Why the Boston Marathon Will Soon Be for Old Women

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Zoomer blogger Dr. Jean Marmoreo, 71, became the first Canadian to win her age group four times in the history of the fabled Boston Marathon. Pictured here with her four-month-old granddaughter.

Buried deep within the triumph of this year’s Boston Marathon are two numbers that will change running in ways no bombers ever could.

The first is that 47 per cent of this year’s 31,000 entrants were women.

The second is that the first runner to cross the finish line was American Meb Keflezighi, who is 39-years-old.

So, 47 and 39.

Ladies first. Given that most 10K, half marathons and marathons held in North America last year had 50 per cent to 75 per cent women, 47 per cent may not sound like a big deal.

It is. We forget that women weren’t allowed to run the 42.2 km that make a full marathon until 50 years ago. Given that the Boston Marathon is 118-years-old, that’s a whole lot of all-male years. But it was in 1967, that a 20-year-old journalism student Kathrin Switzer famously crashed the Boston Marathon, almost got thrown out and sparked a movement that just keeps growing. It’s also easy to forget that the first time the Olympics allowed women to even appear in a marathon was at Los Angeles in 1984.

The fact is, the first woman to cross the finish line on Boylston Street in Boston last Monday, ran a course record in 2 hours, 18 minutes and 57 seconds.  How fast is that? Well, a 2 hour 15 minute pace means you’re running 26 consecutive five-minute miles.

So not only are women fast and getting faster, women seem to be taking over the entire sport. In fact, the sole reason women haven’t tipped into the majority of runners in this most iconic of all marathons is that it’s the only major marathon you have to qualify for. And yes, women are slower than men.

But next year or the year after, that extraordinary event in women’s rights and female athletics will happen: more women than men will be competing in a race that for its first 82 years did not even tolerate any women on its course.

Behind that first number of 47 per cent lies all kinds of battles, many of them still led by Kathrin Switzer who has sparked a series of women-only marathons and 10K races called “26l” after her bib number in the 1967 Boston Marathon she almost didn’t finish and had to hide in order to even start.

It was Kathrin that led the initiative to secure marathon placement in the 1984 Olympics. No mean feat either since the requirements to qualify included establishing women’s marathoning events in 27 countries on six continents.

Now for that second number: 39, as in the age of this year’s Boston Marathon winner. That’s positively ancient in any running sport, let alone marathoning. Most commentators felt that he was past his prime and among the front runners in this year’s field, his name was barely mentioned.

The last time anyone that age won Boston was 83 years ago. So, in sporting terms, an old man won this year’s Boston Marathon.

Meb Keflezighi’s win was remarkable, but actually not strange at all. Because the average age of marathoners has been rising steadily and the average age of a Boston Marathoner is now 47.

I know that until about a decade ago, there was no “age group” for runners over 65, let alone over 70, which is where I’m placed. As for women over 70, well, let’s just say it’s a relatively new category. But our numbers are rising every year, and pretty soon there will be hundreds of women between 70 and 74 running Boston, instead of the dozens now.

Demographics and determination favour the big battalions. And ‘old women’ will very soon be those big battalions.

But there’s another number worth noting.

One million.

That’s the number of people who lined the streets from suburban Hopkinton to downtown Boston at this year’s marathon.

I have to tell you that their cheers – a solid wall of sound that underscored the spirit, the celebration, the grateful release – were music to every runners’ ears. We knew there would be a lot of support because of the bombings last year.  But the 42 km tunnel of jubilation that greeted the 31,000 of us along the route gave wings to our feet to go even faster, to dig deeper and try harder.

When a runner such as myself sets her goal, does the training and prepares for the race with focus and yes, even obsession, there isn’t a lot of room for casual reflection. But Boston this year demanded some closure. It asked for even more personal effort. It was a wildly public affirmation on the road that everyone on the route – bystanders and runners – were engaged in an event that will forever be attached to an irreparable loss of life, limb and innocence. But what race day in Boston did for all of us – for the crowds, for Boston, for America and the world – was to move all of us beyond that.

It was a day of joy and relief, a reclaiming of the values we all hold so dear, and a confirmation that for more and more of us with each passing year, marathoning is an old women’s game.

 Dr. Jean Marmoreo, 71, is a Toronto physician, writer, adventurer and athlete.