SILVERTON - No one participating in or cheering on runners at the Homer's Classic 8K on August 8, will be surprised that there are women running in the 27th annual edition of this Silverton road race. In recent years, females as young as 8 years of age and as old as 80 have participated in the Homer 8K, a distance just under five miles.
However, go back a few decades and things were quite different. Those under 30 years of age may have trouble believing it, but not that long ago women were not even allowed to compete in distance running events.
The Boston Marathon, held every April, is one of the most-storied races in America. Thousands of recreational runners train for months to qualify for the 26.2 mile race, and, for many, running there is a peak experience.
Women, though, weren't always a part of it, as they were not even allowed to run in the race. When Kathrine Switzer, a 20-year-old Syracuse University junior, entered in 1967 as "K. Switzer," the race director attempted to tackle her and tear her number off to force her out of the race. With the help of her boyfriend and coach, who were running with her, Kathrine was able to eventually finish, but it took another five years for women to be included in the race.
The Summer Olympic Games were even worse for female distance runners. In 1972, the longest event for women track athletes at the Munich Olympics was the 800 meters, an event that is not even considered a true distance race. The women's marathon was not adopted in the Olympics until 1984, just 25 years ago.
Amazing though it may seem to us now, the prevailing view until fairly recently was that women were physically incapable of such physical exertion!
My, how times have changed now. Last month's inaugural Rock 'n' Roll Seattle Marathon & Half Marathon attracted 15,541 runners for the two races. No fewer than 55% of the marathon competitors and 73% of the half-marathon competitors were women! While there were undoubtedly some sore muscles, there were no reports of deaths or severe injuries due to women exerting themselves!
Susan Gallagher has offered Beginning Walking and Running Clinics for women through Gallagher's Fitness Resources in Salem for over 20 years.
"In the early 90's males (in road races) outnumbered females by over two to one," she said. "Now there are way more females than males running marathons and half marathons, as many as two-thirds female to one-third male."
Gallagher sees all age groups showing up in her clinics, but she said women in their 40's are the most numerous.
"I have some (women) in their 60's and even 70's starting walking. The running group is more women in their 30's and 40's. They like the camaraderie, they like the support of other females who also have goals for a healthy lifestyle . . . they say we're going to get together at such and such a place and time and they don't want to let the others down."
Local runner - and recent retiree Pam Craig - started running 14 years ago at age 48 due to stress and found that running helped her feel better.
"It was winter," she recalled, "and I would pretend to take the dog for a walk in the dark - I started walking-running in the cover of darkness. I didn't even tell Joe (her husband). I'm not sure why this felt like the thing to do, it just did. It turned out to really help my stress level and I have been running on and off since then."
Dorothy Brown-Kwaiser, interpretive park ranger at Silver Falls State Park, ran her first marathon at age 22. Since then she says she has done another marathon and "a good dozen half-marathons . . . I made a special point last year to run a 30K race (18.6 miles) up in Portland on my 30th birthday. In general, I do a marathon or half-marathon a year."
Like Pam and scores of other runners, Dorothy continues running because of what she gets from it.
"A friend of mine once said, 'You must really love running.' I was quiet for a moment, and then replied, 'You know what, I don't.' And it is true, I do not love to run. However, I 'believe' in running. It is one of the things that keeps me healthy and happy . . . Running, for me, is a time for meditation, a time for reflection. My shoes are my own little therapists. If I go more than a few days without running, I (and those around me) can tell."
College student Emma Ritchie, 22, started to train this year for what will be her first marathon. What began as a kind of a dare has now become something of a personal quest for her.
"It all started with my boyfriend who playfully suggested that we run a marathon together," Emma said. "At the time I was overweight and unhappy with my body and eating habits, so I took him up on it and began running again. However, the reason for running the marathon has now shifted . . . when the pounds started to melt off, I felt more alive and focused and began to ache for runs . . . it is a very powerful feeling when you get done with an hour-long run and I am now hooked on that."
Better long-term health, stress relief, weight loss, just plain feeling good . . . with 30 million adult runners in the U.S., there must be at least a million or so reasons that women lace up their shoes and start running every day. Kathrine Switzer must be amazed at what she and other women pioneer runners started 40+ years ago!
The Silverton Runners Club welcomes male and female runners and walkers to its ranks. The Club sponsors several events during the year, including the Homer's Classic 8K on August 8, 2009. In addition to the 8K, the Homer's Classic also includes a 2 Mile Fun Run & Walk for beginning athletes of all ages as well as those who just want to do a shorter distance. The race begins on the track at the former Silverton High School campus on Schlador St. Registration details are at www.racenorthwest.com.
The Runners Club also invites runners and walkers to meet at Coolidge McClaine Park at 9 am on the first Saturday of each month for informal group runs and walks. Other activities are announced in group emails and at regular club meetings. For more information, check out www.silvertonrunnersclub.org, or contact Joe Craig at 503-873-8779 or Steve Ritchie at 503-845-1801.