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Women in the marathon- Unbroken record 37 years

Women in the marathon- Unbroken record 37 years

Surely a list of the best times of the women in the marathon race would not have been what you expect from this article. The research was not easy, that's for sure. The history documenting women's participation in running events is a complex one, although much shorter than that of men.

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Bandit Runner, since 1896

Let’s go back in time for a bit, to 1896, when the Olympic Games were “revived”. Women were once again excluded from the running events. Since nothing can stop them from getting what they want, a woman named Melpomene entered the Olympic Marathon. Although the race organizers rejected her registration, she ran out of the competition (bandit runner, as they say), finishing at about 4:30h. Nearly a century has passed until the next woman officially runs the Olympic Marathon.

Proba olimpica de maraton, masculin


The first woman officially timed in a marathon race

Violet Piercy of Great Britain was the first female participant to be officially timed in a marathon event, with a time of 3:40:22 at the Polytechnic Marathon in 1926. Although the rule imposed by the Women’s Amateur Athletic Association (WAAA) was that no women’s race should exceed 800m, Violet Percy happily broke the rules that year. Because of this and the lack of competition, the record stood for no more, no less than 37 years.

Violet Percy, the first UK athlete to be timed in the marathon event

It wasn’t until 1963 in Culver City that the first record-breaking time was recorded: 3:37h at the Western Hemisphere Marathon in California by US athlete Merry Lepper.

Merry Lepper finishes marathon in 3:37h

The first female finisher at Boston Marathon

In 1966, Roberta Gibb hid behind a bush at the start of the Boston Marathon and managed to finish the race in an unofficial time of 3:21:25. She was the first known woman to complete the race.

Roberta Gibb finishes Boston Marathon

Probably one of the most famous stories in the marathon world dates back to 1967 when Katherine Switzer tried and succeeded in officially entering the Boston Marathon. Her coach, though unconvinced when she told him her plans, promised to take her to Boston himself if she proved she could run the distance. Unsurprisingly, Switzer ran the marathon + extra 5 miles in training.

The athlete entered the race as K.V. Switzer (personal preference) and her entry was approved, as they couldn’t know her gender. After about 2 miles, the press cars, led by the race organizer, appeared behind her. The photo speaks for itself and the full story, told by the athlete herself, can be read right here. 

Katherine Switzer, first woman in the marathon, Boston

I wouldn’t want to distort the words through translation, the event was more than touching and inspiring, so I’ll get straight to the happy ending: Katherine finished the race and thus became the first female finisher at the Boston Marathon, officially.

Bigger and bigger changes

  • On 31 August 1971, Adrienne Beames of Australia became the first woman to run a marathon under three hours, breaking this barrier with a time of 2:46:30.
  • In 1972, women were allowed to officially compete in the Boston Marathon for the first time.
  • On 28 October 1973, the first women’s marathon was held in Waldniel, West Germany. The success of that race was built on the following October when Dr. Ernst Ban Aaken, a West German and a strong supporter of women’s running, sponsored the first Waldniel International Women’s Marathon Championship. Forty women from seven countries competed in the event.
  • In 1981, the decision was made to include women in the Olympic marathon event, big day! Better late than never, right?

Two reasons were often cited for this exclusion, which took longer than it should have:

Firstly, some experts argued that women’s health would be affected by long-distance running. This theory has been proven false not only by medical studies but also by the success of women marathoners in the 1970s.

Second, the Olympic Charter stipulated that to be included in the Games, a women’s sport had to be widely practiced in at least 25 countries on at least two continents (for men’s events, the requirement was 50 countries on three continents). The women’s marathon, Olympic organizers argue, simply wasn’t popular enough to be included.


To be continued. 

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