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Women hit their stride

In light of the hordes of women running today, Kathy Switzer's experience at the start of the 1967 Boston Marathon seems ludicrously funny. Upon discovering that "K. Switzer" was a woman, the first officially to crack Boston's allmale ranks, angry officials tried to "repossess" her number. But there to help foil the attempt was Thomas Miller, Kathy's boyfriend at the time and a sturdily built hammer thrower, who bumped Jock Semple out of the way. Kathy, meanwhile, eluded Marathon Director Will Cloney and was off on her 26 -mile, 385-yard odyssey.

On April 20, an estimated 250 to 300 women, all of whom met a rigid qualification standard, will take the starter's gun in this year's trek to Boston.

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The fact is, droves of women runners are stampeding into distance races across the country, as well as overseas, yet only a decade ago women's running was still pretty much in the Dark Ages.

Some critics have laid the blame for this backwardness at the feet of the all-male International Olympic Committee (IOC), which refused for decades to sanction longer women's events in the games.

Until 1928, in fact, there were no Olympic women's running events whatsoever, and it wasn't until the 1972 Munich games that female athletes were permitted to try even the 1,500 meters.

Even the IOC has recognized the trend by now, however, and has given women the green light for both a 3,000-meter race and a marathon at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

The adjective that really did women in for so long was not "fairer," but "weaker." Throughout much of history, women just weren't thought strong enough to do anything too strenous, unless, of course, it was around the house.

And to be frank, women didn't always capitalize on the opportunities to undermine this notion. For example, at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics the women got their first crack at 800 meters and some blew it, collapsing from exhaustion. consequently, the myth grew about inherent female shortcomings at the longer distances, and it wasn't to be dislodged until many years later.

The interesting thing is, some researchers now theorize that women may be better suited physically to run ultramarathon distances (50 to 100) miles) than men.

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Their stamina, if not their speed, should have been evident at the first modern Olympics, when Melpomene, a woman named after a Greek muse crashed the 1896 marathon field and finished in 4 1/2 hours.

She was never heard from again, and it wasn't until the late 1960's that women really began to make headway in the sport.

In 1966 Roberta Gibb slipped out of the bushes near the Boston Marathon starting line and preceeded to "go the distance." Since Roberta ran without a number (i.e., unofficially), she didn't cause the stir that Switzer did, when she set the wheels of acceptance in motion a year later.

Boston officials didn't actually open their race to women until 1972, but Switzer's effort became the shot heard round the running world. "Every men's distance race wanted us [women] because we drew attention to their event," Kathy remembers. "We'd be given unofficial numbers and even unofficial prizes."

Simultaneously caught up in the running craze and the liberation movement, more and more women started exploring their athletic potential. It was much more unlimited they had imagined.

By 1971 Australian Adrienne Beams had broken the three-hour barrier for women in the marathon.

Despite this, the Amateur Athletic Union, the former governing body of track and field in this country, wouldn't allow women to enter sanctioned events longer than five miles. About the only group willing to give them a fair shake was the Road Runners Club of America, which continued a proud tradition of welcoming both sexes into its races.

Sensing that the AAU needed a shove in the right direction, New Yorker Nina Kuscsik stepped forward to provide it. A marathoner herself, she and other concerned women began a successful lobbying effort in 1971. That year they coaxed the AAU (now the Athletics Congress) to raise its upper limit on women's races to 10 miles while allowing certain women -- those with unquestioned racing credentials -- to run in marathons.

The following year the drive continued, this time aided by pressure from pending lawsuits. The result: clearance for women to compete at any distance and a green light for them to compete alongside the men in "separate" road races.

By 1973 steps were initiated to establish national road racing championships for women, and in 1974 the first AAU Women's National Marathon Championship was held.

Major progress was made on the international scene as well, thanks largely to the efforts of one man, Dr. Ernst van Asken of West Germany. He pulled together the first International Women's Marathon, a modest event that attracted just 45 runners from six countries.

It was an important first step, though, since it showed Olympic officials that there was global interest in women's marathoning.

Held every other year, the world championship was taken under the corporate wing of Avon in 1978. Selling the company on the idea of sponsoring this and other women's races was the sport's old friend, Kathy Switzer, who is now director of the 32-race Avon International Running Circuit.

The 1980 World Championship was held in England, where for the first time in London's history the city's downton streets were closed for a sporting event. an elite group of 199 women from 27 countries gave chase to the eventual winier, Lorraine Moller, a 24-year-old high school teacher from New Zealand. Her time was 2 hours, 35 minutes, 11 seconds.

Though an excellent pace, it was considerably slower than the 2:25:41 clocking turned in by Norway's Grete Waitz at last October's New York City Marathon. Grete's mark would have earned her a medal in 12 of the 19 modern Olympic Games and would have been fast enough to capture the gold in 11 of those 12.

Because marathons are run over vastly different terrain and under varying conditions, it's a bit misleading to single out the time from one race as "the world record." Nonetheless, it's interesting to note that the best time ever turned in by a male marathoner was 2:08:33.6 by Australia's Derek Clayton in 1969. While that time has not been equaled in 11 years, the best women's time has dropped by over 30 minutes during this same period and by nearly an hour in the last decade and a half.

Women just don't know where it's all going to end. Two years ago, for example, Joan Benoit startled no one more than herself by winning the women's division of the Boston Marathon in 2:33:15. The time was more than 15 minutes better then her previous best and obliterated the women's race record by some seven minutes.

The Maine native has since established herself as one of the world's premier distance runners, but at the time she seemed to cone out of nowhere. To some degree, other top runners have had this same experience, including such marathon champions as Gayle Barron, Jackie Gareau, Laurie Binder, and Waitz.

Grete, by the way, had never run a marathon before setting her first world record in the '78 New York Marathon. Like many other women she was lost in road racing limbo, a cross-country runner lacking the raw speed to run the Olympic 1, 500. She twice ran it anyhow, without success, but after the 1976 Montreal Olympics decided to focus her efforts on the longer cross-country races.

Ten years spent as a middle-distance runner have acquainted her with speed training and how to maintain a good pace mile after mile. In this regard, she has opened a new window on the world of women's distance running. Says Patti Lyons-Catalano, the fast-rising American star, "She's teaching us what it is to train like serious athletes."

Waitz's example is bound to influence many other runner, who may be soon be turning in times even more astounding then Grete's. In the US, of course, we can tell that women's distance running is for real by the corporate sponsorship it receives. Besides Avon, which has concocted a point system for its interlocking races, Bonnie Bell and L'eggs have put together events just for women.

These showcase the women in a way that mixed races, with their separate female divisions, seldom do. In the open events the media attention is more easily focused on male race leaders, while the top women get lost in the pack. A case in point, of course, was last year's Boston Marathon, where no one could conclusively prove that mystery woman rosie ruiz did or did not run the entire distance. Despite crossing the finish line first, she was later stripped of her crown, which went to Jackie Gareau.

That two cosmetic firms are now major sponsors of women's distance racing says something about a connection being made between running and physical appearance. Great numbers of women are turning to sport, Switzer confirms, because they consider "the foundation of beauty to be fitness and health. Accomplishment is really what makes a person attractive; nothing brings a faster physical return than accomplishment." Many of the nearly 6 million women who run in the US can vouch for that fact.

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