Friday, June 17, 2016

Book Review: First Ladies of Running by Amby Burfoot

Looking for inspiration? Then you need to read this month's Taking the Long Way Home Book Club's selection for June: First Ladies of Running: 22 Inspiring Profiles of the Rebels, Rule Breakers, and Visionaries Who Changed the Sport Forever by Amby Burfoot. Burfoot, an accomplished runner in his own right and long time Runner's World writer, profiles 22 women who changed the history of women's long distance running.

You've come a long way baby...



I was so excited to read this book. After all, I was raised in the era when Title IX came to fruition. In 1972, an educational amendment was passed which declared:
"No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance."
Not only education, this amendment extended to sports. Prior to the passage of Title IX, women were not allowed to participate in many sports. Reading this book took me back to those days when the women were discouraged from many sports because they were felt to be too "fragile" to participate. Reading this book brought me back to my own childhood in the early 1970s when the only "sports" I was encouraged to try out for were cheerleading or tennis. How far we've come since then!

The women featured in this book were the pioneers of women's road running. It's hard to believe that it wasn't that long ago that women were banned from running long distance road races. Imagine lining up to run a race and being physically removed from the course or having the finish line blocked by men who refuse to let you run!

Familiar to most runners is the story of Kathrine Switzer and the Boston Marathon. This is one of the 22 stories included in the book. The picture of Kathrine being stopped by race officials is the stuff of legend. But contrary to popular belief, she wasn't the first woman to run the Boston Marathon. The first woman to run Boston was Roberta Gibb.

When Bobbi Gibb applied to run Boston, she didn't know that women weren't allowed to run the race. She applied to run and was denied. The denial letter stated that it was "against the rules" for women to run farther than 1.5 miles. She was told that the marathon distance was "too long" for women. The race officials probably thought her uterus would fall out or something. No matter. Bobbi lined up to run, unofficially, and ran a 3:21:40 marathon, which was promptly denounced by officials. Her finish has since been made "official".

Besides the well-known legends of Switzer and Gibb, Burfoot shares plenty of other inspiring but lesser known stories about the women who paved the path for those of us who run today. My personal favorite was the story of Miki Gorman, who didn't start running until she was 33 years old and set a marathon world record in 1973! She also won the Boston and New York City Marathons in 1977 and won a marathon in her 40s, at the time the oldest woman to do so.

Burfoot does a great job with spotlighting the women who changed women's running. You'll recognize many of the names--Joan Benoit Samuelson, Mary Decker-- but there are several that weren't familiar to me. This book is really a trip through the history of women's long distance running. The only woman he includes that seemed an odd choice to me was Oprah Winfrey. Yes, Oprah's Marine Corps Marathon finish proved to everyone that any woman was capable of running a marathon. Of course, there were the naysayers who had to remind everyone that Oprah's personal trainer ran the race with her. The truth is that Oprah inspired a lot of women to take up running. And yes, a lot of us use Oprah's finish time of 4:29:20 as a time to beat in our own marathons.

True story.
But to include her in this book? I don't know if she deserves to be profiled along with these running legends. I wonder what they would think about this.

Still, that's a minor quibble about what was an excellent read. Since each chapter profiles just one of the 22 women, this book can be read in short bursts. The profiles are well written and I was just fascinated by the stories of all these running pioneers. After finishing this book, I felt a sense of gratitude to the women who went the distance even when they were told they couldn't. As Burfoot says, now, in 2016 over 50% of runners are women, and 40% of marathoners are women.
"So I learned an important lesson: Running isn't just about running. It's about the sense of empowerment you get from going the distance. That empowerment can help you succeed in so many other activities." -Kathrine Switzer
We've come a long way, baby!

If you want to read more about the First Ladies of Running, there's a Facebook Page linked to the book.

Did you read the book? What did you think? Who was your favorite runner profiled? Did you agree with me that Oprah was an odd choice to be included in this book?


Here's the link up badge! You can find the linkup at the end of this post. The linkup stays live for 2 weeks. Comments stay live forever! Please remember to link back to this post. Try to read and comment on the other reviews. If you want to review a different fitness-related book, please feel free to link those posts up as well. I'm so grateful to all of you who participate in the book club. Let's grow this thing!



Next month we are reading Mark Remy's Runners of North America: A Definitive Guide to the Species.  In this book, Remy presents 23 species of runners and gives us the tools to observe and communicate with them. Best known for his Runner's World column "Remy's World" as well as his Dumb Runner blog, Remy takes an irreverent look at running. It's marathon training season and I thought it would be fun to have a humorous book to read. The reviews have been really good! I hope you join us for this one! The review and linkup will go live on July 15.




