Race Autopsy: The Front Runners LGBT Pride 5 Miler

In 1982 when New York Road Runners and Front Runners partnered to host the first ever Front Runners New York LGBT Pride 5 Miler, the world was a very different place.  Sodomy laws were still prevalent throughout much of the country; the AIDS crisis was killing the community (and Reagan had still not said it name), and many LGBT New Yorkers were forced to work and live in the closet.

The early years of the race

From the start, the Pride Run was intended to be  a part of the Gay Pride march and celebrations.*  It created a place where LGBT athletes and allies could compete and declare their pride in being gay and their support for the gay community.  Year after year, decade after decade, Front Runners and NYRR have put on this race.  As Pride weekend became less political, and sodomy laws were overturned; as the fight against HIV/AIDS gained momentum, and state after state introduced first anti-discrimination protections and, later, marriage equality, the Pride Run was always there, getting the running community together, gay and straight, to run.

I like to think in some way, by putting LGBT athletes and their allies on center stage in Central Park year after year, the race has in some small way furthered the cause of LGBT rights. I think the races founders would agree.

I wonder what those early runners who are still with us think when they see the race today. The Pride Run sells out every year, and is coupled with fundraising for gay rights causes.  It brings a diverse group of runners, from serious amateurs to first time racers, to run through the upper half of Central Park in racing singlets and rainbow tutus accompanied by the cheers of supporters, and the waving of tourist’s iphones.

photo 2

It’s a pretty fun race, and I am more than a little ashamed that this year was the first time I ran it (40:01).  It wasn’t my best run (the course is hilly! I wasn’t hydrated! The run streak is killing my legs!), but it wasn’t my worst.  And there are surely less enjoyable ways to spend a Saturday morning than sweating your ass off trying to keep a sub 8 pace.

Obviously, the fight for LGBT rights is far from over, and of course a little race in Central Park is not the front lines of any struggle.  But the continuity through change that the race represents gives the Pride Run a special place in New York’s Gay Pride celebrations, a place I was proud to share for one day.  I wonder what it, and the landscape of equality, will look like when my son is old enough to join me.

photo 1

*For a history of the early years of  Front Runners New York and the race, check out the recollections of one of FRNY’s founders, Steve Gerben.  NYRR should be proud that it was on the right side of history so early.

Meb!

What is there to say about Meb?  Three years after Nike dropped him he has the run of his life.  Just incredible.  Sure the East African mafia would never had let a younger runner get that far out front, and sure Ryan Hall and the other Americans helped Meb by not pushing the pace.  But Meb still ran his heart out in a smart, and gutsy,  race.  The man is an inspiration to old dudes everywhere.  Lets hear it for Meb!

I’ve written about Meb a number of times. You can read some of those posts here, and here.

Running Heroes – The Six Women of the 1972 New York Marathon

The primary means of political dialogue in America is through sports.  The fight for racial integration took place on the baseball field.  We have wrestled with the equal rights for women in school sports, on golf courses, and in distance running.  We use sports to argue over who is an American*, to champion animal rights, and to combat homophobia.

Whether as spectators or participants, we reflect our politics through our discussions of sports and our actions on the field of play.  We always have.  This intersection of sports and politics is part of what makes the stories of the first running boom so fascinating.  At the same time that runners like Frank Shorter were experimenting with their own bodies to see how far, and how fast, a human being could run, runners like Katherine Switzer were breaking down the gender barriers in long distance running.

All of this was in my mind as I read the fascinating article in the November issue of Runners World about the six women who sat down at the start of the 1972 New York Marathon.  I’m not going to go into all the details of the article, you should buy a copy of RW and read it for yourself, but suffice it to say in 1972 the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) was still treating women as second class runners.  In protest, a group of women runners, Lynn Blackstone, Jane Muhrke, Liz Francechini, Cathy Miller, Pat Barrett and Boston Champion Nina Kuscsik, with the cooperation of race director Fred Lebow**, orchestrated a sit down protest at the start line of New York City Marathon.  A month later, helped along by a lawsuit filed by Kuscsik, the AAU began to change its policies and distance running became a more equal playing field.

Blackstone, Muhrcke, Franceschini, Barret, Kuscsik and Miller changing running forever at the 1972 New York Marathon.

