Chapter 9 – Women in Sports
“Because I am a woman, I must make unusual efforts to succeed. If I fail, no one will say, “She doesn’t have what it takes.” They will say, “Women don’t have what it takes.” - – Clare Boothe Luce
In 1966, Roberta Gibb became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, but she had to do it unofficially and anonymously by hiding in the bushes before the race and jumping in among the men once the race started. A year later, the year I was born, Katherine Switzer officially ran the race under the name K. Switzer, using the initial to disguise her gender. She ran with a small group of men alongside her who had to protect her from physical attack from outraged protesters and race officials, who felt that women shouldn’t be running. Oddly enough, in 1959, Arlene Pieper became the first woman to officially finish a marathon in the United States when she crossed the finish line of the Pikes Peak Marathon, one of the most difficult marathons in the world. Her time up and down the mountain was 9:16. There was no doubt that women could go the distance. They had been doing it for years, but proving that to the rest of the world would be a problem, even eight years later, when Switzer was nearly shoved off the Boston Marathon course by a race official.
In the early eighties, when I started my running career, women’s running was still a relatively new sport. The first women’s Olympic marathon had yet to be run and the women’s steeplechase would not even be considered as an Olympic spectator sport for another 20 years. Although running bras had been invented, they wouldn’t be widely available until a few years later. In general, most women I knew wore normal everyday lace bras for training. Consumer-level heart-rate monitors were not used and running watches were very basic; there were no altimeters, GPS systems or mapping software. Running tights were new to the scene, and though running shoes were not the hard-leather contraptions my grandfather wore for running, they were far from the high-tech creations they are today.
Athletes such as the late Norwegian superstar Grete Waitz and New Zealand running legend Lorraine Moller – who would one day settle in Boulder, miles from where I make my home today – were track and cross-country runners before they broke ground in the marathon. Eventually they would prove that women could not only run, but run well. Greta won the New York City Marathon a remarkable nine times. In addition, she set a world record four out of those nine times. She became the first woman to break the 2:30 barrier in the marathon and she rightly became a legend in her own time. Lorraine, who started running at the age of fourteen, would eventually win the Olympic Bronze medal in the marathon. In ultramarathons, women proved their true strength by running with the men, and, in some cases, beating them. Still, women were not always treated with the respect they deserved, and even in my own experiences it was not uncommon to be tripped, pushed or cut off by a male runner in a race.
When I began my running, there was no shortage of heroes for me to look up to in the sport. In the beginning I admired the famous Prefontaine and followed his motto of always giving everything possible all the time. For him it worked. For me, this meant training and racing hard, going all out from the start to the finish of a race and never settling for a slow pace in order to attempt to outkick someone. Later I learned that this was a rookie mistake often made by runners who don’t have faith that they will be able to dig deep when needed. It’s as if they have to prove to themselves and those around them that they are number one in every race, training session and interval. This method of training wears on both the body and the spirit. The true standouts of distance running are those who can back off at the right times and push harder when it counts.
The other idols that I had at the time in addition to Waitz included outstanding Portuguese distance runner Rosa Mota; barefoot South African sensation Zola Budd, who would become entangled in controversy in the 1984 Olympics; and the incredible track star Mary Decker (now Mary Slaney) from the United States. Lorraine, as I mentioned, is originally from New Zealand but lived and trained in Boulder during much of her career. She was not only a great athlete and an inspiration to me and many others, but a wildly powerful thinker with a heart as big as the sky. Never once did her success and fame as an Olympic athlete get in the way of her reaching out to others, myself included. She was someone who was never afraid to offer counsel, be it running-related or lifestyle-related. Over time, Lorraine went from being someone I idolized to a friend.
When I sat down to interview Lorraine for this book, I wondered what her take on eating disorders would be. I knew that she had never fallen completely into any eating disorder. While it's common for elite runners to be lean and fit, it's highly unlikely that anyone starving herself will achieve long-term success in the sport. It's not unheard of for runners to watch their weight during race season, but it's impossible to compete well on an empty gas tank. It's a fine line between being race fit and being too thin. Given the intensity of marathon running, I figured that Lorraine had at least some idea of what it was all about. In addition, her time spent as an elite athlete and later as a coach surely had allowed her to encounter others with eating issues.
I learned right away that many other great thinkers share Lorraine’s beliefs concerning self-esteem. Self-regard and the ability to believe in ourselves affect all areas of our lives, even health. The more we understand ourselves, the more likely we’re able to move through illness and hard times without getting stuck. For Lorraine, illness is a matter of degree. “We work through illness as a means to better understand ourselves,” she says. “There is a complex set of circumstances and other factors that impact our ability to stay well.” Though Lorraine admits that she may have had shades of an eating disorder at various times in her life, she never gave in fully to the illness. “It was going through these hard times that allowed me to come to terms with it and grow,” she says. “I feel that the very qualities that led me to overcome these struggles are also what led me to be at the top of my sport.” During her long career in running – which started at age seventeen when she fist represented New Zealand in international races and went on to include a remarkable four Olympic Marathons, the last at age 43 – she noted that other women who did succumb to anorexia may have had brief bursts of excellence in the sport, but could not sustain success for long periods.
Lorraine was relatively lucky to have been well-coached. At the time when she began running, women were not a common sight on the track, or, for that matter, in any running races. “The term anorexia was not even coined then,” she says. “The Twiggy model mindset was not yet in place. As athletes, we ate well and were healthy. There were natural fluctuations in my weight due to differences in my training, but it never became a pressing or pathological concern.” Most female athletes, especially those who began competing after 1980, were not so lucky.
There’s no doubt that these pioneering women athletes had a hard road. They had to overcome stereotypes and verbal abuse, and on most of them there was also the added pressure to be thin. I was anorexic even before I started running. As a result, I experienced both internal and external pressure to remain thin. Before that time, I was fat, or at least I thought I was. My entire childhood was filled with others making fun of my weight and criticizing me to no end.
People often ask me how it all started. As I see it, there was no one thing that triggered the illness; rather it was an accumulation of events that must have started from the time I was born. In reality, my illness was a coping mechanism, a way to survive. It was a way to push the pain of everyday living away. There may have been a final straw that broke the camel’s back and led to the onset of my illness, but the tendency toward an eating disorder was set in motion much earlier.
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