Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Women First

(To mark twin 50th anniversaries in 2017, as a fulltime running journalist and as a marathoner, I am posting a piece for each of those years. This one comes from 1974.)

WHO LINES up on which side of an argument can be confusing. I saw this at a National AAU convention when the debaters seemed to have joined the wrong teams.

This was 1970. The men’s long-distance running committee, chaired by Browning Ross, was nearly unanimous in their praise and support of the women joining men in road races. The women’s track and field committee, headed by Nell Jackson, was nearly as unanimous in its opposition to “integrated” racing and to females running marathons.

Give Dr. Jackson credit. At this convention she appeared before the long-distance committeemen to field often hostile questions and charges on this subject.

In essence she said: I’ll have none of it. And she had the power to keep the women from having full access to long races.

“We’ve approved 10 miles,” she said, “but we’ve never been submitted [requests for] anything longer. I wouldn’t give permission to run a marathon. It’s not in the best interest of the national program, and I’m very concerned about the effects of these long distances on females.”

So that was the first argument: she and her committee were “protecting” women. Another: AAU rules specifically forbade mixed female/male competitions.

“By running together,” Jackson said, “not only does the woman or girl threaten her own eligibility, but also that of every runner in the race. I have no objection to distances up to a certain point, but men and women must run separate races. I think it’s a sound rule.”

During this convention Jackson’s committee formally extended the maximum allowable women’s distance to 10 miles. The two-mile was added to the track program, “and the three-mile is permissible” in special cases.

But she warned that “those who are running longer distances without permission are working in opposition to our program. They don’t need to be in the AAU.”

Then came her most inflammatory – some would say ridiculous – statement: “We’re not concerned about those who want to run long distances. There aren’t many of them. We’re more interested in the masses of younger people, the hundreds of little girls running track and cross-country rather than a few older women out for a lark.”

Apparently she included in the latter group women like Sara Mae Berman and Nina Kuscsik, both mothers in their 30s who trained 80 miles a week – and ran 26 consecutive miles faster than many of the little girls could run a single one. Berman had won the last three unofficial Boston Marathon titles. Kuscsik would become the first recognized Boston winner after women had triumphed over the Nell Jacksons of this sport.

EVERYONE WITH a sense of history gives Roberta Gibb and Kathrine Switzer their due for what they did in the 1966 and 1967 Boston Marathon, and well beyond.

But do you remember Nina Kuscsik? You should. Her efforts reach back nearly as far as Switzer’s.

Kuscsik was one of the earliest sub-three-hour marathoners, with 2:56 in 1971. She was the first Boston women’s winner to be credited as such, in 1972. She led a sitdown strike in favor of women’s running rights at a New York City Marathon, also in 1972, and would lobby for full inclusion of women in marathons until they won an Olympic race.

I knew Nina’s racing history already, but the first time I got to know her as more than a name on a results list was at the inaugural women’s national marathon championships, in 1974. As important a milestone as this was for the sport, the event itself was little more than a regional event.

One of the few non-West Coasters to appear was Nina, who flew out from New York City. This wasn’t a good time for her, but she couldn’t miss this moment when women took another step toward equality.

In November 1993, Nina had run a 10K race in Puerto Rico, collapsing on a 90-degree day. That experience, along with family turmoil afterward, had jolted her confidence. She’d cut her mileage in half and even doubted her future in running.

Now, two days before the national marathon, she said, “I’m still scared of running. The race in Puerto Rico didn’t hurt me so much. It’s just that my head has been mixed up.”

I asked if she felt ready for this race. “No,” she said, not in the way that runners usually downplay their chances. This was a sincere, concerned no.

Judy Ikenberry, with the fastest PR coming in, left with the first title. Later she told reporters, “I’ve been running for 18 years, and this is the first time I’ve ever won anything. I guess if a person keeps looking long enough, she can find something she can do.”

Then, thinking this sounded too serious, she added, “That’s my sermon for today, folks.”

Nina Kuscsik was in tears as she walked through the chute after finishing fifth, 10 minutes behind Ikenberry’s 2:55. This was a relieved cry.

“I’m so pleased with today,” she said afterward. “My friends in New York had to badger me to come. I know now that this is what I needed. It gave me back my confidence to know I ran this fast when I was out of shape.

“I never would have forgiven myself if I hadn’t run here. I would always have wondered what I might have done, whether I might have won. This way I know. I’m so glad I came.”

It wouldn’t have been a true national championship race without this pioneer.

Photo: Nina Kuscsik, a prime-mover in the push for women’s marathon rights, won the first official Boston title and ran in the first national championship race for women.

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]

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