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.
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.