Challenges and Triumphs in Women's Running History

Let's Get Physical Chapters 1-3

Posted on February 9th, 2022

By Olivia Baker

Throughout these opening chapters of Let's Get Physical, we get to meet the several of the early pioneers of the women's fitness movement. We meet Bonnie Pruden who encouraged everyone to partake in exercise beginning at a young age in the late 1950s and early 60s. Alongside Hans Kraus, she conducted research to track the progress of the children in her conditioning program and eventually developed the first physical fitness test. Her catchy motto of "No muscle, no curve" helped convince women of all ages that exercise could build strong, flexible, attractive bodies (pg#15). Next, we met Lotte Berk (and her American pupil Lydia Bach) and learned of the sexual origins of barre, which was marketed to women as a way to strengthen their inner core in the 60s and early 70s. Then, in chapter 3 we dove into the story of Katherine Switzer, the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon, and learn of the many ways that running began to change the narrative around exercise for women from something they should do to become better wives and fit the societal standards of beauty to an exercise that can be done to improve mental, physical, and emotional health. Considering that this is a book club full of runners, walkers, and joggers of all levels, today's blog will look at some of the barriers that the women's running community has overcome over the years and discuss some of the opportunities for continued improvement.

Barrier: The belief that running a mile or two was dangerous for a woman. After the 1928 Olympic 800m run in which women completed the race and then bent over and collapsed in exhaustion (as one should after a competitive 800m race, I can identify with this feeling), the event was struck from the Olympics, and it was decided that the event was too dangerous for the delicate body of a woman. Furthermore, urban legend held that running would cause a woman to grow hair on her face, develop bulging calves, and cause her uterus to fall out if she ran more than a mile or two (pg# 65).

Solution: Running and Research. Bobbi Gibb ran the Boston Marathon (unofficially) in 1966 and then Katherine Switzer officially completed it in 1967, showing that women could, in fact safely run marathons. Those two races began to sway the court of public opinion on women and running. Switzer pressed the issue further by supporting the first women-only "mini-marathon" with the NY Road Runners, recruiting sponsors for what would eventually become a world major marathon series for women, and ultimately successfully lobbying the Olympic committee to add the women's marathon to the 1984 Olympics. Dr. Ernst van Aaken published research suggesting that women were even better equipped to run long distances than men because they endure the demands of childbirth (pg#91). Further research from the Melpomene Institute, founded by Judy Lutter, produced a large body of evidence for the safety of distance running for women.

Barrier: Discomfort while running due to a lack of proper sports wear to support women's bodies. Many women found themselves buying bras that were too small or wearing two bras to give them the support needed to run. All bras to that point in time in the late 60s had been designed and created by men.

Solution: As celebrities began to pick up jogging and talking about runner's high and all of the health benefits of running, the activity became more mainstream. As more women ran, more began dreaming up ways to improve their runs, and in 1977, Lisa Z. Lindahl alongside Polly Smith and Hinda Miller invented what we've come to know as the modern sports bra (pg#87), a big win for running of course, but also for women's participation in any exercise. Moreover, the popularity of tampons, actually invented in 1936 (pg#92), began to boom as well!

Barrier: Lack of leisure time to run, the money to pay for race fees, and safe spaces to run (especially for runners of color). Black joggers faced taunts and harassment if they wanted to jog and the racist assumption that an African American jogger might be fleeing a crime (pg# 86) is still something that plagues black men today.

Solution: We as a running community are still working on this. The popularity of running clubs (like Atlanta Track Club) has helped create safe spaces for running and lower the economic barriers to entry into the sport. The growing diversity in the running community and global presence has helped as well. However, those who read A Beautiful Work in Progress by Mirna Valerio with us this past November remember the challenges she wrote about as a plus-sized ultra-marathoner in a book the was released just a few years ago and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that this community is still grappling with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery while he was out jogging. We've come a long way, but we still have work to do.

All that being said, I'm grateful for all of the messy, convoluted history that birthed the sports bra, popularized the tampon, brought my event (the 800m) back into the Olympics, and has made space for women to compete in this sport at the highest level. But I recognize the areas we still need to improve and am committed to leaving this running community better than I found it. I hope you are too.

Discussion Questions:

1. What has the opportunity to participate in running and walking meant to you? Have you ever experienced "runner's high"?

2. Running is often marketed as a sport that is for everyone. "All you need is a pair of shoes". While the economic barriers to participating in running have been lowered significantly over the years, barriers of safety still remain, especially for women and people of color. In what ways can we, as a running community, work to create a safe space for everyone to participate in running?

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