Marathon Crasher

How Mary Lepper became the first woman to finish a marathon, and how the marathon got ready for Merry Lepper.
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Ladies. Running a marathon. Who knew?

Image courtesy of David Davis.

It's noon on a Monday, late winter. Inside the Tucson airport, the Jet Rock Bar & Grill is quiet, except for the televisions above the bar that are simultaneously broadcasting the all-sports, all-news, all-business and all-weather channels and their respective and instantaneous, minute-by-minute versions of history-in-the-making: pontificating politicians on the eve of two presidential primaries; NASCAR drivers making their final adjustments before the Daytona 500; the chance of rain in Los Angeles.

Blink, and you will miss it.

Merry Lepper sits in a booth inside the restaurant. Her straight brown hair is tied into two ponytails that encircle her ruddy face like parentheses. She sips hot tea.

She pulls out a newspaper article and a cache of photographs from a large envelope and spreads them on the table in front of her. The clipping is almost 50 years old, and the well-creased paper is burnt orange and brittle to the touch. The headline reads "Merry Runner."

In the photograph that accompanies the story, Merry is 20 years old. She is jogging in a park in Southern California accompanied by Lyn Carman, her training partner at that time. Merry's blond hair is worn up in a neat bun, and she strides confidently next to Lyn, dark-haired and shorter by a couple of inches. Two of Lyn's children watch from beneath a tree.

According to the newsprint, it's December of 1963, and Merry Lepper has just become the first American woman to complete a marathon race.

Perhaps, from the perspective of 2012, this doesn't sound like a big deal. Everyone knows someone who has run, or is training for, a marathon. But the current popularity of the marathon hides its ignoble past. From the moment the marathon was created, back in 1896, women were prohibited from entering. The sexist, all-male officialdom that ruled sports' governing bodies decreed that women's bodies were not built to withstand the rigors of running 26.2 miles—never mind that women's bodies had once birthed those same sanctimonious officials. Put another way, women could legally vote in presidential elections long before they could officially enter a marathon.

Merry Lepper sips her tea and begins to speak softly, conjuring a moment in time when running was both a revolutionary blow against the powers-that-were and a lark to be shared with her pal Lyn: two women in their athletic prime, out for a weekend run on a sun-blanched afternoon almost a half-century ago.

Blink, and history will miss you.

* * *

Today, the marathon is ubiquitous. The annual, big-city races–those held in New York City, Boston, Chicago, London, Berlin, Rome, and Tokyo–attract elite runners who compete for world's records and millions of dollars in prize money and endorsements. The top men can complete a marathon in under 2:05–or, less than five minutes per mile. The fastest women routinely come in under 2:20.

Much of the allure of contemporary marathons is its populist bent. Weekend joggers get to traverse the same course as the pros from Kenya and Europe. The fans who line the streets get to cheer the world's best and, lagging an hour or two behind, cousin Sally from Utica. It's like the company softball team playing their games in Yankee Stadium.

The scene was very different 50 years ago. The current "festival" style of marathoning, introduced by Fred Lebow in New York in the 1970s, did not exist. Few cities could be bothered with hosting a marathon, and only a couple of hundred men (all amateurs) entered the Boston Marathon. "Marathon still meant 'dancing' to most Americans in 1963," noted Jock Semple, the race's longtime co-director.

The marathon's under-the-radar status in the early 1960s represented a steep decline from its vaunted origins. The first international marathon was devised as part of the inaugural modern-day Olympics, held in Athens in 1896. It was intended to pay homage to the famous Battle of Marathon from 490 B.C., when the Greek army repelled invaders from Persia. Afterwards, a courier supposedly ran from the battlefield to Athens and declared, "Rejoice, we conquer!" before dying on the spot.

Apocryphal or not, Pierre de Coubertin was eager to connect any facet of ancient Greece with his modern invention—and thus he embraced the idea of a Marathon-Athens run (which measured roughly 25 miles). It was the highlight of the 1896 Olympics, in no small part because Greece's own Spyros Louis triumphed before what was then the largest crowd to watch a live sporting event.

One eyewitness, a trainer with the Boston Athletic Association named John Graham, was so impressed by the exuberant reaction that he decided to duplicate the feat in America. The following spring, on Patriots Day in 1897, all of fifteen men lined up for the first Boston Marathon.

The marathon became a symbol of survival and endurance. Its pioneers were blue-collar men—construction workers, bricklayers, printing-press operators—who endured arduous conditions. Their shoes were made of a slice of kangaroo leather sewn to a stiff rubber sole. Their feet pounded on uneven and rough roads. Trainers discouraged, or outright barred, athletes from drinking water before and after workouts and during races, even when the roads were dusty, causing them to cramp and gasp for air. If a runner was in extremis, he downed a shot of whiskey.

The occasion of the 1908 London Olympics propelled the marathon to the front pages. In the first-ever marathon measuring 26.2 miles, a young Italian named Dorando Pietri entered the Olympic Stadium in Shepherd's Bush with a tidy lead. Dorando was exhausted, suffering from sunstroke and, in all likelihood, drugged with strychnine. He staggered into the arena before 80,000 stunned spectators, including the Queen of England and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, then collapsed five times en route to the finish line.

The marathon regained the Olympic spotlight in 1960, when Abebe Bikila, a spindly runner from Ethiopia, ran barefoot through the streets of Rome to win the gold medal. Bikila was the first black African to win the Olympic marathon. His remarkable time (2:15:16) lowered the Olympic record by nearly eight minutes and heralded the continent's coming dominance in the distance events. (That Bikila triumphed on the soil of Ethiopia's imperialist nemesis was not lost on anyone.)

But even as Bikila was striking a blow for African runners, women were left on marathon's sidelines. In 1963, the final marathon barrier was about to come down – and this time the crasher was a woman: Merry Lepper.

Marathon Crasher is available now, via Macmillan Books.


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