All of the women who sat down at the starting line that day were runners, but not all of them were fast.  In fact, only Barrett and Kuscsik finished the race.  Kuscsik won in 3:08, Barret finished in 3:19.***  But whether they finished the race or not, won or not, all six of these women are running heroes worth remembering.

* Discussions over Meb’s status as an American continue to enrage me by the way.

**The article hints that perhaps part of Lebow’s enthusiasm for this protest came from his desire to promote the NYC marathon.  We’ll never know Lebow’s motivations for sure, he died in 1994, but I hardly care.  Whatever his reasons, he was on the right side of the fight.

***It is worth noting that Kuscsik remains the only women to have won both Boston and New York in the same year.

Phil Coppess – hero to working stiff runners

Its marathon season, which means the New York Times is once again including some running coverage in its sports section.  Today, there was a great little article about Phil Coppess who has held the Twin Cities Marathon course record for over twenty years with a time of 2:10:05. 

The article is good read for all of us who struggle to fit in training with a full time job and family responsibilities – if Coppess could run a 2:10 while work in a factory and raising three kids on his own, what’s your excuse?

What did it take for Coppess to set the record?  From the article:

Coppess eventually designed a training regimen that dovetailed with his rotating shifts at Clinton Corn and his parenting responsibilities; he was awarded full custody of the children in a 1985 divorce. He ran 14 to 15 miles on work days, longer on his days off, carrying a palm-sized stopwatch to record each mile. “I didn’t think it was a good 20-miler unless I had gone under two hours,” he said. One day a week, he did a track workout, and on another, hills. Physical therapy consisted of weekly chiropractic adjustments.

Coppess is on the left 

I love the old days when no one was afraid to run big mileage.  And I’m a sucker for stories about regular guys with a passion (and in Coppess’s case, a talent) who win.  What’s particularly amazing about this story though is not only was Coppess able to run a 2:10 with everything else he had going on in his life, but that no one has come along in twenty years and broken the record.  If Twin Cities was a bigger marathon, this wouldn’t be case, but the fact that this blue collar amateur’s course record has stood for more than twenty years is just wonderful.  Someday it will be broken, but Coppess will always be an inspiration to those of us who are just trying to get in some miles after work.

Seventies Heroes: Ron Hill

The science of running, especially the science of marathon running, was still in its infancy in the 1970s.  Runners knew little about what it took to run a fast 26.2 miles.  With little support from the big athletic companies or research universities, runners were left to experiment on their own.  Some tried low mileage and speed work, others laid down mega mileage.  Some tried fasting, or vegan diets.  Others would eat a steak the morning of a race.  Today runners often use the term “experiment of one” to describe the live and learn nature of distance running, but all of us who run today have learned a lot from the experimental runners of the seventies.

Some lessons learned from the runners of the 1970s stick with us today.  Perhaps the two most important are:

1. You need to get in the mileage.

2. Short shorts are most comfortable.

Nobody epitomized getting in the miles more than Ron Hill.  Hill, a native of Lancashire England, won the Boston Marathon in 1970 in 2:10:30 and the Commonwealth Games in 2:09:28 becoming only the second man to break 2:10 in the marathon.  And he looked good doing it:

Ron Hill, running a 2:09.

At his height, Hill was running well over 100 miles per week while working full time.  Oh and did I mention he also has a Phd in chemistry?  If Hill can run that kind of mileage and still accomplish all he did outside of the sport, what is your excuse?

On top of the miles, Hill also understands that relentless consistency is key to running success.  No two weeks off on the Greece islands for him.  Since December 20, 1964, Ron Hill has run every single day.  He has run as much as over 100 miles a week during that time, and as little as twenty.  He’s run on crutches, and in all conditions imaginable.  What I wouldn’t give to see his logs from the early seventies.  He got in the miles, no matter what happened, and that is inspiring.

Now I am not saying that we all need to follow Hill’s compulsion.  I myself have gotten injured by trying to keep a running streak alive, but when it is raining and cold or the sun is blazing and it’s a 100 degrees, and you just don’t want to lace up the shoes, remember Ron Hill has laced them up in far worse conditions and gotten out there.

Check out Hill’s website for more info on the man who broke 2:10 in a mesh shirt and puts all other running streaks to shame here.

