Review: First Ladies of Running

I read a mix of fiction and non on a recent beach getaway: fittingly all the non fiction was about running and I started Amby Burfoot’s First Ladies of Running on the plane on the way home. I wished I’d started it sooner as it was such an engaging read, but I had no time the rest of this week. Not sure where exactly I first heard of this book, but when Wendy mentioned she’d blogged about it, I realized that was probably the source since at some point her posts became my Mt. TBR.

While many of these stories are commonly told throughout the pages of Runner’s World and in other tomes of running, some of the stories and the athletes were new to me. I really liked how he used the pioneer women’s stories to narrate the timeline of women’s running. It’s amazing how quickly it changed once it all changed after the work of Julia Chase, Bobbi Gibb, Jackie Hansen, Kathrine Switzer, and beyond. In some ways, reading this now was even more fitting with Shalane having won NYC and Cheryl Bridges included in this book.

I think what made this book even better was that it wasn’t just an author interviewing these women later. As a runner or in his role at the magazine, Burfoot knew many of them and their achievements personally. As someone who came a generation later, the only one of these I remember was Oprah’s Marine Corps run to this was a great 101 on the history of women’s running beyond the oft repeated Switzer and Benoit stories. Burfoot’s choice to ID the women by the names they were using at their moment in history was an interesting one: I can see both sides of it. Personally I also liked that he included Crazy Legs and Jacqueline Dixon in the afterword. In the last year I’ve been lucky enough to hear her on a panel about the Women’s Mini and a number of other women runners and the impact of Title IX earlier in February. While I’m running the Mini again this year, I’m kind of sad I can’t do the Women’s Half, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited about Cherry Blossom.

While I understand why he included Joan Benoit and Oprah and think they do fit by the strictest standards, I think it would have been a stronger book if it ended with the toast to Grete Waitz.

Joan’s own words in her intro to her chapter spell out why I don’t think they’re part of the same story that the prior chapters were:

“I consider myself part of the next generation. I’m not in the same league as the pioneer women runners who came before me. They were part of the process of history changing. They brought progress to the sport. They are in a league of their own. They had guts, they had talent, and, most of all, they had the passion to pursue the sport they loved.”

Yes, she was a pioneer in being the gold medalist in the first Women’s Olympic marathon, but she wasn’t a trailblazer the way they women before her were.

And Oprah…

I get it, if she could do it, so could so many other women. But up to her chapter, this book was about professional women runners. Including her MCM run made it seem like there were no other everywoman runners in the races these professionals competed in. And that none of these women inspired others to run. This book was about the pioneers at/near the front, not mid packers. I think it would have been better to leave her out. Could easily have added one of the women from the afterword, a contemporary pioneer or a profile on one of the women still running now.

6 comments to this article

  1. Wendy

    on February 25, 2018 at 13:26 - Reply

    Yeah, that he included Oprah in the book almost felt like he “jumped the shark”. Maybe he hoped she’d promote the book? It just didn’t make sense except that she did make running more accessable to the masses.

    I”m going to add your link to my post! Thanks for sharing mine!

    • cari

      on February 25, 2018 at 14:36 - Reply

      Agree. I thought it was a shame that he said sure, Joan won but she didn’t inspire a flood the way Oprah did. Way too much credit to Oprah without acknowledging middle of the packers throughout the rest of the chapters. It’s not like Western Hemisphere and all other races that weren’t Boston or Waldniel were only elites. Thank you!

  2. Liz Dexter

    on February 25, 2018 at 13:48 - Reply

    This sounds like a great read and will go on my wish list. I need to read another running book soon!

    • cari

      on February 25, 2018 at 14:48 - Reply

      It’s very US centric, but I think you’ll enjoy it. It’s also one you can easily dip into and out as the chapters are really standalone profiles of the women, although their stories overlap

  3. Debbie @ Deb Runs

    on February 26, 2018 at 14:30 - Reply

    I haven’t read the book, but from what you and Wendy say, it’s interesting that he added Oprah since she’s in a different league. Perhaps his angle was that she pioneered the more recent marathon craze. I ran my first marathon, the Marine Corps Marathon, in 1997, a year after Oprah and just before my 40th birthday. Like so many others, I reasoned, “if Oprah can do, certainly I can do it.” Shortly after that time marathon running exploded with runners training to raise money for charities, etc. and many more average runners started tackling the marathon distance.

    • cari

      on February 27, 2018 at 00:00 - Reply

      A colleague who has also read it took it to mean acknowledging Oprah as a TV pioneer (which I absolutely agree with) and that her platform gave marathons a voice. I just don’t know if I see it in the same light as those who worked directly on running. It has definitely made the marathon more accessible in that you don’t need to identify with a famous runner, just a mainstream celeb.

Leave a Reply