This Is a Huge Moment for American Women Marathoners
Ahead of the Boston Marathon, three of pro running's female giants discuss the country's chances (they're very good) of finally ending a 33-year dry spell
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It’s not just hype. The U.S. women competing in the marathon right now are a collective force on the world stage. In August, Amy Cragg became the first American woman in 34 years to earn a medal at the world championships marathon. Three months later, Shalane Flanagan became the first U.S. woman in 40 years to break the tape at the New York City Marathon. Jordan Hasay has competed in just two marathons—Boston and Chicago—and placed third at each, while clocking the second-fastest time in the country’s history with a 2:20:57 in October.
On April 16, five of the top ten all-time fastest U.S. women to run 26.2 miles are set to compete at the Boston Marathon. It’s easy to see why the experts predict the 33-year dry spell for an American champion could end on Boylston Street next week.
To help us understand how we arrived at this moment, we asked three women who have participated in and intimately observed the sport from all angles: Mary Wittenberg, former CEO of New York Road Runners and the first female race director of a major international marathon; Kara Goucher, two-time Olympian and 2007 world championships silver medalist in the 10,000 meters; and Lisa Rainsberger, a current youth coach in Colorado Springs and the last American woman to win the Boston Marathon (in 1985).
OUTSIDE: It wasn’t long ago that we wouldn’t expect an American to contend for a win at any major marathon. What variables have aligned?
RAINSBERGER: It’s all about support—coaching support, monetary support, group training, and medical support. When you leave college, all of a sudden everything is gone. The coach is gone; the training room is gone. All of a sudden you’re out there on your own, hoping that a club or program will pick you up. It’s these training groups that can help support athletes. When we have those kinds of resources, you’ll see more women—and men, for that matter—well into their late twenties and early thirties continue to compete.
GOUCHER: Coaching has played a huge role. The coaches have been in the game a while now. They’re learning the sport and taking a longer-term approach. Also, we have more athletes living the lifestyle—they don’t have another job; running is it. Shalane is the perfect example of somebody who has lived this life for so long, with zero distractions, and has just really dedicated herself to it. A lot of that is financial opportunity, but all these women who have a chance to win Boston are solely focused on running. Also, the internet has made the marathon sexier. We’re seeing some more really gritty talent coming up. A lot of that is because the internet allows people to see how cool the marathon can be.
WITTENBERG: The internet has made a big difference at the feeder level. You can follow everybody so much more easily, and that continues to have a huge impact at the high school and college levels. It’s interesting at the high school level, because there are so many names of great athletes who now are well-known before they even get to college.
What are some other common denominators?
GOUCHER: I don’t want to be controversial at all, but I do think in the last year and a half, technology has helped some of our performances as well. Just a little bit, a nudge forward across the board. The research on the Nike Vaporfly 4% is there, and we’ve seen some really awesome performances—from people we’d expect those results from—but there has been a common denominator. And it’s been footwear. That’s just a reality.
RAINSBERGER: You know, I predate Gatorade. I think there have been a lot of technological advances. Footwear and clothing and the Breathe Right strip, if you buy into that, and the compression socks. There are so many little things that, if you add them all up, can enhance a performance. Technology is good as long as it’s available to everyone. It’s fun to see all the advancements in training.
Mary, you added an elite female-only start to the 2002 New York City Marathon, which gave women focused camera time instead of mixing in with the masses of men. What has that done for the sport?
WITTENBERG: Allan Steinfeld, the former New York City Marathon race director, hated that the women were always stuck behind the men. It affected the competitiveness of the field. It’s not as fair if the women can’t see each other and race each other. Lornah Kiplagat asked him once at the New York Mini 10K luncheon, ‘Why not put the women out front?’ Allan came over and said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ And that was it. Our only concern was that it’s a harder way to run, but the women are fully up to the challenge.
Kara, you’re one of the athletes to benefit from this strategy. Did it help?
GOUCHER: It’s changed my life. The biggest thrill of my career has been running through the crowds at the New York City Marathon when you’re the first runner they’re seeing. I’ve always loved running, but the marathon was just a completely different world, and it was a thousand times better than anything I had ever done before.
In 2014 in New York, I went out way too hard and died and then had to run 13 miles by myself in the wind. It’s hard when it goes wrong, but you know who you’re competing against, you can feel the race better. I love it. Sometimes I feel bad for the men that they don’t get to come through first, but then I’m like, no, I don’t really care.
Lisa, can you imagine if you had the opportunity to cross the finish line at Boston first?
