Sara Mae Berman: Boston’s Overlooked 3-Time Champion
Sara Mae Berman, one of the pioneers of women’s running, talks about how she got into the sport on the 50th anniversary of her 1969 victory.
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Sara Mae Berman has been so overlooked among the Boston Marathon’s early women headliners you may never have heard her name. Runners now often know of Bobbi Gibb, who was first, winning in 1966-1967-1968. In 1967, Kathrine Switzer famously survived her tussle with Jock Semple. And Nina Kuscsik is well-remembered for her victory in the first official women’s race at Boston in 1972.
Berman fits right in the middle of this trio. Fifty years ago this April, in 1969, she ran 3:22:46, winning her first of three straight Bostons to match Gibb’s threepeat. In 1970, she lowered the course record from 3:21:40 to 3:05:07. In 1971, she and Kuscsik waged the first competitive women’s race at Boston, surging back and forth in the final miles until Berman won by just 30 seconds.
Berman holds other little-recognized distinctions. She already had three young children at the time of her first road races in 1965. To this day, she’s believed to be Boston’s only woman winner with three youngsters. She and her marathoning husband, Larry, married for 63 years, have also competed in nordic skiing and orienteering events, organized women’s cross-country races since the early 1960s, and in 1962 formed one of New England’s oldest running clubs, the Cambridge Sports Union. They could accurately be termed America’s First Couple Of Aerobic Exercise.
On the 50th anniversary of her first Boston Marathon win, Berman is being honored this year by the Boston Athletic Association, along with others, including Joan Benoit and Bill Rodgers (winners 40 years ago) and Meb Keflezighi, the 2014 champ. She’ll speak Saturday at the Marathon Expo, and fire the starter’s pistol Monday morning to get the elite women on their way from Hopkinton.
Berman began running in the early 1960s, worried that she would otherwise edge into midlife complacency and weight gain. Larry, a former MIT cross-country runner, set up her program. First she would aim for one mile, then for five miles, then for a faster five miles. This made Berman’s head spin. “I had no athletic or running background at all,” she remembers. “I had no idea about running for different distances or at different paces.”
When Sara Mae finally reached five miles (20 laps of the MIT track), Larry told her the next goal was to break 40 minutes for five miles. That proved elusive, so Larry came up with Plan B: Head to a local five-mile road-race, where competition from other runners would help Sara Mae improve her time.
In July, 1965, the whole family—including three kids and a babysitter—drove to Marlborough, Mass, 30 miles west of their home in Cambridge. Sara Mae had just turned 29. She ran without an official number, since that was not allowed at the time, and finished in 38:37.
“All the men were very welcoming to me,” she recalls. “They said, ‘Are you running with us? That’s great.’ And I quickly learned what every runner knows—that it’s easier to go fast in a race than when you run alone.”
At about the same time, the Bermans began competing in nordic ski events. They got this idea from watching the 1964 Winter Olympics on TV. When it came time for the women’s nordic races, the commentators noted that the U.S. had no entrants. Larry turned to Sara Mae and said, “American women are too soft, but you’re not.” A few years later, they added ski-orienteering to their repertoire.
In March, 2018, Sara Mae won the ski-orienteering world championships in the 80+ age-group, while Larry won the American title. (Okay, they were the only competitors in their age-group but still …)
By the time of her first Boston Marathon in 1969, Berman could hardly have been better prepared. She had run dozens of New England races up to 30K, and gradually increased her training. She thought Heartbreak Hill might present a challenge, but it didn’t, as she finished in 3:22:46.
“Heartbreak Hill is only a 90 foot climb,” she says now. “I had tackled hills much bigger than that on skis. I felt great at the finish. It was a warm day, and I looked forward to more marathons to see how much I could improve my performance.”
The next April, in opposite conditions (cold and drizzly), Berman ran much faster. She teamed with a young teammate from the Cambridge Sports Union to share pacing chores and also to swap a pair of gloves every few miles. Larry also ran a personal best that day (2:38:03). After finishing, he jogged back to Kenmore Square to meet Sara Mae and run the last mile with her. They crossed the finish line soaking wet but hand-in-hand in 3:05:07.
In her first two Boston wins, Berman never even saw another woman runner on the course. That changed dramatically in 1971. She thought she was headed for another solo victory when Nina Kuscsik passed her at about the 22 mile mark and pushed to a 50-yard lead. It took Berman a few minutes to absorb the shock. Then she realized that she wasn’t willing to settle for second.
“I was a competitor, and I wanted to win,” she says. “Somehow I found the resolve to pass her back. But we never felt any animosity toward each other. We just tried our hardest and figured the winner would be the one who trained best or had the most talent.”
In recent years, Berman has held a sort of Boston Marathon “pajama party” at her sprawling Cambridge home for a handful of the early women. Kuscsik is coming back this year, along with Bobbi Gibb, Cheryl Treworgy (Shalane Flanagan’s mother), Ellie Mendonca, and Julia Chase Brand. “We didn’t get to know each other that well when we were young and living in different cities with full lives,” Berman notes. “It’s become a special time when we can relax and share our stories.”
Even the company will have to make way for Berman’s exercise routine. She does 70 minutes on a Nordic Track ski simulator most mornings, as well as weight-training twice a week and roller-skiing once weekly (in good weather) with Larry.
“We went to my 60th high school reunion a couple of years ago, and everyone seemed so old,” she says. “People tell me I don’t look 82. I plan to keep doing what I’ve been doing all these years. It seems to be working.”