Taking Up Space

When I started running more than five years ago, one of the main things that drew me to the sport was being part of a community. As a female recreational runner, I can more or less run in public streets with some sense of comfort and ease. I can run with one (or more) of the multitude of run crews we have in the GTA and feel welcomed. If I want to participate in a race, I haven’t had to question or doubt the validity of my presence at the start line. In fact, races like the Toronto Women’s Series and the Shoppers Love You Run for Women tell us that not only do women runners belong on the race course, they are also celebrated. Women are running the world. Literally. According to The State of Running 2019, a study completed by RunRepeat.com and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), “for the first time in history, there are more female than male runners.” Talk about girl power!

It is easy to take this sense of belonging for granted but the reality is that official participation by women in long distance races was not recognized until the 1970’s. For decades, women met fierce opposition to their involvement in sports and the justification for exclusion was predicated on false but also widely held assumptions that women were physically unsuited, that it was unattractive and that it was contrary to the notion of “femininity”.

Take for example Roberta ‘Bobbi’ Gibb. In 1966, she was the first woman to complete the Boston Marathon but did so as an unregistered runner. Earlier that year Gibb had written to the president of the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) for application and was refused. The letter Gibb received back in response said that “women were not physiologically capable of running 26 miles”. Defiant, she ran the course anyway. Her accomplishment was widely covered by the press and made front-page headlines. By going the distance, Gibb challenged the narrative of women’s physical limitations.

Photo by Fred Kaplan/Sports Illustrated, via Getty Images

Kathrine Switzer famously ran the Boston Marathon in 1967 with an official race number, 261, having registered as “K. Switzer”. When co-race director Jock Semple discovered that a woman was running with a race number, he attempted to physically remove her from the course. Switzer’s friends helped by fighting off Semple and she was able to finish the race. The incident was caught on camera and was highly publicized. The now infamous photo brought wider attention to women as marathoners.

A Boston Marathon official tried to hustle Kathrine Switzer, No. 261, off the course during the race in 1967.
Photo by Paul Connell/The Boston Globe, via Getty Images

Several years later, Tersilla Komac, completed similar feats at a race closer to home – Hamilton’s Around the Bay 30K race. Komac initially started running to help deal with side effects from Bell’s Palsy, a condition affecting the facial nerve. Eventually she began running with a group of men based out of the Burlington YMCA called ‘The Magnificent 7’.  In 1975, Komac was encouraged to run Around the Bay by the group and she did just that, albeit as an unregistered runner as the race did not officially open to women until 1979. Police told her to get off the course and they would not halt traffic for her as they did for the male participants as they ran by. According to the Around the Bay Road Race History page race officials were “angry” to see her finish. Komac ran again in 1976, this time with an official number as one of her male running mates was able to register her under the name “T. Komac”. Upon completion of the race, she proceeded directly to her car to avoid confrontation.

When viewed in the broader context of the women’s right movement of the 1960’s and 70’s where women were seeking equal rights, opportunities, and greater personal freedoms, trailblazers like Gibb, Switzer, Komac and numerous other women were able act as agents of social change. By taking up space, they asserted their presence amidst the external forces that attempted to impose the notion that women decidedly did not belong. They ran so we too could run, and in greater numbers. I am in awe of the grit, determination, and bravery that the early women runners exemplified. They refused to accept the notion that women were incapable of long distance running and challenged prevailing beliefs about women’s physical capacities –  not only the ones held by men but perhaps more importantly the ones women had about themselves.

It is important to share these stories because we can’t fully appreciate how far women’s running has come without understanding where we started. We express gratitude to those who came before us but we must keep looking and moving forward. So where do we go from here? We must continue to pursue true inclusion in running because patriarchal gatekeepers have been deciding who does or doesn’t belong for long enough. This sport belongs to everyBODY and ALL gender identities. When there are no barriers to reaching the finish line, we all win.