February is National Girls and Women in Sports month so we at Get Fit want to celebrate some amazing women who have paved the way for the rest of us in the world of running. Kathrine Switzer was the first woman to officially register for and race the Boston Marathon. Inspired by her father who discouraged her from becoming a cheerleader by telling her that, “the game’s not on the sidelines, the game is on the field”, Kathrine pursued field hockey and then found her love for running. In 1967, no woman had ever been allowed to run the Boston Marathon. Kathrine registered as KV Switzer, not thinking anything about it or trying to be subversive in any way. She thought all was well but had to fight off an irate race director who thought she was making a mockery of the Boston marathon, the most famous marathon in the world at that time, and now. She prevailed and went on to finish, making history. Not one to rest on her laurels, Kathrine went on to advocate for women in running and founded 261 Fearless, a global running organization whose vision is to, “inspire, motivate, and educate women to step up and become leaders, to support women of all backgrounds to run, and lead healthy, fearless, and empowered lives.”
You might think that after Kathrine Switzer proved to the world that women can run a marathon in 1967, that women would’ve been allowed to compete in the marathon at the very next Olympics. In actuality, it took 17 years of advocacy for women and international diplomacy to upend the prevailing thought that running a marathon was detrimental to a woman’s health and could even “cause her uterus to fall out”. It seems crazy to us now, but that was the “expert opinion” of the time. Finally, in 1984, the Olympic committee for the Los Angeles Olympics, allowed women to compete in the marathon. Joan Benoit had won the Boston marathon in 1979 in 2:35.15, setting a new American record. By 1984, she had bettered her time, and despite injuring her knee while training for the Olympic trials and undergoing arthroscopic surgery, she won the trials and went on to win the first Olympic gold in the women’s marathon. It was a blazingly hot day in LA, making Joan’s inaugural Olympic record of 2:24.52 that much more amazing.
While Kathrine Switzer and Joan Benoit inspired girls around the world to take up distance running, Courtney Dauwalter has carried their torch and redefined the limits of what we thought possible, not only for women, but for humans, in the world of ultra running. In 2017, Dauwalter was not just the female winner, but the overall winner of the Moab 240, finishing more than 10 hours ahead of second place, Sean Nakamura. In 2020 she won the American division, again overall, of Big Dog’s Ultra, completing 68 laps for a total of 283.3 miles, the longest distance completed by a female runner ever in the race. In 2022 and 2023 Dauwalter won the Hardrock 100, setting the course records by over an hour in each direction. And she didn’t stop there. Dauwalter went on to win Western States for the second time in 2023, beating the course record held since 2012 in a seemingly impossible time of 15:29.34 for 100 miles! Incredibly, she finished out 2023 by winning the Ultra-trail du Mont Blanc for the second time, becoming the first woman in history to win all three of the most iconic ultramarathon events in the same year. Outside magazine has called Courtney Dauwalter “the best female trail runner in the world” and a “once in a generation athlete”. What is her secret to success? She credits growing up in Minnesota and having to deal with the harsh environment on a regular basis, but certainly her unusual perspective on pain has played a part. Dauwalter told Outside magazine, “I don’t think pain is a bad thing. I think things can be fun and painful at the same time.” Well, Courtney must’ve had a lot of fun breaking all those ultramarathon records!
Moving to the opposite end of the spectrum in women’s running, from the marathon and ultra marathon distances where Switzer, Benoit, and Dauwalter have made their marks, is track and field, where Allyson Felix reigns. Specializing in the 100m, 200m, and 400m distances, she is the most decorated woman in Olympic track and field history, having earned 11 total medals from 5 consecutive Olympic games. Felix is also the most decorated athlete, male or female, in World Athletics Championships with 20 career medals, 7 from individual events and 13 from team relays. With a combined Olympic and World Championship total of 31 medals, Felix is also the most decorated athlete in track and field history. But Allyson’s contributions to women’s running go beyond her success on the track. She has been a maternal advocate both for black women who have a higher risk of mortality during pregnancy, and for professional runners who want to start a family. In 2018, Felix went to Nike, her professional sponsor, for financial security during pregnancy and the months after delivering her daughter. They refused and offered a 70% salary cut instead. Felix walked away from Nike and went public with her story. The result? Nike changed its maternal policy in August of 2019, promising to not apply any salary reductions for 18 months during a sponsored runner’s pregnancy and recovery. And Allyson Felix made history, yet again.
While Switzer, Benoit, Dauwalter, and Felix have been influential in women’s running on a global scale, we also want to recognize one of our local Shelldon’s superstars who has made a difference in women’s running, right here in Amarillo. Ginny Burnham started running in her 30’s to get away from it all and clear her mind. She keeps running for the health benefits and because of all the great friends she’s made through running. Ginny and her husband Dennis organize a weekly social run from different restaurants around town. The Pub Runners are one of the largest and close-knit running groups in Amarillo. They even have a tradition of traveling to Oklahoma City each year for the OKC Memorial marathon. This race is near and dear to Ginny’s heart, because she loves running for those who can’t. Ginny’s running mantra is, “Forward is a pace”, to remind her that it doesn’t matter how fast she’s running, as long as she’s moving forward. While we are thankful for all of the famous women runners who have allowed women everywhere to have the example and confidence that we, too can be runners, it is perhaps those women more near to us, like Ginny, who will run alongside us, that can have the greatest impact on our motivation to get out there and run.