In the fall of 1972, the New York City Marathon organizer Fred Lebow contacted The New York Times. He told reporters to come to the start line of the race, then in its third year, promising a sight they would not want to miss.
The race would be the largest yet, with over 250 runners set to attempt the 26.2-mile course, all of which would be run in Central Park.
In the crowd were six women, front and center. They approached the start line and prepared to run in the first New York City Marathon in which women’s results would count.
Women had been barred from road races since 1961, as experts claimed distance running was damaging to their health and femininity. Some officials infamously warned that a woman’s uterus might fall out should she attempt to run such distances.
For years, women had made their way into races, surreptitiously or otherwise. In 1967, Kathrine Switzer ran the Boston Marathon under the name K. V. Switzer.
But it was not until 1972 that the Amateur Athletic Union, then the governing body for marathons in the United States, allowed women to officially take part in distance road running.
The relaxed rules issued by the A.A.U. insisted on a separate but equal start. Women were allowed to run the marathon if they started 10 minutes before or after the men, or if they started in a different area altogether.
So on a sunny Sunday that October, the marathon was set to begin with a separate start for the women, 10 minutes before the men. As the gun went off, the women sat down.
The reporter Gerald Eskenazi and the photographer Patrick A. Burns captured the scene for The Times.
“They sat for 10 minutes in protest against the Amateur Athletic Union, which had called for a separate but equal race for women,” Eskenazi wrote on Oct. 2, 1972. “The A.A.U. does not sanction races in which men compete against women. But as soon as the 272 men were ready to go, the women stood and then began running with the men on the 26-mile, 385-yard course.”
The six women — Lynn Blackstone, Jane Muhrcke, Liz Franceschini, Pat Barrett, Nina Kuscsik and Cathy Miller — sat with handmade signs created that morning, a couple of which read: “Hey, A.A.U. This is 1972. Wake up.” Muhrcke, pictured second from left, wore a Superman T-shirt.
Kuscsik, second from right, was one of the main organizers of the protest. “I was just checking to make sure everyone had their signs held up right,” she said of those 10 minutes. “It was fantastic.”
Earlier that year, Kuscsik became the first woman to officially win the Boston Marathon. She went on to be the first woman to finish the New York City Marathon that day. She called the win, one of many in her career, “an important one, because it was official.”
The photograph of the runners was printed across four columns of The Times, and the story spread. The A.A.U., embarrassed by the sudden news media onslaught, scrapped the “separate but equal” rules soon after.
“It was a huge, breakthrough year,” Switzer said. “In 1972, it counted. It wasn’t just, ‘You’re a girl.’ It was, ‘You’re an athlete.’ It made all the difference, and then we realized the potential for women’s running.”
In 1974, Switzer won the New York City Marathon. This year, at 70, she’s running it again.
Switzer will have a lot of company. Women’s road racing has grown rapidly since the rule change by the A.A.U. In 1980, 10 percent of marathon runners in the United States were women. In 2016, that rose to a record 44 percent, according to a Running USA report.
There were 21,464 female finishers in last year’s New York City Marathon — the most ever. On Sunday, a comparable number of women, if not more, will compete. This writer will be one of them.
Could the six women who sat have imagined the revolution to come? “Never,” Muhrcke said. The 77-year-old is still running, and has a coming 15K race in New York.
“I think for some men, the first time they were beaten by a woman, it came as a little surprise,” she said. “But they adjusted to it.”
Credit: The New York Times