 

Seventies Hero: Katherine Switzer

To many, Boston Billy was the laid back face of seventies running, just a guy who loved to run and happened, through hard work and a whole heck of a lot of miles, to get really good at it.  But there was more to the glory days of running than short shorts and awesome wool hats. Some, runners, like the legendary Katherine Switzer,

Katherine Switzer was one of the women who broke the gender barrier in the marathon in the 1960s, her achievement changed the face of running in the 1970s proving once and for all that woman could run the marathon distance.  Switzer was the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon, finishing the 1967 race in a time of roughly 4:20.  Roberta Gibb, about whom I will write more some other time, had run the race the previous year unofficially finishing in a time of 3:21:40.  Switzer entered the race with the ambiguous name of “K.V. Switzer” and was well on her way to finishing before the race director Jock Semple figured out she was a woman.  Semple did a lot of great work keeping the Boston marathon alive through periods of low interest in the sport, but he was also a sexist who freaked when he discovered a woman was running in his race, and tried to pull Switzer from the course. Physically.  When he went to grab Switzer, he was stopped by Switzer’s boyfriend, Tom Miller.  The photo of this altercation is one of the most famous in marathoning:

Kathy Switzer Roughed Up By Jock Semple In Boston Marathon

Switzer escaping the clutches of Jock Semple, with some help from Tom Miller, photo: AP

Hard to tell here if Switzer was a heel striker, or just off balance from the hit by Semple.

Switzer didn’t stop at being the first woman to run Boston, she went on to have a long and storied career in running, capping it off with a win in the 1974 New York Marathon in a time of 3:07:29. Check out her website here.

Nice work Katharine, on shattering the gender divide in endurance sports and dropping an hour and ten minutes off your marathon time!

 

Seventies Hero: Bill Rodgers

I am fascinated by the seventies.  Perhaps that is because I just missed it.  Being born in 1975 I saw the decade in reflection from the much less interesting eighties.  I am fascinated by the music, the art, the fashion and the rebirth of recreational fitness culture in America.  The seventies was when everything we take for granted now as part of fitness obsessed America was new.  Arnold Schwarzenegger and the birth of gym culture, Bruce Lee and martial arts, yoga cults, and the first real running boom in America.  It was a fascinating time in the development of sport.  In all these areas, but especially in strength training and distance running, athletes were going out on a limb, experimenting with their bodies in ways no one had done before.  Taking sometimes dangerous risks with steroids, or punishing workout regimens, they were shooting in the dark acting as experiments of one before elite athletics became the giant science course it is today.  I plan to do a series of posts on some of the fascinating characters from the time, I’ll call them seventies heroes and I’ll start with the man synonymous with distance running, and the Boston Marathon in particular – Boston Billy, Bill Rodgers.

Bill Rodgers was a school teacher, a native of Hartford Connecticut, and, for most of the seventies, one of the most accomplished runners in the world. He won every major marathon and twice broke the record at the Boston Marathon.  His training method was laughably simple in comparison to how elite runners train now.  Asked in a 1979 interview with Boston Magazine (pdf) about how he trains, Rodgers said “I’ll get up in the morning, and just maybe have a cup of coffee. Then we drive down to our store on Cleveland Circle and in the late morning, I’ll go out for a ten mile run… [I’ll usually train] at a six or six and a half minutes per mile. . . But in the evenings I will sometimes run a fast eight miles instead, at about 5:30 per mile.”

That’s it.  He didn’t head to Boulder for altitude training, or worry about perfecting his stride.  He ran and he ran big.  A look at his training log from those years shows him running anywhere from 100 to 180 miles a week.  The hundred mile week is now common among elite distance runners but 180 miles a week?  Few attempt that kind of distance now, and it takes a special person to put up with that kind of training both physically and mentally.  But Rodger’s is a special kind of person.  He pushed the sport to levels no one had seen before.  Here is, rocking the short shorts and a great hat on his way to a win, and a new record, at the Boston Marathon in 1979, a race he would win in 2:09:27.

In the year leading up to that race, Rodgers says he ran an average of 125 miles a week.  With my proclivity to get hurt, and my interest in other sports, I’ll never get anywhere near that kind of mileage, but I am in awe of Rodgers and the others runners of the seventies who figured if fifty miles a week was good, 100 would be better and changed what we thought was possible at the marathon distance.