Photography by Lisa Petrole
Once upon a time, women were not allowed to run long distances, but men were.
Welcome to 1896 — when women were forbidden to run a marathon. After all, women were ’too fragile’ to run such distance, according to race organizers back then. This is something I think about as a Chinese woman runner in 2015.
Looking down at my size 6.5 foot, it’s hard to believe that Chinese women, not so long ago, had their feet bound down to the size of a 6 to 9 month infant’s. This was to resemble a lotus flower — making one move in a limp and graceful manner.
This tradition was originally for the upper class in China, to posture wealth and grace. But popularity grew as bound feet were considered a mark of beauty — by the 19th century, 40 to 50 per cent of Chinese women had their feet bound. Eventually, this was outlawed — which serves me well as I couldn’t do the running thing with bound feet.
Feet against pavement, I think of a fable about Greek messenger, Pheidippides, who ran to Athens from Marathon to announce the defeat of the Persians, before perishing from exhaustion. Hence the name.
An original event and grand conclusion of the modern Olympics (est. 1896), the 42.2km distance has become a symbol of perseverance and mental fortitude. Common on bucket lists, there are more than 1100 marathon distance races available worldwide annually for recreational and elite athletes alike — it is estimated that less than 1 per cent of the population will complete a marathon due to the intense nature of this event.
So, of course, women were excluded from all of this. Like most things, we fought for our right to enjoy the same thrill and athletic accomplishment a marathon may offer.
Eventually women rebelled and ran the race anyway
1918, The Tour de Paris Marathon, Marie-Louise Ledru is credited for being the first woman to race a marathon.
1967, Boston Marathon, Katherine Virginia Switzer, is the first woman to run USA’s oldest and most prestigious race with an official number. She registered as ‘K.V. Switzer’ and officials only realized her gender on race day — enraging organizer Jock Semple enough to try to physically and aggressively remove her. But her boyfriend, Tom Miller (also running), defended her position and they both completed the race.
After this race, suspensions were threatened to any woman who tried to run along with men.
1972, Boston Marathoner Nina Kuscsik became the first sanctioned female winner. The organizers of Boston Marathon opened the field to female runners to run along with men. Switzer, other female runners, and Semple, the angry official in Switzer’s race, were all instrumental in this motion that broke down social barriers that let women in.
1980, 10 per cent of marathoners are women
1984, Los Angeles Olympics, USA’s Joan Benoit became the first gold medalist in inaugural ‘Women’s Marathon’ event.
1995, 26 per cent of marathoners are women
2000, Sydney Olympics, Japan’s Naoko Takahashi became the first Asian woman to win a gold medal.
At this point, 38 per cent of marathoners are women
2005, 41 per cent of marathoners are women
2013, 43 per cent of marathoners are women, highest percentage thus far.
2015, USA’s Harriette Thompson became a Guiness Record holder for completing the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Marathon at age 92.
Based on the current Olympic records, the difference between male and female marathoners is under 17 minutes. This would suggest women are absolutely not too fragile for this distance. Men still conclude the Olympics though, while the women’s marathon occurs mid-competition.
I choose to be a marathon runner. The physical and mental challenge appeal to my competitive nature and after successfully completing 35, with above average times, I appreciate how running has improved my stamina and self-awareness.
As a small framed Asian woman, I battle the preconceived notion that I am passive and weak — but marathoning has been my defense against this oppression. I strive to show the world that my non-dainty feet are strong and allow me to move the way I want them to and to prove that women are deserving of equal opportunities.
It’s unfathomable to me that had I existed a century earlier that I would have bounded feet that wouldn’t allow me to walk properly, never mind run for hours. Of course, even if I had healthy feet, I would not have had the chance to legally run a marathon 50 years ago.
The marathon is my passion. It’s a dream to have all women find their movement or whatever feeds their own passion — strengthening their souls. As we move forward, I would like to see the final event of the Olympics Marathon include women — alongside men. That would be progress.