Constantina Tomescu's dominating win in the marathon got me remembering how far this women's event has come in just 38 years. As recently as 1970, only a few hundred women were running this distance worldwide...and doing it unofficially. They were fighting the entrenched attitude of sports bodies that believed women would fall over dead if they ran 26.2 miles at race pace. In the U.S., women runners were barred from running farther than 2 1/2 miles. Today that belief has been tossed in the dumpster of history, along with the belief that the Earth is flat.
Yesterday's race was run on a winding loop through the Beijing streets. Well into the first half, the leaders stayed bunched in a pack. Though the weather was overcast and not quite as hot as expected, they were being cautious about pace, because of the high humidity.
Heat and humidity can be killers in the marathon. Tomescu was surely fending off memories of almost cooking herself in the Athens 2004 marathon. None of those women were ready to risk picking up the pace.
Then, around the halfway mark, Tomescu upped the ante and broke away from the pack. She widened her lead...and widened it...and widened it, moving along at a steady pace. The TV camera lenses stayed on her for every stride, except for commercial breaks. That lone skinny figure with a Chinese police escort was making her way along the wide boulevards, through green residential neighborhoods and historic parks near the Forbidden City.
Finally the chase pack couldn't see Tomescu ahead of them any more. It was a classic move -- running away, getting so far ahead that you break the morale of your competitors. But you have to calculate your pace well enough to get away with it, or they will reel you in again. Tomescu was getting away with it. The women in the chase pack now knew that their only option was dueling for silver and bronze. As the Bird's Nest stadium came in sight, Tomescu was picking up her pace a little more, glancing at her watch now and then. She was looking tired, but still holding it together.
You can't know how tough this race can be if you haven't run one -- it can get to you mentally, emotionally and spiritually as well as physically.
Thirty-seven years ago, in 1971, I ran what turned out to be my last marathon. I was one of a dozen female entries in the first marathon in history where women were officially scored. This was the New York City Marathon, created in 1970 by the Road Runners Club of America as a showcase for women's marathoning.
For years U.S. female marathon runners had been battling the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) for the right to compete at this distance. We had been pushing our competition on a civil-disobedience basis, crashing the men's races and running without numbers. The AAU was finally waking up to how scientifically ridiculous was their position on "protecting women's health," and we were now official -- we'd be scored, and separately from the men.
But the media hadn't woken up yet. In those days, sports-news people in New York thought that marathons were boring, compared to horse racing and baseball, which were considered the peak of excitement. As publicity director for the race, my challenge was to drag at least one reporter to the race, which had drawn around 300 male entries and this little gaggle of women, including pioneering champions like Nina Kuscsik. Finally the New York Times sent their track & field guy over; a local TV crew also showed up. After I got the women interviewed, I put down my clipboard and tied on my running shoes.
It was another hot, humid day, and the course was another green, tree-shaded loop -- several times around the carriage drive in Central Park. The woman who crossed the finish first was Beth Bonner of New Jersey, with a time of 2:55:22. I finished fourth, plodding along in the heat, well off my personal best time.
Now here was this 38-year-old Romanian runner with every news camera in the world trained on her. She was chugging along at the pace she had calculated would get her to the finish. As she headed into the tunnel leading under the stadium, Tomescu was definitely not going to fall over dead. When her lone figure appeared on the track for the final 440 meters, that mass of humanity in the stands came to their feet with a roar. Tomescu kept chugging, and didn't wave at the crowd till she was on the final straightaway. You don't push your luck on energy expenditure, even that close to the finish line.
Tomescu's time was 2:26:44. Not a new world record, but good enough for the gold. I have to admit that I choked up.