26.2 in My Shoes

Fifty-four years ago, I got away with a crime. I’m still proud of it today.

It wasn’t a crime in a legal sense, but considering the way everyone reacted, it sure felt like one.

As a kid, you’re taught to feel remorse when you break the rules. You’re supposed to apologize. I think that’s true most of the time. But this? If I had the choice, I’d go back and do it again.

As our attention turns again this fall to the New York City Marathon, the largest marathon in the world, I’ve been thinking about a different marathon — the site of the “crime” all these years ago. I remember every detail so clearly.

The date was December 14, 1963. I was 20 years old and living in Southern California. The president had just been assassinated. Conversations about the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and second-wave feminism were starting to make their way into the national dialogue, especially on college campuses. It felt like every part of society was being shaken up.

One of my biggest interests at the time was running. Like most young women in those days, I didn’t have any formal athletic training. But I loved to run. And I had always been pretty good at long distances.

It was a cool December morning at Veterans Memorial Park in Culver City, California, where the annual Western Hemisphere Marathon was set to begin. I made my way to the starting line at the entrance of the park. I was nervous. I was excited. I knew I needed to go through with what I had planned.

Merry Lepper

A little more than three hours later, the deed was done.

I had showed up — uninvited — to the 16th running of the Western Hemisphere Marathon, an all-men’s event. I had run with the men for 26.2 miles. By the end, I had become the first woman to finish an organized marathon in the United States.

It began behind a tall oleander hedge. My accomplice that day was a housewife 10 years older than me, Lyn Carman, my friend and running partner. We had holed up in the leafy hideout before the race. Now, through the leaves and branches, nearly 70 runners were milling about only 15 feet away. Some were swinging their arms to loosen up, some were making small talk and some were sizing up the competition. More than a few of the entrants were elite runners with Olympic aspirations. The group had one thing in common — its members were all men.

Inhale, exhale. I tried to focus on my breathing to calm my nerves. I reminded myself that I deserved to run in the marathon — that I deserved to enjoy it. I’d put the work in — now it was time to have fun. That’s what I told myself. The reality, of course, was a different story. There was no way to predict how the race officials or my fellow runners would react to two “misbehaved” women. We weren’t naive — we knew we would face resistance. We knew that they might even try to force us out physically.

Merry Lepper

The truth is, before the race, I didn’t imagine myself as an “activist.” Actually, I had a modest goal that day: I wanted to prove — to myself — that I could finish the race. At the time, women weren’t allowed to run long-distance events. In fact, the longest Olympic race that women were allowed to compete in was the 800 meters. (That’s 2% of a marathon!) I wanted to demolish those expectations. But still, it was daunting. Even though my longer prep runs leading up to the race had helped me build up some confidence, I’d never run the full 26.2 miles. I’d be lying if I said that some small part of me didn’t question whether I could complete the race.

Crouching behind the hedge with Lyn, I knew this was about more than just whether my body could endure the distance.

I knew that if I didn’t finish, the doubters would say they had been right all along.

The organization that oversaw the marathon, and other distance running events, was the Amateur Athletic Union, or AAU. Its officials restricted women to shorter races out of a professed concern for our reproductive health, but — while they probably wouldn’t admit this — it seems to me like they also felt that distance running tarnished our femininity.

Supposedly, women were too delicate to endure a marathon. What did they think would happen? That our uteruses would fall out?

As a young girl, I didn’t know what I wasn’t supposed to be able to do. That’s because my father always encouraged me to pursue my passions, even if they weren’t stereotypically feminine. I ran almost everywhere I went. I never measured distances or times — I just liked to keep going.

The entire world was my training course. No, really — I ran all over the world as a kid. My father was in the military, so our family had to move frequently. I loved seeing new places and discovering new courses for my long runs — on the sidewalks in Germany, in the Albuquerque desert, on the golf courses in San Bernardino, wherever. I let my legs fly and pretended I was training for the Olympics.

I had run with the men for 26.2 miles. By the end, I had become the first woman to finish an organized marathon in the United States.

But even in my dreams, I knew a gold medal wasn’t likely for me. The female Olympians I read about or watched on TV were always sprinters. I remember being excited to watch the 100 meters and the 200 meters — the two women’s sprint events — at the 1956 Summer Olympics. At the time, women couldn’t compete in, let alone stand on the podium for, events like the 10,000 meters or the marathon. Only men could do that. I was literally chasing an unattainable goal.