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60 comments :

  1. This was one of my favorite running books because I learned so much about the history of women's running. So many of the runners were names I may have heard, but knew nothing about so it was a great read to understand fully how women's running evolved. I felt the exact same way about Oprah being included in the book. And let's face it, she had the absolute perfect group of trainers etc to be able to run a marathon. Most mere mortals have to figure out the nutrition, training, etc on their own. Great review

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    1. Thanks! I found this to be such a great read, even though it was a ton of history, it was an easy read. I really enjoyed it!

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  2. I didn't read this book. I have to put it on my list. Thanks for hosting!

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  3. Sounds like a great book - I'll have to put it on my list.

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  4. Ok I really have fallen off the wagon with the reading club! This book looks great and I agree not sure if Oprah belongs next to Katherine Switzer. LOL

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    1. It was just a weird connection. I mean, I get it but still...

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  5. I listened to the Another Mother Runner podcast on this book, so it's in my list of books to read. The stories that the author shared were amazing!

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    1. The book is amazing and hard to put down!

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  6. I'm reading a book by Amby Barfoot's college roommate - a guy named Bill Rodgers who happened to win the Boston and New York Marathons a few times! In the book he mentions the infamous Katherine Switzer Boston Marathon incident. The race official who tried to stop her was named Jock Semple. According to Rodgers, Semple basically kept the Boston Marathon alive single handedly for decades. But he also had a habit of physically removing people from the race that he thought were breaking the rules. Unfortunately for him he will pretty much only be remembered by the infamous photo, although he publicly reconciled with Katherine Switzer before he died.

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    1. How sad tho, that he physically tried to remove people from races. Can you imagine that happening today?

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  7. Great review! I have heard Katherine Switzer speak and she truly is a pioneer and and an amazing person overall. As for Oprah-- I wonder if Burfoot and the publishers thought it would increase their chances of getting the book into her book club? You never know!

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    1. That's a good thought! I never considered it.

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  8. I need to read this! Only run 1.5 miles? Many of us wouldn't post a run that short on social media without some kind of explanation ;)

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    1. But back in the day, women weren't as badass as us...

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  9. Sounds like a book I definitely want to read. I do think adding Oprah to this collection of legends sounds like an odd choice.

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    1. Some people might disagree, but it felt odd to have her included in this book!

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  10. Great review! I need to add this to my must read list!

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  11. So I didn't read this book, but I listened to him be interviewed about it on the amr podcast a couple of months ago..... and I don't know what he writes about Oprah in the book, but in the interview he said that when regular non-runners saw Oprah run a marathon, many were inspired to start running and sign up for a marathon.... the if she can do it, surely I can.... so I think that probably does make her a good inclusion.

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    1. And for that reason, inspiration, I get it. But then include other non-elite runners to balance it out.

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  12. It looks like an interesting book, I may have to add it to my summer reading list.

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  13. Thanks for the review! I have yet to read any books on running, though.

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    1. This would be a good book to start with!

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  14. I read the book and also attended a book signing, at a local running store, with Amby, Patty Catalano Dillon, and Julia Chase Brand. Hearing Patty speak about why she started running and her story of being the first sub 2:30 woman marathoner, was amazing. Julia was a bit more reserved with her story telling. These are two women who broke the rules and changed history. Oprah is a perfect woman to include, she opened up the running world to the non-elites, she changed the sport forever, perhaps not with her athletic prowess, but because she is a rebel. How is it possible for someone like her to run a marathon? Isn't that what many think? If you put in the training you can accomplish the goal. Patty and Julia weren't born fast they had to hone those skills, and train, isn't that what Oprah did?

    Admittedly, I was a little gobsmacked on the chapter on Oprah, however when I took the time to digest the stories of all the women in the book and what they had to over come, she is ENTITLED to be in this book of elites, she is an elite in her own right, to take on the challenge, and finish with a respectable time. She may have had the best trainers money could buy, however she still had to PHYSICALLY train for and run the race.

    To your point of including other non-elites, then who should be included? What is the cut off for non-elite? Someone who can't qualify to run in the Olympic trials? Someone who is only known at a regional level?

    When I have the opportunity to go to another book signing or talk to Amby (he's a local running fixture in my community - I'm not being all hoity toity - and I probably will ask one of my more brave friends to join in on the conversation even though he really is the most easy person to talk to once you get over who he is - I'm still intimidated) I will ask him about the inclusion of Oprah and what the other 21 women thought about it. Seems like a really interesting conversation to have after a local fun run!