RAINSBERGER: The year that I won, Saucony hired Dave McGillivray, now the Boston Marathon race director, to wear a microphone on his hat so he would run next to me and try to interview me throughout the race. I am not joking. They didn’t have cameras out on the course, just the lead truck focused on the lead men. So they got this harebrained idea that they were going to try to have a verbal interview throughout the race. Dave didn’t really train that hard, so he only lasted to mile eight, and then there was nothing.
It would have been nice to have that excitement as the crowd sees you come through. Looking back, I had my moments. But it’s certainly better now that the women are showcased independently.
WITTENBERG: And there’s been reciprocity. People responded to Kara and to the other women. It lifted the totality of the event. It was one of those decisions that we thought was for the athletes, but in the end, the sport and the event benefited most.
How has the effort to highlight women’s running translated financially for the athletes?
WITTENBERG: Prize money was always equal in New York. But with appearance fees, it’s about the marketability of the athlete and how much they bring to the table. How much will they engage with the fans and the youth programs? What’s the total package? Women are held in very high regard in what they bring, but at a lot of places, that’s where the pay discrepancy is. A lot has to do with the agents. They know the landscape, and if their athletes don’t know it, then the agents should be fighting for equality.
GOUCHER: I will say I was negotiating once with a race after I placed third at the New York City Marathon. And this other race offered me an appearance fee that seemed kind of low. But they said they didn’t have the kind of money I was asking for, and that “aside from this top American, you’re getting paid the same as everybody except for him.” And I couldn’t believe this was still happening. I said, “I have to be paid as much as him.” In the end, I actually still took less than him. So it does still happen, although that was close to ten years ago, so I’m sure it’s come a long way.
How much have international anti-doping measures opened the doors for U.S. women to shine at high-profile races?
RAINSBERGER: Clean sport has added the element of possibility for young Americans to say they compete on the world level now, because it is getting better. I hope. To a point, anyway.
GOUCHER: I still don’t trust the big international umbrella, but there are other people who are doing something about it. New York Road Runners is a good example. They really tried to make that 2017 New York City Marathon field as clean as it could be. That’s what’s going to make a difference. You can’t control what other federations do—we can keep expressing opinions and being vocal, but for events to say, “If you’ve had a ban, you can’t come here,” that propels the sport forward.
Shalane felt like she had an opportunity in New York because the invited field seemed level, so it gives athletes hope. When you’re in the depths of it and you think everybody is dirty, you think, “Why am I wasting my life?” There will always be people who cheat. That’s just unfortunately the way it is. But more people are demanding change, and the races are following suit.
WITTENBERG: At the governance level, there needs to be a more aggressive approach, because world championships and the Olympic Games matter to athletes. On the invitational level, like major marathons, it just starts with looking at facts and analysis. You can get blindsided, but people can see what makes sense in the progression of an athlete, and whether it’s a track meet or a marathon, you can control who gets in that field. Same thing with the people the athletes associate with, like agents. The athletes can vote with their feet in many ways by refusing to race in a field with known drug cheats.
RAINSBERGER: Years ago, it wasn’t the drug issue, but it was not uncommon for the men to get twice the amount of prize money as the women. There were races that would invite me where the women’s winner would get $5,000 and the men’s winner would get $10,000. So I stopped going to races where the prize money was not equal. Athletes should at some level make a statement that says, “This person has failed a drug test. She’s being invited to this race. I’m not gonna go.”
Kara, is that a viable option? Can an athlete just say, “No, thank you”?
GOUCHER: It would take all the athletes banding together. I would do that, but I’m almost 40 and I’m established. If I were 28 and it was an opportunity that could change my life, I probably wouldn’t say anything. I’d probably go run and try to beat them. That sounds defeatist, but it depends on your situation.
RAINSBERGER: If athletes say they’re not going to toe the line with somebody whose coach was found with a truckload of EPO, then maybe the organizers will rethink it.
Mary, you’ve been in the position to invite athletes to races. What do you think?
WITTENBERG: Perhaps an effective step we could take is more coaches, athletes, and agents informing anti-doping agencies when something isn’t right. Increasingly, fact-based circumstantial evidence is going to carry the day, because it does seem that the most famous cheats have beat the system every time. Holding coaches and agents accountable is key to this house of cards of doping really falling.
GOUCHER: I could not agree with that more. You punish the athlete, but the village continues. I would love to know the stats on how many athletes go to their coach or agent and say they want to dope versus how many athletes have that option presented to them. I’m sure it’s the coach or agent 99 percent of the time. Until they are held accountable—when that day happens, that’s when we’re truly going to see the change.
Kara, communities of women runners like the one created by your sponsor Oiselle result in bigger legions of fans. How do these groups fuel the growth of the sport at the top or change the mindset of how women support each other’s success?