In high school, I was part of something rare back in those days — a girl’s track and field team. I ran the 200 and 400, which were the longest races for girls at AAU meets. But my career, and my stride, was cut short when a horse at a riding stable stepped on my foot and broke it when I was 16. My foot never healed quite right, which left me with a stride that wasn’t suitable for sprinting. But my endurance remained intact. I still loved to run long distances and I couldn’t imagine a life without it.

Little did I know, my training over the next few years wouldn’t go to waste.

When the starting pistol went off, it felt like I’d been electrocuted. It’s that same jolting sensation I’d get every time I heard the bang before my high school races. Even though I knew it was coming, the noise still caught my body by surprise. It woke me up. My legs went right into action. I didn’t have time to second-guess my decision.

Lyn and I emerged from our hideout to join the pack of runners. Suddenly, I was completely vulnerable. I couldn’t duck back behind the hedge and return to safety. I was a bibless outsider in the race. Compared to the men in their standard athletic gear, I looked like I was headed for a walk in the park. Modern-day female athletic clothing like sports bras, chafe-free polyester running shorts and moisture-wicking tank tops didn’t exist in 1963. Instead, I wore white gym shorts and a short-sleeved blouse.

Merry Lepper

But I felt really slick in my shoes, ultralight New Balance Tracksters, which were pretty much the Jordans of running at the time. (Yes, I know what Jordans are.) So, at least I had that going for me.

At first, Lyn and I maintained the same pace, sticking close to each other. It felt like we were running together on the San Bernardino Valley Junior College track, which was where we first met. Lyn’s presence was comforting … until she started sprinting ahead of me. Then I felt abandoned and vulnerable all over again.

I didn’t know why she had gone out so fast, but I chalked it up to the fact that she must be feeling strong. I’d always been a bit of a slow starter and I didn’t want to push myself too hard. If I did, I knew my body would rebel against me later in the race. So I let her run ahead.

I wish I hadn’t.

I don’t think I’d ever felt more helpless in my entire life than when I watched a guy grab Lyn by her arm. I saw him get out of his Jeep parked on the side of the road to pull her back, but I was too far away to help. I wanted to scream, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t. I remember thinking, Why is everyone letting him attack her? My mind kept jumping to the worst possible scenarios. Will he hurt her? Will she go to jail? I felt like I was running through the ocean trying to catch up to her, the water slowing down my strides.

I don’t know what happened and — to be frank — I don’t care, but somehow he let go of her. I’d been taking the weight of the event seriously, but in that moment, everything felt even more real. The discrimination was palpable. But we kept going.

The jeers came and went.

“Oh, a girl! Why don’t you give up?”

Thanks, Heckler number 12. I think I’m doing fine.

There would be periods of ridicule and then there would be nothing … at least I think there was nothing. I was becoming too delirious to focus on anything else besides putting one foot in front of the other. Luckily, I could rely on my muscle memory to get me through the streets of Culver City.

Lyn and I had trained on the course once before with Bob, her husband, and some of his friends. So, I knew where to expect a sudden incline and where the pavement became uneven. We’d been training with this group for a year in San Bernardino and even longer individually. After our group training runs, we’d all head back to the Carmans’ house for dinner. That’s where the real fun happened. Some of the other runners (not me, I swear) would get competitive, timing each other to see who could run from the front door to the back door the fastest. I was exhausted after training, but the endless laughter made it worthwhile.

The testosterone-infused atmosphere at the Carman house was an unlikely incubator for women’s rights. We’d sit around the dinner table, discussing distances, times and famous runners. On the course, we’d encourage each other to one-up our personal bests. Those guys’ support gave Lyn and me the confidence to consider running the Western Hemisphere Marathon in the first place.

Merry Lepper

At Mile 7, I was dead last. I trailed the main pack of runners by at least 10 minutes. I was only focused on catching up to someone. Running into traffic was the last thing on my mind. These days, courses are blocked off with barricades manned by hundreds of police officers. Cars can’t drive anywhere near the race. Back in 1963, that wasn’t the case.

