The women who paved the way: the inspiring women who run #RunningWeek

What better motivation to get you out of bed and into your trainers than remembering all the great women who broke down boundaries, smashed preconceptions and crossed the finish line before us?

In just five decades we’ve gone from a time when doctors didn’t think women were capable of long distance running, to female athletes setting records that defy belief. Have a read of this lot, and that 5k in the drizzle might not seem quite so unattainable…

Dr Julia Chase-Brand

The granddaughter of a suffragette, Julia Chase-Brand grew up running for miles around the woods of the family farm in Connecticut – at a time when women in America weren’t allowed to run in races longer than 880 yards, under the misguided belief they would damage their reproductive organs (some doctors even warned that running could cause one’s uterus to ‘fall out’, I kid you not). In 1960, aged 18, Julia registered for the Manchester Road Race, but was told by officials that she’d be banned for life if she even tried to compete.

After a year of lobbying and protesting she returned again, wearing lipstick and her high school gym dress, and successfully ran the race by starting a block later than the male competitors to avoid the officials. She beat 10 men and was greeted by cheers at the finish line, though her time wasn’t officially counted.

‘Finishing that race was a defining moment for me,’ said Dr Chase-Brand, who went on to become a celebrated zoologist and child psychiatrist. ‘If I could handle that pressure, I realised I could go ahead and live my life as I wanted. I could do anything.’

Bobbi Gibb

Roberta Gibb didn’t even know that the Boston Marathon was closed to women when she applied to run it in 1966. Having trained for years in a pair of Red Cross nurse’s shoes (forget your neon Nikes, running shoes for women didn’t even exist), she could cover 40 miles in a day with ease. But the race director rejected her application claiming women ‘weren’t physiologically capable’ of running marathon distances, and left Gibb determined to prove him wrong.

On the morning of the marathon, she dressed in her brother’s shorts and sweatshirt, hid in a bush by the starting line, and leapt into the race after it started. Male runners encouraged her when they realised they were running with a woman, word soon spread, and by the time she crossed the finish line (in three hours, 21 minutes and 40 seconds), she was greeted by the world’s press and the Governor of Massachusetts, who shook her hand in congratulations.

Bobbi went on to finish first, though still unregistered, among more women in the 1967 and 1968 marathons – though it took 30 years for the Boston Athletic Association got their act together and awarded her a medal.

Kathrine Switzer

While Bobbi Gibb ran unregistered in the 1967 Boston marathon, another woman was attempting to blaze the trail as an official entrant. Kathrine Switzer registered for the race under the gender-neutral ‘K V Switzer’, wore bulky clothes and managed to start the race wearing a number before being spotted by the race director (see photo above).

Furious, he grabbed her by the sweatshirt and tried to drag her off the road, screaming ‘get the hell out of my race’ – but Switzer dodged him and managed to complete the marathon, while newspapers across the world published photos of the famous skirmish. Kathrine went on to be the women’s winner of the New York Marathon in 1974, and spent years encouraging women to follow in her footsteps.

‘When I go to the Boston Marathon now, I have wet shoulders – women fall into my arms crying,’ she says. ‘They’re weeping for joy because running has changed their lives.’

Nina Kuscsik

The first woman to run a marathon is less than three hours (join with Beth Bonner in the 1971 New York Marathon), Kuscsik went on to win the first officially-sanctioned women’s division of the Boston Marathon in 1972. Not content with just the one mammoth sporting achievement, she was also the first woman to climb the Empire State Building in 1991 and took New York champion titles for speed skating, rollerskating and cycling.

Joan Benoit Samuelson 

It’s hard to believe that the women’s marathon wasn’t an Olympic event until 1984, when American runner Joan Benoit Samuelson won the gold medal in the race’s first year. But like other female runners of the time, Samuelson hadn’t always felt able to exercise her passion. ‘When I first started running, I was so embarrassed I’d walk when cars passed me,’ she said. ‘I’d pretend I was looking at the flowers!’

Despite numerous injuries and surgeries, she also won the Boston Marathon in 1979 and 1983, held a world record time for 11 years, and won the 7.1 mile Falmouth Road Race on six occasions. These days she’s an ambassador for women’s running and takes part in the Nike Women’s Marathon every year.

Grete Waitz 

The Norwegian runner was the first woman to run a marathon in under two and a half hours, and went on to win nine New York City Marathons – more than anyone else in history. But despite her legendary talents, Waitz struggled to convince her parents that there was a future for female athletes, and during the early days of her career she worked as a PE teacher.

In 1978 her husband Jack persuaded her to run the New York Marathon, despite her never having run so much as a half marathon before. The race director would only let her in as a pacemaker, but she went on to win the whole thing – and set a new world record while she was at it. ‘When I crossed the line I was furious with Jack because my whole body hurt. But once the anger had gone and the pain had lessened and the victory soaked in, I realised that it was a milestone in my career,’ she said afterwards.

Derartu Tulu

Both the first Ethiopian woman and the first black African woman to win an Olympic gold medal, Derartu Tulu raced to victory in the Women’s 10,000m at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and claimed another gold eight years later – the only woman to have won two gold medals in the event’s history.

After having two children she took up marathon running, and went on to win marathons in London, Tokyo and New York.

Paula Radcliffe

The current women’s marathon world record holder and one of Britain’s most successful ever athletes, Paula Radcliffe made history in 2003 when she finished the London Marathon in two hours, 15 minutes and 25 seconds ­– a time no woman has come near beating in the decade since. Nor has any male runner managed an equivalent time, according to the International Association of Athletics Federations.

She’s won the London and New York marathons three times each, as well as a cabinet-full of European, World and Commonwealth accolades. And yes, she did once poo on the street – but all things considered, we can let that one slide.

Further reading: Check out Alexandra Heminsley’s brilliant Running Like a Girl to find out more about the earliest female marathoners.


Lauren Bravo