(Photo by Dingfang Zhou/BU News Service)
By Buthayna Al Refai, Mariya Manzhos,
Alexandra Werner Winslow, and Olya Yordanyan
BU News Service
This year marks 50 years since the first American woman ran the Boston Marathon. Back then, her bid to enter the race sparked controversy. Today, women from around the world compete, and lately those from overseas have been taking the top spot in the race.
In 1966, Roberta Bobbi Gibb threw on a hoodie to hide her hair, secured a pair of her brother’s shorts with twine, and took her place behind a bush near the Boston Marathon’s starting line. Her application to enter the marathon had been denied. The Amateur Athletics Union that sanctioned the marathon prohibited women from racing more than 1.5 miles.
But Gibb wasn’t taking no for an answer. For Gibb, who regularly ran near her home in San Diego, the marathon represented an opportunity to change the regulations that kept women from officially participating.
“It was a classic Catch-22,” Gibb told Runner’s World in a recent interview. “How could women prove that we could accomplish something if we were never given a chance to try?”
And try she did. Photographs show the 23-year-old relaxed and smiling as she crossed the finish line less than four hours after she started, the 124th runner to unofficially complete the 1966 Boston Marathon.
In 1967, Kathrine Switzer became another icon of resistance to the ban on women running when she became the first female to run as officially registered. However, she had cloaked her gender by registering as K.V. Switzer. She professed that she liked the way it sounded, like J.D. Salinger.
Switzer was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon with a number, however, during the race an official ran after her yelling: “Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!”
That iconic moment in women’s sports history was just a start for Switzer. Among her later contributions: the creation of the Avon International Running Circuit and officially making a women’s marathon part of the Olympic Games of 1984.
By 1972, women setting out to cover the same 26.2 miles that Gibb and Switzer ran did so as part of an official women’s division. Today, scores of women from around the world join the pack.
There’s just one difference between them and the women who paved their way: these days, the top 15 finishers are usually citizens of another country.
As early as 1973, Gerda Reinke, a runner from West Germany, was among the top 10 finishers. In 1975, Liane Winter, also from West Germany, set a world record.
By 2015, 11 of the top 15 finishers were not American. In 2010, 14 — all but one — hailed from another country. And in the two years since the Boston Marathon bombings, there’s been no discernible drop in international female runners finishing in the top 15.
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A number of sub-patterns emerge from mapping the Marathon’s top 15 female finishers since 2001. European countries, for instance, supplied 34 runners, or 15.11 percent, with Italy topping them all at seven. In the past 15 years, only 25 percent of finalists were from the U.S.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, China, the globe’s most populous country, produced only four of the Boston Marathon’s top 15 finalists in the last 15 years. To the north and south of the U.S., Mexico, Canada and Colombia produced 4 percent.
The real standout in the finalists’ geographic distribution are the East African runners. Since 2001, they have consistently placed among the top 15 finishers, with 40 Kenyan and 36 Ethiopian finalists in the past 15 years.
Taken together, in fact, Kenya and Ethiopia represent 33.8 percent of the last 15 years’ top finalists. Moreover, 86 percent of Boston Marathon winners — those who placed first in the women’s division in the last 15 years — were from Kenya and Ethiopia.
A 2012 study by the National Institute of Health proposed eight factors that may explain the outsized Kenyan and Ethiopian success in distance running, including diet, environment, and extensive walking and running at an early age.
More unexpected is the study’s hypothesis that an economic motivation may play a part in East African runners’ success.
“The Boston Marathon’s rewards for women from Kenya and Ethiopia are enormous in proportion to other opportunities available to these women in their countries,” said Tom Derderian, a running historian and author of “The Boston Marathon,” a history of the race.
He echoes the National Institute of Health study’s suggestion that monetary rewards have proven to be a significant incentive for East African female runners. Award money ranges from $1,500 to $150,000.
“Women have an option to work on the farm, or do well in the Boston Marathon and become rich,” said Derderian. “They can buy a farm in their country and become a major person in their community.”
And yet, even though Kenya and Ethiopia have produced the most top 15 female finishers in the last 15 years, the country to produce the most finalists overall is, in fact, the U.S.
With 57 top 15 female finishers since 2001, the U.S. has supplied almost twice as many as Kenya, the next biggest country of origin.
Among the American women to participate in recent years is Cambridge resident Emily Raymond, 34, who moved to the Boston area 12 years ago. She began preparing to run her first Boston Marathon in 2006.
Although Raymond skipped the years when she gave birth to her three children, this year she will run her sixth Boston Marathon.
“I keep trying different things. There is something I can always improve,” says Raymond. “Every year I think I could do better.”