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When women weren't allowed, Sara Mae Berman ran Boston anyway

Sara Mae Berman, at her home in Cambridge, Mass., wears a medal she was presented for her Boston Marathon wins in 1969, 1970, and 1971. The Boston Athletic Association began recognizing women racers officially in 1972. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Sara Mae Berman, at her home in Cambridge, Mass., wears a medal she was presented for her Boston Marathon wins in 1969, 1970, and 1971. The Boston Athletic Association began recognizing women racers officially in 1972. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

This year marks the 50th year that women are allowed to officially run the Boston Marathon. I should know — I ran the race, and won it — three times before women were granted official entry. (Remember, until 1958, the longest race girls were allowed to run was 200 meters – the Amateur Athletic Union thought anything longer would be dangerous to a woman’s reproductive health.)

This year, 42.5% of the participants are women. I couldn’t have imagined that half a century ago.

I didn’t intend to be a marathoner, at least at first. In those early years, my running became a partnership between my husband Larry and me. Larry loved running — he ran competitively in high school and in college, at MIT. I didn’t have the same experience, of course. Girls’ sports teams in school didn’t exist back then.

We got married in 1955, and by 1958, we’d moved to Cambridge to start our family. After having two children in 15 months, I was feeling very little control over my body. Larry suggested I start running. He believed that the shape we were in by the time we reached 30 years old would set the pattern of fitness for the rest of our lives. He was right. (We don’t run anymore, but we’re still avid cross-country skiers and get in our 70 minutes of exercise every day.)

At first, we ran at the MIT track. We sat the kids on a couple of dirt piles where we could see them and they could see us. Eventually, I could run two miles without stopping. “Isn’t that enough?” I asked Larry. He encouraged me to go faster, and longer.

In the winter of 1963, I gave birth to our third child. But by the spring, I was running again. That fall, we held the first ever cross-country races for girls at Fresh Pond Reservoir in Cambridge. Those races were the newly approved one and one-quarter miles — the longest race for girls at that time.

By 1964, I eventually covered five miles. Larry tried to get me to run an 8-minute per mile pace, but I couldn’t seem to do it in a training run — not by myself, not with Larry. He suggested I needed competition (all men, of course). We found a handicap road race in Marlboro, Mass. The slower runners, like me, got a head start. As the faster runners caught up and ran past, they cheered me on. I crossed the line at 38:37.

The experience taught me that long-distance runners respect each others’ training: they know you can’t cover the distance if you haven’t put in the miles.

Maybe that’s why when I lined up in Hopkinton for my first Boston Marathon in 1969, the Boston Athletic Association didn’t try to shove me aside — by then I’d been running in road races all over New England. They knew I was a serious runner who could cover the distance. The men who were running the race knew it too, and encouraged me.

That first year, Larry and I ran together. I had done the training, and he was there to boost my morale. When I made the right on Hereford, and then left on Boylston, I felt elated: I had done it! It felt great!

The next year, in 1970, I ran the race in 3:05:07. At the time, that was the course record for women who were unofficially running the race — it stood for four years.

I remember the 1970 race particularly. It was a cooler day than we had dressed for: in the upper 30s, not the upper 40s. Early on, my hands got very cold. I ran most of the race that year with a teenage boy named Dick from our running club. Around Wellesley, another running friend gave me his pair of gloves — it was so cold I had to pull them on with my teeth! Dick and I traded them back and forth every 30 minutes. Larry had finished the race in 2:38:03 that year, his best. But he donned his warm-ups and ran the mile or so back to meet me in Kenmore Square. We finished together.

At the finish line, someone draped a blanket over my shoulders and led me to the women’s skating locker room (there was a small pond to skate on at the Prudential at the time). I remember it had one light bulb, no facilities. It was freezing. I laid down on the narrow bench between the lockers, and rested for a while. Eventually, I roused myself and went to find Larry, who had my gym bag. I got out of my damp running clothes in the women’s restroom — there was no proper place for me to change.

In 1971, it wasn’t as cold as in 1970. Cresting the top of the hill by Boston College, Nina Kuscsik with a couple of men from her club, passed me. I was in second — and I didn’t like it. Suddenly, as if I’d been kicked in the pants, I sped up and passed her at the start of Beacon Street. I got 30 seconds ahead of her, and kept that margin to the finish.

In 1972, women were finally allowed to run officially. All that we had been working for had finally been recognized. Unfortunately, I got the flu just before the race, but I ran anyway — I couldn’t not run. My time, 3:48 in fifth place, was my slowest Boston.

As jubilant as we women runners felt in 1972, women being allowed to compete in the Olympic marathon, was still a long way off. It took a decade of lobbying — by women and men runners — and the threat of a lawsuit, before women were finally allowed to run the race at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. It was won by Joan Benoit Samuelson in 2:24:52, ahead of Grete Waitz, Rosa Mota and Ingrid Kristiansen — it was a spectacular athletic achievement.

The Boston Marathon is very special, the longest, continuous running marathon. It’s part of Boston’s history. All those years ago, Larry told me I could be a pioneer. I didn’t appreciate what that meant until much later. But, now I do. If a young mother can run marathons, then women all around the country and the world know they can, too.

Sara Mae Berman won the Boston Marathon three times, in 1969, 1970 and 1971. She is a long-time resident of Cambridge, Mass., where she was elected to the school committee two times. She and her husband Larry Berman still participate in cross-country skiing and ski-orienteering competitions. 

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This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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