Nearly 50 years ago, a 10-kilometer running event went down in history as the first official women’s road race in the United States — and possibly the world.
On Saturday, about 3,000 women will carry on that legacy: They’ll hit New York City’s streets for the 2021 Mastercard New York Mini 10K, the first regularly scheduled race for the New York Road Runners (NYRR) since the pandemic canceled the organization’s hallmark events, including the New York City Marathon.
Kerin Hempel, a longtime distance runner and chief executive of NYRR, says her daughters, 9 and 11, will probably come to the race to cheer. “I think that it’s important to see,” says Hempel, who also has a 7-year-old son. “Especially since this race features a community of women coming together to celebrate female achievement and showcases women in the top level of their sport.”
The 3,000 registration slots for this year’s race sold out in minutes, to both amateurs and professional female runners alike. Indeed, the event has been drawing women of all ages and skill levels since its debut in 1972.
That year, on June 3, 17-year-old Jacki Marsh (nee Dixon) became the first winner of the New York Mini, crossing the finish line in 37.01. The Crazylegs Marathon, as the race was then called, was part of a series of groundbreaking events in women’s running. Two months before the race, women were officially allowed to enter the Boston Marathon. Twenty days after the race, Title IX was passed, giving girls and women the right to equal opportunity in school sports.
Race organizers Nina Kuscsik, the first woman to officially win the Boston Marathon in 1972, and Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to officially register for and complete the Boston Marathon in 1967, reportedly went on long runs during rush hour on the main avenues of New York City, thrusting fliers for the event into women’s hands and encouraging them to join the Mini.
“I implored men to send their wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers,” Switzer wrote in an email. “The men in running always wanted women to run — this is important to understand. Looking back, however — six miles?! That’s a lot to ask of a beginner! But they came from everywhere!”
The women in 1972 were under pressure to not only show up, but to perform. Marsh, the first race winner, says the event helped garner credibility for female runners: “[It was important] to have a race be just all women, and not us tagging along taking the scraps of what was a man’s event.”
And of the 78 women who started the race, 72 finished. “Nobody passed out. Nobody lost their uterus. Nobody became infertile,” says Marsh, referring to the sexism surrounding women in sports at the time. Even Kuscsik’s 9-year-old daughter completed the race, according to a New York Times article covering the inaugural event.
To date, there have been about 200,000 finishers.
The Mini was not without controversy, though. In 1972, the race director and NYRR president, Fred Lebow, recruited Playboy Bunnies donning cottontail hot pants for pre-race photos to draw the attention of the press. Soon after the gun went off, the bunnies were nowhere to be seen. The first race sponsor, Johnson Wax, also promoted its new pink shaving gel, Crazylegs, by having it printed on the race shirts participants wore. And the “Mini” was named after the then-in-vogue miniskirt and the “mini-distance” of six miles that was advertised on the original race poster, which featured a woman running in what looks like a short white dress. It would take 12 years before Olympic officials allowed women to run in a full marathon at the 1984 Olympics.
Marsh, the first Mini winner, was a member of the San Jose Cindergals track club in the 1970s. She says she would often enter road races with men because, otherwise, the longest distance for female runners was 1,500 meters on the track. Runners like Marsh had to carve out opportunities where they found them, she says. According to Marsh, one San Francisco outlet reporting on her New York Mini win described her as “a 5-foot-7 brunette.”
“For whatever reason, they had to describe my physical person,” she says. “It was almost considered selfish to have a running life. That wasn’t our role. And I think there’s still a double standard. I don’t think it’s equal yet.”
Many Mini runners agree. Two-time Olympian Molly Huddle, 36, says the media often focuses on female athletes’ physical features over accomplishments. “It’s a way of validating her femininity even though she does sports. I think people expect female athletes to be perfect, smile, never make mistakes, not be too aggressive and not say something that’s anything beyond complimentary and giggling,” Huddle says. “I haven’t done that, and I feel like I get a lot of flak, whether it’s on social media or just in the press.”
Huddle, who won the NYRR New York Mini 10K in 2014 and set a U.S. record by running it in 31 minutes and 37 seconds, returns to the talented professional field this year. Outside of competitions, she’s an advocate for elevating women athletes. The podcast she co-hosts, Keeping Track, highlights underrepresented female voices in running. “Only 4 percent of all U.S. sports media coverage is women’s sports,” Huddle says. “So we are trying to focus on sharing stories of amazing women that maybe don’t get to grace all the magazine covers because they don’t look a certain way.”
Huddle says she’s also trying to improve women’s running through the stories she and former professional runner Sara Slattery are sharing in their new book, “How She Did It.” According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, twice as many girls quit sports as boys when they hit puberty. Huddle says that through her podcast and book, she wants to highlight successful female runners and how they overcame obstacles frequently faced by female athletes.
Increasing accessibility to its events is something Hempel, NYRR’s chief executive, says the organization is trying to do more of by reaching out to and including the voices of diverse running groups. One way it’s welcoming more individuals is by including a broader set of gender-identification options for registration purposes. “We realized that just having the male and female gender categories was isolating to some members. So we’ve created a third, nonbinary gender category for future races,” Hempel says.
Instead of the 78 women who toed the line in the 1972 inaugural race, 3,000 registrants will celebrate the return to road racing this year, including 30 professional runners representing seven countries.
Of course, after a year of no official races, things will look a little different: Face coverings are required at the start and finish areas.
But mostly, the participants are just excited to be back to road racing.
“I love that the first race back is the Mini,” Huddle says. “I just like the energy and the history of it. Everyone’s cheering for everyone as you pass each other on the course. And it’s a prestigious race to win.”