Saturday, June 9, 2012

America's First Female Marathon Runner

Merry Lepper: does that name sound familiar? Most likely it does not, but it should. In my lifetime, I have watched the progress of women in sports and in running. I recall as a kid seeing the Kathrine Switzer-Jock Semple newspaper photographs from the 1967 Boston Marathon. I finished one of my first road races stride for stride with Nina Kuskic. I ran a few minutes of the Falmouth Road Race alongside Joan Benoit Samuelson before she was even a Boston Marathon or Olympic Marathon champion. I have watched the women's marathon drop down to Paula Radcliffe's current time of 2:14:25 while briefly meeting many of the champion women who held the World Record along the way: Joanie, Grete, Ingrid, Tegla, and Catherine. These are women who are recognized by others runners on a first name basis, but who in the world is Merry Lepper?

A small cheap 99 cent ebook Marathon Crasher: The Life and Times of Merry Lepper, the First American Woman to Run a Marathon recently written by David Davis hopes to bring her name back to life. The book is a quick read, more like a lengthy magazine article, but it gives a concise factual account of the history of women in sports and the men who kept them down, particularly paying attention to the Olympics, track events, and the marathon. We are also briefly introduced to the small running crowd in Southern California and a female running friend who encouraged Mary to run. These were times when women got up early in the morning so as not to be seen by neighbors doing something so ridiculous. They both planned to run the 1963 Culver City Marathon and they started just like Roberta Gibb would do later at the Boston Marathon by hiding behind bushes before the start to avoid being seen by race officials.  Once racing, they claimed the use of public roads to avoid being kicked off the course. Her friend, Lyn, dropped out, but Mary finished in a respectable time of 3:37:07.

Mary never finished another marathon. She did start one years later, but did not finish. Eight years later, the Culver City Marathon officially welcomed women and Cheryl Bridges set a World Record of 2:49:40. Cheryl  is the mother of current American superstar Shalane Flanagan. Shalane already has an Olympic 10000 meter bronze medal and is heading to the London Olympics in the Marathon as the US Olympic Marathon Trials Champion.

Author David Davis also wrote the soon to be released Showdown at Shepherd's Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze. Here is a recent post that I made on the 1908 Olympic Marathon: Great Article: Dorando Pietri and the Olympic Marathon of 1908.

LA Observed article on Mary Lepper

Amby Burfoot's Runner's World Footloose article on Mary Lepper

Meet another unknown female running pioneer: Exactly 40 years ago Jacqueline Dixon won the first ever all women only road race at the 1972 Crazylegs Mini-marathon in New York City.

Marie-Louise Ledru was a French athlete who has been credited as the first woman to race the now-defined marathon distance of 42.195 km. On September 29, 1918, Ledru reportedly completed the Tour de Paris Marathon in a time of 5 hours and 40 minutes and finished in 38th place.

Violet Piercy was an English long-distance runner who is recognized by the International Association of Athletics Federations as having set the first women's world best in the marathon on October 3, 1926 with a time of 3:40:22, Piercy was reported to have run unofficially and her mark was set on the Polytechnic Marathon course between Windsor and London. According to the IAAF, Piercy's mark stood 37 years until Merry Lepper's 3:37:07 performance at the Western Hemisphere Marathon on December 16, 1963.

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