As I stepped over the curb of a side street, the station wagon in the distance seemed far enough for me to cross safely. But when I approached the middle of the street, the driver stepped on the gas and sped toward me.

I knew I had a lot to lose that day, but I didn’t think my life would be in danger.

Everything around me played out in slow motion. I made eye contact with the driver the second she realized what was happening. She looked frozen. Maybe she started to pump the breaks, but somehow I jumped back, and her station wagon missed me by inches. I could’ve collapsed right there, but I willed myself to the other side of the street and flopped onto the curb. And then I broke down.

My heart pounded erratically. I couldn’t distinguish one single beat from the next — they practically fired together. I remember thinking, no, no, no, not now. It was a feeling I was familiar with — I had grown up with a mild heart condition, but I had never had an attack in distance training or races. I put my head between my knees, focusing on the warmth of the concrete on my skin. It took me 10 minutes to calm down. I scrapped the idea of catching up. I just needed to finish.

It didn’t take long before the most beautiful feeling in the world kicked in, a welcome sensation after I nearly got hit by a car. It’s addictive, but it’s drug-free. It’s the reason runners can confidently answer the “Why the heck would you run a marathon for fun?” question from friends and family members who’ve never done it.

The runner’s high.

I floated through the rest of the course after the first 10 miles. I’d experienced that feeling before, and it reassured me that I was doing the right thing — that I belonged there. At Mile 18, I felt even better when I saw Lyn trucking along in the distance.

Thank goodness. I craved some conversation, eager to distract myself from my own thoughts. Lyn and I would always chat on our training runs to help time fly by. I was even more excited by the thought of finishing the race side-by-side. I ran up beside her, falling into step. Lyn seemed so focused that I wasn’t sure if she heard my footsteps. But then she looked at me.

She said it so quickly I almost didn’t catch it — “I’mgonnaquit.”

Her words didn’t register in my brain. She could tell.

“I’m going to quit.”

When she said it a second time, I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes. She told me that the man who tried to grab her was an AAU official. But that wasn’t why she was giving up — she was simply exhausted. I tried to give her every reason to stay.

“You trained so hard for this!”

“You fought off a crazy guy for this!”

But what I couldn’t seem to say was that I didn’t think I should do it without her. Being the “first woman” was her dream, not mine. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be the one to change the world, but the alternative was worse. I couldn’t face the fallout that would come with quitting.

It’s a long way to go, 26.2 miles.

The numbers after the decimal are usually the most exciting, but I was too preoccupied to enjoy the moment.

As I approached the last 385 yards, I wasn’t hurting physically. But mentally, I needed Lyn. I had imagined us crossing the finish line together, hand-in-hand. The decision to continue still didn’t sit right with me.

When a car slowly pulled up next to me, my heart jumped. I automatically assumed that I was in danger. But when the window rolled down, I saw my friend, Julia Chase, smiling at the wheel. Julia, who had travelled all the way from the East Coast, hoped to compete at the 1964 Summer Olympics in the 800 meters. I was honored to have her support — her presence reminded me that I wasn’t alone. Not in that moment, not during all those miles before. With my eyes set on the white finish line ahead, I felt like a million other female athletes were running beside me.

I finished the race in 3:37:03, uterus and all. People ask me to this day, “Weren’t you just exhausted, especially at the finish?” I never felt tired later in the race because my training had prepared me well.

Honestly, I probably could’ve run a few more miles.

Distance running gave me confidence that affected so many areas of my life, especially my career. I was the first woman to be hired as an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin botany department in 30 years. More than anything else, running taught me to not be afraid to attempt what society says is impossible. It taught me how to prove my doubters wrong so they wouldn’t think less of women. AAU rules have changed for the better, and I’d like to think I’ve played a role in that.

This country has a few miles to go in furthering equal opportunity, but the little things show me that we’re getting there. The giddy feeling I get nowadays when I see women running in marathons on the news will never go away. It creeps up when I see the girl next door running down the road. She earned a track scholarship thanks to Title IX. I don’t take that for granted.

The world is a better place when we’re empowering each other to do more. Even if you feel like you’re alone in your fight for what’s right, believe me, you’re not.

So jump out of those bushes. Hit the road and start running. And just keep going.