kuscsik, and Joan Benoit Samuelson, just to name of a few.
In those days 26.2 miles seemed an impossible distance for me. But my wise coach taught me those precious first lessons of staying relaxed while running, and how to conquer longer distances while still being able to keep my speed high.
Shortly afterwards, we began hearing more about Grete Waitz and her victories as she took the marathon world by storm. She was adding long training distance to her speed work, they said—a secret we understood would produce tremendous results.
Later, after 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, I was finally able to run free. I actually could take part in races we youngsters growing up behind the Iron Curtain had only been able to dream about. And I headed to the most magical marathon of them all: Boston.
Having left East Germany, it was my first marathon in freedom. It was hard fought for. And there, in Boston, I finally was able to meet the women I’d only known as distant names. Many of them, I discovered, were pioneers of women’s running.
And now here I am, back again in Boston 26 years later. And together we are celebrating my heroes. Women who paved the road for us younger runners. Women who simply did what they believed in.
I salute you pioneers. A most heartfelt “Thanks” to each and every one of you.