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    1. Your comments about Oprah reminded me why this is such a great book for a book club! Judging by the comments so far, I think a lot of us aren't sure about Oprah's inclusion in the book. Altho no one disputes the value her accomplishment brought to women's running!

      Great thoughts!

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    2. Thanks! When I pushed post I nearly deleted my comments!! My mom is in a book club and she says it is never as fun when they all agree on the book, she likes the back and forth and hearing (and of course debating) other's thoughts. Now I need to go find the full reading list!

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  15. I haven't read it yet, but definitely on my list. Title IX has been such a game changer. I can't imagine living in a world where women couldn't run a road race. I wonder if Oprah wishes she would have stuck with running? :) Great review!

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  16. great read! I loved it! I thought Oprah was an odd choice too? Maybe he thought he would attract more readers? Not so sure. I had know idea about the rich history- loved the pictures too! You are right, we have come a long way!

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    1. I loved the pictures--and the outfits! LOL...

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  17. iT IS AMAZING HOW MUCH WE DON'T KNOW ABOUT OUR OWN SPORTS. SOrry for the caps there, my computer is being weird and only just now allowing me to type without it.
    And as for Oprah, I will say this: she did inspire millions to take it up. That said, I would say her story and mention is for another book.

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    1. We runners just put on our shoes and go. And take it all for granted...

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  18. Great review, Wendy! I appreciate all of these book reviews because, sadly, I am not taking the time to read the books myself (#mybad). I have mixed feeling on the Oprah thing, too. I admire her to the moon and back, but to give her this kind of "running" accolade... (?). That said, a marathon is still 26.2 frickin' miles...it's a major feat no matter how you get to the finish line.

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    1. Exactly! It just felt a little off to me--

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  19. Thanks for reviewing this book. I now want to read it even more. Maybe she wanted to include a woman we all admire with a more realistic finishing time, so the average runner can relate better. That's why she included Oprah in the book.

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    1. Maybe he did. But it still was a little odd...

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  20. What an awesome read! I'm joining up for this month's book, and I can't wait to read Mark's book. He's one of my favorite people.:) Thanks for the book club, missy -- it's really going to help me organize my summer!

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    1. Yay! I'm glad to have you aboard! So many books, so little time...

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  21. This sounds like a great book! I am going to have to read it, my curiosity is up about Oprah :-) Im hoping to find some time this Summer to squeeze in some reading!

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    1. The nice thing about this book is that each chapter is a little short story in itself. So it's a book you can put down and come back to at any time.

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  22. Sounds like a great read but yes, I agree with you about Oprah. I was surprised when I read she was included.

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    1. Sounds like a lot of us were surprised by that!

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  23. Looks like a great read! I also likes books you can start and then put down and come back too. Thanks for sharing

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    1. This would be a good one to come back to time and time again as well!

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  24. Reading your review and that quote is really inspiring me to give running a try again. I always felt empowered after I finished a run (even though I barely ever ran more than 5K) and that since of accomplishment is one I haven't been able to recreate since. Thanks for sharing Wendy!

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  25. Hmm, I have the same reaction to Oprah being included, but maybe that's because we're too close in time? Maybe she did have something to do with the boom in women's running and half marathons that we are used to.

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    1. I"m sure she did but I just didn't feel that she fit in with this group of women. My opinion...

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  26. You need to stop reviewing such awesome sounding books! My books-to-read list can't keep up! haha

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    1. This was a good one. You know my motto...so many books, so little time!

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  27. I wasn't able to read The First Ladies of Running, but after reading your review I want to. I did read Confessions of an Unlikely Running (linked review), Running Man Charlie Engle's Memoir (review coming) and I'm currently reading Honey, Do you Need a Ride?

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    1. I'm heading over to read your review as we speak! I loved Dana's book. And she's a really nice person too!

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  28. I was surprised by Oprah's inclusion too, but I can see it in a global sense. The coolest thing I've found about runners is that they're so much more accepting and less snobby than I thought they'd be, so I'd guess most of those women are just fine with Oprah being included. :)

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    1. What a great perspective! Yes!

      Thanks for linking up! <3

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  29. Thanks your sharing! I am looking for this book. I get used to hearing my friends who tell about it. With a runner, i think that it will be useful! ^^

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  30. This sounds like a great book. I will have to add it to my reading list. Thanks for sharing!!

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