Monday, December 6, 2021

One Foot in Front of the Other

 by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Runners in the Finger Lakes welcome the arrival of autumn—temperatures are cooler, the humidity is less oppressive, and the colors in the hills can be stunning. Although the Wine Glass Marathon (held since 1981) was virtual last year, this year it returned in person, attracting male and female competitors from more than 41 states. Today we take for granted that both women and men can participate in the event, but a look back at the history of long-distance running shows that women have had an uphill battle when it comes to marathons. The story of one local runner can be an inspiration to keep going.

In 1984, the women’s marathon was added to Olympic events. It was the same year that Molly Huddle and her twin sister Megan were born in Elmira to mom Kathleen, an artist, and dad Robert, a physician. The Huddles, including siblings Christine and Katie Rose, were an active family and Molly enjoyed both school and sports.

Star-Gazette photo of 18 year old Molly running the Elmira-thon in 2002
Huddle attended Notre Dame High School, where in addition to her studies she played on the school’s soccer, basketball, and track teams. During fall of her senior year, she decided to pursue long-distance running. 

Notre Dame didn’t have a cross country team, so after petitioning the district’s athletic governing board, it was arranged that she could run and her father would coach her. She became Notre Dame’s one-person team, representing the school in meets, and the five-foot four-inch Huddle not only won races but broke league records. Huddle went on to attend Notre Dame University, where she continued to set personal bests and win national recognition.

Since then, Huddle has proven herself on the world stage time and again. Her career to date includes 5 world finals, 2 Olympic finals, and 7 personal bests. She was set to compete in this year’s Olympic Games but had to pull out due to hip and ankle injuries.

Early in the 20th century, women were prohibited from entering races due to health concerns that sound strange to us today. One thing some said was that running would cause a woman’s uterus to fall out. The first woman on record to run a marathon was Violet Piercy of Great Britain in the fall of 1926. Her time was 3:40:22, a record which stood unbroken until 1963. Almost one hundred years later, the women’s record in 2021 is 2:14:04. Molly Huddle’s own record is 2:26:33, set in London in 2019.

The Boston Marathon, one of six exclusive world-class races, began in 1897. When marathons became popular amateur sports in the late 1960s and 70s, women were still prohibited from participating. It seems old myths persisted. The Boston race’s rule book did not even mention gender until the late 1960s, after a 23-year-old woman named Bobbi Gibb attempted to enter the 1967 race but was denied on the basis of her gender. She went on to unofficially run and clocked in at 3:21:40, coming in well ahead of many of the male runners.

The following year, Katherine Switzer entered as K. V. Switzer, using her usual signature. This time the officials didn’t notice her application. To run, she wore a baggy sweat suit. When race officials discovered she was a woman, they and other runners physically attacked her, ripping her race number off her jersey. Today almost half the runners qualifying for the Boston Marathon are women.

Boston Herald photo of Katherine Switzer running
Switzer became an advocate for other women runners. She influenced Avon and Nike to lend corporate support for women runners and women’s races, thus elevating the sport. Things were slowly changing. In 1972, NYC Marathon officials allowed six women to enter the race, but insisted they begin ten minutes before the men. The women decided to strike. When the starter pistol fired, they sat down and held up signs pointing out the inequity of the situation. This deeply embarrassed the race officials, and since then, women have been allowed to compete with men and start at the same time.

In 1984 the Olympics added the Women’s Marathon. Molly Huddle first qualified for the 2012 London Olympics. She was now part of an organization very different than a team of one. She has worked hard through injuries and disappointments. Today, in addition to running, she is elevating other women runners through a podcast she’s created called Keeping Track: Women in Sports . In her podcasts, she highlights the stories of women track and field athletes often overlooked in the general media. It’s just the latest part of the impressive career that Molly Huddle has made by putting one foot in front of another, something she clearly loves to do.

2021 from
Fun fact: According to her Wikipedia page, Huddle is credited in part for the female runner emoji.


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