GOUCHER: A huge reason that I really went for it at the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials is because of the support that I had. I’m not talking about the financial support, but just so many people believing in me. And they honestly didn’t care what the result was. They just wanted to see me there having a fair shot. It helped me through a lot of dark times, and it continues to.
Watching Shalane win New York, I was sobbing. I knew how much she wanted it. I knew how long she had been waiting for it. I knew how much work she had put into it, and that’s a beautiful thing to witness. There’s power in that, in everybody getting excited for each other. I read something today that I found so interesting: “Another woman’s success is not your failure.” Maybe in the past we were a little bit that way; we could only have one star. Now it’s exploded. We can find inspiration from so many different people.
Shalane’s win in New York really sparked emotion for so many people, didn’t it?
WITTENBERG: I hope you felt a part of it, Kara, because when I saw Shalane going down that straightaway at the New York City finish line, I saw your footsteps and Molly’s and all the women who have had a part in paving the way. I’m curious if you felt that on the day, like it was a Team USA win?
GOUCHER: I just felt proud for Shalane. I know this woman. I trained with this woman. She is the epitome of a professional. She is one of the most successful Americans of all time; nobody is going to argue with that. It will be so fun to watch her run Boston now, because I think the one thing she thought was eluding her, to affirm her career, she got. Now she’s just running for the love of it. There’s no consequence. She gets third or fourth or tenth? Well that’s okay. She won New York. She’s in this cool place.
RAINSBERGER: I saw her training here in Colorado Springs…she’s training hard.
GOUCHER: Of course—that’s how she’s wired. But I also think she doesn’t have that internal pressure. She runs hard because she likes to run hard; she likes to see what she can get from herself. But now she’s running for the love of it.
RAINSBERGER: And [Olympic champion triathlete turned marathoner] Gwen Jorgensen was right with her.
GOUCHER: I love it. There aren’t any gaps in generations. We’re in this cool space where I feel like we’re forever going to have somebody fighting for a medal or be on the podium. I don’t think we’re going to have these long gaps anymore. Women’s marathon running in American is a cool, sexy event now. We have tons of talent, so I don’t think it’s going to end anytime soon.
Because success begets success?
RAINSBERGER: When we had one woman like Joanie Benoit Samuelson win the 1984 Olympic marathon, it opened up the possibility for young girls to say, “Hey, I want to do that.” That was certainly how it was for me. I could identify with these women. With the last four or five years of American women doing so well and winning medals and championship races, it just lets these young ladies coming out of college go, “I can do that. I can keep doing what I love, and there’s possibility.” The American women standing on the line at Boston are going to think, “If Shalane can do it, I can do it.” It is very infectious right now, and I don’t see it ending.
WITTENBERG: What’s so great with the access that social media provides, everybody’s personalities come out. Now everybody has favorites. At Boston, is it Desi or Shalane or Molly or Deena or Kellyn? I think it’s a really fun thing that this depth has provided so many people to cheer for. We used to dream of that.
Let’s get into the U.S. field at Boston. It’s cause for excitement, isn’t it?
RAINSBERGER: The fact that John Hancock elite coordinators are inviting our top runners and probably compensating them accordingly, that to me signals that they’re ready to invest in American women runners. I’m excited, because any one of five women could win the race this year.
WITTENBERG: I counted at least six. Maybe seven.
RAINSBERGER: Okay, seven. I won’t sell anyone short.
WITTENBERG: It just screams of the depth of American distance running today, especially because I saw the list and thought of all the people who weren’t there, which really tells you the total picture. From Kara to Steph Bruce to Amy Cragg and people coming along, like Gwen Jorgensen. What’s different from when we started is that they’re still taking the best athletes in the world, but a lot of them are Americans now. That’s the result of at least a decade and a half of progress—and athletes like Kara really paved the way.
GOUCHER: I think it’s an awesome field. I wish I was fit enough to join the women. I always liked to go to the races when I was at the top of my game and really try to win, but I always felt like if there were two or three more American women with me, it would have happened. You need to flood the races and not be afraid to race each other. It’s really cool to see everybody putting egos aside and going head-to-head. This is what it’s going to take to get someone to win. It’s going to be super exciting. I can’t imagine watching, because of how emotional it’s going to be, potentially. I do think it’s interesting to see how fast the human body can go, but I enjoy the competition and watching the athletes feel each other out and have to make moves during the race.
Lisa, did you ever think you’d hang on to this title for this long?
