The history of the oldest women’s-only race is the story of progress, but also of missed opportunities
Last Saturday, the 48th New York Mini 10K took place in Central Park. In conditions that were about as good as one can hope for on a June day in New York City—temps in the 60s, low humidity, minimal wind—almost 9,000 runners participated in the world’s oldest annual women’s-only race. In the end, Sara Hall outdueled Stephanie Bruce in a sprint finish to crown herself USATF 10K national champion.
“This one means a lot, because truly the best 10K runners in the nation were here,” Hall told Race Results Weekly after her win. “American women’s distance running is the best it’s ever been right now, so I’m going to savor this,” Hall added. Indeed, given the current golden era in American women’s distance running, the history of the Mini throws the current moment into sharp relief.
The inaugural race was held in 1972, when it was officially called the “Crazylegs Mini Marathon.” It was the first year that women were legally allowed to run the Boston Marathon, and the concept of a woman racing 26.2 miles was still somewhat radical. (It would be another twelve years before there was a women’s marathon at the Olympics.) Hence, a “mini distance event” (as the original race poster phrased it) of six miles was deemed more suitable. But the first Mini was intended less as an athletic competition than as a marketing stunt for race sponsor Johnson Wax, which was looking to promote a new brand of pink shaving cream (i.e. Crazylegs). To help generate publicity, race director Fred Lebow hired Playboy Bunnies in bushy-tailed hot pants and black turtlenecks to pose for pre-race photo ops. Not all of this has aged well.
Among the runners in that inaugural year were Nina Kuscsik, the first official female winner of the Boston Marathon, and Kathrine Switzer, who made history by running Boston in 1967 and famously fending off a race official who attempted to remove her from the course. In addition to competing, the two women were also heavily involved in hyping an idea, which was revolutionary at the time.
“Fred and I went to a lot of singles bars and handed out fliers to any woman that went by,” Switzer told the Wall Street Journal in a 2011 article commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Mini. “They were smoking, and they would just look at us like we were crazy. Of course, in those days, women in long-distance running were part of the lunatic fringe anyway.”
Almost a half-century later, that lunatic fringe has become the mainstream; according to Running USA, 60 percent of the roughly 18 million runners who participated in a U.S. road race in 2018 were women. This proliferation is echoed in the Mini, which had about 70 participants in its first year and now typically sees around 8,000 runners taking part. As for its vaunted pro field, there’s a gratifying irony in the fact that a race that was originally conceived as an abridged version of the marathon now regularly features several of the best marathoners in the world. Last fall, two-time defending Mini champ Mary Keitany won the New York City Marathon by running the second half of the race in 1:06:58—faster than all but six of the men.
All of this can make it a little too easy to regard the evolution of the Mini as a feel-good story of progress and female empowerment. However, by the same token, the history of the race also highlights how limited the opportunities for female distance runners (and female athletes in general) were until very recently. Many people know that 1984 was the first Olympics to include a women’s marathon, but far fewer are aware that the 5,000-meters, a race that has been a staple in men’s Olympic competition since the early 20th century, was only added to the women’s program in 1996.
“It was very frustrating to be a distance runner when they didn’t have a distance for me,” Jacki Marsh, née Dixon, the winner of the inaugural Mini, told me recently.
Marsh, who is now the mayor of Loveland, Colorado, ran for a club called the San Jose Cindergals in the early 1970s. She says that, back then, there were officials at the Amateur Athletic Union who would threaten to quit if women were allowed to compete in all-comers meets. At a time when the longest competitive distance for women was typically the mile or the 1,500-meters, Marsh would jump into road races with the men. After we spoke, Marsh sent me a text message with photos of printed out results from a random 16-mile trail race in 1972. She had highlighted her name—the only woman in an otherwise all-male field—and had written down the marathon times from some of the runners whom she had beaten that day. There was a note in the margin: “This is why I believe I would have run a 2:40 or better marathon.”
Although Marsh takes pride in the knowledge that she was breaking ground for the next generation of female athletes, her example makes the history of the Mini feel bittersweet; it’s a story of progress, but also, inevitably, of missed opportunity.
“There are regrets there,” Marsh says. “Knowing that I was born a couple of years too soon.”