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Kenny Moore
March 27, 1978
The Avon International Women's Marathon attracted a field of 186 to prove who is the best in the world and—perhaps more important—to prove something to the world
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March 27, 1978

Ready To Run A Long Way

The Avon International Women's Marathon attracted a field of 186 to prove who is the best in the world and—perhaps more important—to prove something to the world

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Marty Cooksey lifted the solid gold medal that an hour earlier had been hung about her neck for winning the first Avon International Women's Marathon in Atlanta. "I saw no golden apples today," she said, smiling. Cooksey was referring to the legend of Atalanta, the distance runner whose likeness was on the medal. For those whose mythology was cloudy, Kathrine Switzer—an organizer of the Avon race and something of a legend herself for breaking the men-only barrier at the Boston Marathon 11 years ago—thoughtfully had sketched out the story.

"Atalanta was very beautiful, she was very intelligent, she was very independent," Switzer said pointedly to the contestants on Saturday. "And she could outrun all the men in her country. She ran only for high stakes. If she raced a man and won, he would be put to death. If she lost, she would have to marry him. The first eight men died." Here there were rustles of approval. "Finally a determined pursuer dropped three golden apples in a race and when she stopped to pick them up, he ran past to win. Their children..." Switzer paused a moment, "were all monsters.

"The moral," she went on, "is to be wary of those who would defeat you with deceit and distractions, for the results are truly monstrous."

Switzer's strong and allegorical words were directed at the International Olympic Committee, for in addition to convening in Atlanta to settle on a world champion, the globe's best female marathoners had come to settle a point. They wanted a women's Olympic marathon, and they were weary of the dissembling of the IOC and the International Amateur Athletic Federation—running's governing body, which must endorse their cause before the IOC will seriously consider it. The IOC and IAAF continue to voice patronizing concern for the health and femininity of women runners and have shown it by allowing them to compete in nothing longer than the 1,500 in the Olympics.

To state the women's case, Avon had flown in Dr. Ernst van Aaken of West Germany, a research physiologist, coach of Olympians and father of women's distance running. Van Aaken, 68, was a 10-mile-per-day runner until one wintry night in 1972 when a truck hurtled into him on a snowy side street. He lost both legs. Van Aaken used some of the insurance money to organize the first women's international marathons in his hometown of Waldniel in 1974 and 1976. Those races and his research have made him a passionate and beloved advocate. "These women are so beautiful because they run," he said, touched, as the runners gave him a standing ovation when he was wheeled into a prerace symposium where he would help state the women's cause. "It is a shame that officials are put in judgment of things they know nothing about. In 1970 the world record was 3:07. Now it is 2:34:48, by Christa Vahlensieck [whom he trains]. Yet women were forbidden to run even 3,000 meters in Montreal. Why go on with this injustice?"

Aldo Scandurra, the IAAF representative in Atlanta observing the Avon race, has been a sympathetic listener for years. Scandurra looks and sounds startlingly like Henry Kissinger, and he thinks like him, too. "I'm a realist," he said. "I think you have to go step by step." By that he means forming an international union of women road runners and hoping the IAAF will be impressed into taking over. "That's exactly what the International Cross-Country Union did," Scandurra said, "although I admit it took them 50 years." Scandurra pointed out that to get justice the women had to await social change on an international scale. "The Moroccans voted against longer races because they said women running distance is blasphemous, it ruins their femininity."

"Didn't we settle that one years ago?" asked one runner. Scandurra's answer was that we did in the U.S. and a few other countries, but the voting blocs of Africa and the Latin and Arab countries have yet to be convinced. "The feeling is not enough countries are interested," said Scandurra.

"That's a vicious circle," said Leal Ann Reinhart, the current AAU marathon champion from the San Fernando Valley Track Club. "The countries with creepy hang-ups don't let women there is no they don't let women run."

Sarolta Monspart, a tough, windblown beauty from Budapest, was testimony to that. The Hungarian Athletic Federation had refused her a visa to Atlanta even though she has run 2:48:53 in a Budapest marathon. She cadged permission from orienteering officials instead (she was the 1972 world champion). When her ploy was discovered, Monspart was told she would have to finish in the first six or she would never get another visa.

Solidarity was the key to assembling the finest field of women ever. Fourteen of the 24 fastest women marathoners in history were among the 186 runners from eight countries who went to the line at 1:00 p.m. Sunday. Absent were Vahlensieck, who had to run in the world cross-country championships at Glasgow, and Chantal Langlace of France, who once held the world record (2:35:13), but who had ruptured an Achilles tendon. American record holder Kim Merritt and the Boston and New York Marathon champion Miki Gorman had been reluctant to compete, but showed. "I'm peaking for Boston," Gorman told Switzer. "Change your peak," Switzer replied.

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