RAINSBERGER: Oh. My. God. No. At first I was a little greedy and kind of liked it. Now it’s ridiculous. It’s painful to think it’s been 33 years. That’s unacceptable. But it’s not because Americans aren’t capable. I hate that. One ignorant person might say that we’re just not built to win or insinuate that a different nationality has a better chance of being fast runners. I beg to differ. It takes all different body types to be a great marathoner. So, yeah. 33 years. It’s going down.
GOUCHER: It’s not because people haven’t tried or really wanted it. Desi has just been devastated a couple times about it. Shalane is similar. I know I was obsessed with it—I was unhealthily obsessed with winning it. And Deena. It’s crazy how many of us have been obsessed with winning this one title. It’s not like for 30 years, people were like, “Eh, I’m going to London instead.”
WITTENBERG: I’ll tell you what’s cool for all of us, being in this moment. I started at New York 20 years ago, and there was no chance anyone was going to do it. But you know what? It was even bigger when it happened after 40 years. So I hope it’s not another seven years. I hope this is the year in Boston, but man, as tough as it is not to get that win year after year, the importance of it just grows. I really see it as this progression and this team thing as to who’s going to be the one to crack through. We don’t know, because it does take so much on the day of, and the difference is that now the Americans are good enough. It’s just a matter of how the race plays out that day.
Okay, it’s time for predictions. What’s going to happen on April 16 in Boston?
GOUCHER: There are so many different ways it could go. Jordan has obviously proven to be a fast marathoner, and she ran very fast in Boston, so does she go and hammer from the beginning? Does Shalane do what she did in New York and hang back, then try to swoop in, which is not her typical style? It worked beautifully a few months ago. Molly Huddle is just the most thoroughbred out there with her track times. Desi probably knows the course better than anyone else—maybe tied with Shalane. Kellyn Taylor just been chipping away. And Deena—you never know. She could just go out there and run a 2:26. I don’t know. I’m so nervous for them, but in a good-energy way.
RAINSBERGER: They’re all equally trained and equally capable once the gun goes off, but it’s what happens afterward that determines the winner. She’ll read the course and the weather and the competition and the pace—those are all the fundamentals that are so hard to predict.
GOUCHER: That’s what’s so great about it this year. We’re not just hanging our hats on one person. There are so many different scenarios, but they all could result in an American winning.
Let’s talk about the future of women’s distance running in America. What are your hopes, and what do we need to work on?
RAINSBERGER: Since I have a daughter who is coming through the ranks right now, it’s close to home for me. I want her to not have the struggles of the sport not being clean. There’s also the gender ambiguity issue that’s going on right now. How are we going to address that as women runners, and how is the sport going to address that issue? It’s real and it’s up-and-coming and it’s prominent.
GOUCHER: I want to see a level playing field, whether it’s doping or technology. I want everybody to line up with a fair shot and have it come down to who’s done the work and who’s the most talented on that day, instead of who has an advantage here and there that was purchased or injected or whatever.
WITTENBERG: I want to see more diversity in the sport. It’s a great opportunity now with more girls coming up through youth programs and other sports—greater in ethnic and racial diversity, greater diversity in socioeconomic means.
I’m excited for more women coaches. SafeSport, the policies set by the U.S. Olympic Committee to protect athletes from sexual misconduct and physical and emotional abuse, is mightily important right now. I don’t think it must be on women to do this, but we can adapt coaching to better reflect that. Creating greater safety for athletes in all ways is going to be really important. We talk about women on the playing field, we talk about women in executive offices, but we don’t have enough women coaches. The diversity of thought and empathy and understanding that we’ll get from women coaches will be really good for the sport.
What about your personal contributions? What do you still hope to accomplish in this sport?
GOUCHER: I feel like I meet more runners every day, which makes me excited about the future of the sport, not just for elite running, but just running in general. It’s bringing women together and changing the conversation and helping us break down some walls we’ve had between each other. Running builds incredible communities and empowers people, and it’s just a good time for the sport.
WITTENBERG: The bigger picture here is exactly that. The sport is there for everybody, and it’s so cool. It’s a tribute to Meb and Kara and Shalane and others—you have an opportunity to connect back to the masses, and that is really powerful stuff. That’s why I believe in increased broadcasts and publicity and platforms for these athletes.
RAINSBERGER: I work with a youth club. Socioeconomically, it’s in an area that is not doing well, yet there have been several young people over the years who have worked with our program and become runners, now getting full-ride scholarships and assistance to go to college. In my cocoon, there’s no greater day than National Signing Day—that’s my podium now. When the kids in our community go on to get an education through the sport of running, that, to me, is like winning the Boston Marathon. I break down in tears. It’s a great feeling.