The History of Women’s Endurance Running

by Louise Provan

In 1928, the first women’s Olympic distance race was held. It was over 800m and it was the first time that women had been allowed to compete in an event longer than 100m since women had first been able to participate in the Olympic Games in 1900. The press had a field day reporting untrue stories that women had “collapsed” at the end of the race, and so upholding the conservative views of the time that these events were too hard and too dangerous for the delicate female constitution. As a result the 800m didn’t appear on the Olympic programme for women again until 1960. But still there were one or two determined women willing to push aside these restrictions to try to prove that being female was not a barrier to running.

In 1926, Violet Piercy ran the first marathon time to be recognised by the sport’s governing body, and, in 1964, Scottish runner Dale Greig recorded a time of 3.27.45 during a solo run over the marathon. Although these did bring attention to female distance running, they were seen as one off publicity stunts and fundamentally nothing changed for women wishing to take part in distance races. Both of these women even had ambulances and support vehicles following them for the duration of their race, such was the concern for their safety. Old gender stereotypes held fast and female runners had to face both the wrath of males, as well as from their own gender. 

The woman who did the most to change the status of female distance running was an American called Kathrine Switzer. Entering the race simply as “K Switzer” Kathrine managed to gain a race number to the 1967 Boston marathon, the oldest and most prestigious marathon in the world, and lined up nervously on the start line. Mid race she was spotted by the press and a race official tried to grab her and throw her off the course. He failed when Kathrine’s boyfriend intervened and Kathrine finished the race. Kathrine continued her campaign for women to be allowed to compete by organising a series of women-only road races across the world, including marathons. Due to her campaign, women were finally allowed to compete at the Boston marathon in 1974. Other races such as the New York marathon followed suit, a race which Kathrine went on to win, and more events began to be added to the women’s Olympic programme. Although it was not until 2008 that there was an equal number of male and female distance races and of the same length. 

  A race official tries to remove Kathrine from the race. These pictures made the news worldwide.

In 1977 Americans Lisa Lindahl and Polly Smith invented something that would be a game changer for women athletes, creating something that women were unable to purchase on the high street. They experimented by stitching together jockstraps and came up with the first ever “jog-bra.” This opened the door to distance running, and sport and exercise in general, to all women including those whose body shape created limitations. As volleyball player, and bra designer, Renelle Braaton said “It’s amazing how you improve in your sport, once you no longer have to use your arms to hold down your boobs”. In 1986 the first baby jogger pushchair was invented enabling women to run even if they were unable to arrange childcare, another welcome invention.

It wasn’t so long ago that running while pregnant would have triggered a flurry of old wives tales about it being dangerous for both mother and baby, but Scottish Olympic silver medallist Liz McColgan kept training throughout her pregnancy, eyes firmly on the next year’s world championships. When McColgan had announced her pregnancy, shortly after winning the Commonwealth 10000m gold in Auckland in 1990, her sponsor swiftly dropped her: after all no woman comes back to top flight international athletics after having a baby do they? McColgan had a point to prove and within 3 months of giving birth she took the bronze medal at the 1991 world cross country championships and followed that up with a gold in the world 10000m championships; a win at the New York marathon; and finished 1991 by winning the BBC Sports Personality of the Year – no doubt leaving her former sponsor questioning their wisdom and counting lost earnings.

As athletes, women are physiologically at a disadvantage to men with a lower muscle mass and higher body fat content so over all of these classic Olympic distances women are slower. However, the dynamic changes in longer races where women have outperformed men on several notable occasions such as Jasmin Paris, mother of a young baby, who won the 268 mile Spine Race along the Pennine Way in January 2019, while stopping at checkpoints to express milk. She was the outright winner of the race beating the next man to finish by nearly 15 hours and she broke the course record.

Astonishing though Jasmin’s performance was, she is not alone. In 2012, Mimi Anderson won the gruelling 6333 race outright, a 352 mile race in the Arctic, and she still holds the overall course record.  When Lizzy Hawker took third place overall in the 250km Spartathlon race she left the race organiser confused as to who he should present the third prize to: Lizzy, or the 3rd male to finish? The previous year Lizzy had won the Commonwealth 24hr championships, covering 246km, finishing 3km ahead of her nearest rival, who was male. Lizzy has also run the length of Nepal (approx. 1000 miles) across the Himalayas over what is known as the Great Himalaya trail. She ran solo and unsupported, apart from a satellite tracker, with no sponsorship and publicity. 

All of these feats by women athletes would have been unthinkable just 45 years ago and as the barriers to women competing are slowly removed more women will be able to make their mark in endurance running in the years to come.

 Lizzy Hawker at a checkpoint on the Manaslu Mountain race in Nepal



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About the Author:

I am an architect living in Scotland and I am a naval history nerd who is bit obsessed with Admiral “Jacky” Fisher.

From a young age I had a passion for history, albeit back then it was for Scottish History, but at the time I didn’t have the opportunity to take that interest further and study history at university, instead I graduated as an architect. Eventually I was able to follow my passion and went back to university to do an MA in military history while still working full time. This has allowed me to develop my main historical interest which is the Great War at Sea with the topic of my thesis being “Why was Germany unable to win the maritime war between 1914-1918” I am particularly fascinated by what happened in the years immediately leading up to the outbreak of the Great War. 

I also have an interest in the Arab revolt and the middle east during the First World War. I am currently trying to work out how I can go back to university to do a PhD which is lifetime ambition or, failing that, I might try to write a book – probably about Admiral Fisher!

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