NEW YORK (10-Jun) -- It's often hard to put a finger on the exact moment when there was a critical shift in history, but for women's running that's easy: June 3, 1972. On that date the first road race for women was held here in Central Park and a grand total of 72 women finished it. It was called the Crazylegs Mini Marathon and it was the brainchild of Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to finish the Boston Marathon as an official entrant, and Fred Lebow, the late president of New York Road Runners. Remarkably, the race stemmed from a product promotion.
PHOTO: Some of the top contenders for the 2022 Mastercard New York Mini 10-K title (left to right): Susannah Scaroni (USA), Senbere Teferi (ETH), Peres Jepchirchir (KEN), Emily Sisson (USA), and Sara Hall (USA). Photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly.
"It began as a product launch," Switzer told Race Results Weekly in an interview today in Central Park. "A sponsor thought these women are going to get a lot of attention running around Central Park. And you know what, we did."
That product was a women's shaving cream called Crazylegs. It was actually regular men's shaving cream, but had been dyed a different color and re-branded to appeal to women.
"They had a great product launch," Switzer explained. "It was Crazylegs, a women's shaving cream. Can you imagine this? It was 'Edge' painted pink, by the way."
The winner that day was Jacki Dixon, a teenager from Los Gatos, Calif., who would not turn 18 until a week after the race. She covered the 6-mile course in 37:01, and became the first woman in history to win an all-women's road race. Over the next 50 years more than 200,000 women would go on to the finish the race, now called the Mastercard New York Mini 10-K, which will be contested for the 50th time tomorrow in Central Park.
"It was probably the only time in my life I got recognition for running," Dixon told the Wall Street Journal in 2012.
Dixon --whose married name is Jacki Marsh-- will turn 68 tomorrow. In 2017 she was elected the mayor of Loveland, Colo., after owning her own jewelry business. On her bio page for the City of Loveland one need only read the first three sentences to learn that she was the first-ever Mini winner. Winning the Mini is the kind of thing that sticks with a woman, the kind of thing that changes lives.
"I think this race has had an impact on a lot of lives for the past 50 years," said Deena Kastor who won the Mini in 2004 just 71 days before she won her Olympic Marathon bronze medal in Athens. "Every year to come back here and just see the past being celebrated --this year more so than ever-- really makes you realize that you have an important role in this sport, that you have the privilege and responsibility to represent your community, your family, the sport in general in a bigger way."
Switzer, who was also instrumental in getting the International Olympic Committee to add the women's marathon to the athletics program in 1984, leveraged that day to help ignite a women's running revolution. She took the energy created by the Mini to start the Avon International Running Circuit, a series of races for women that brought in tens of thousands of first-time runners.
"People noticed that women could run, and deserved the space," Switzer continued. "We found the personal strength, the freedom, the empowerment from this. I, personally, was very inspired by this race to then go and create a circuit of races around the world where women could run, exclusively, be welcomed, be the stars. It was feminine and welcoming and not intimidating."
The Mini's growth was slow at first, but it was steady. From just 72 finishers in 1972, the race grew by 2500% to 1,894 finishers in 1977, then it doubled to 4118 in 1979. It reached a peak of 8,885 in 2019, the last edition before the pandemic shutdown. Tomorrow there will be about 9,000 runners including current stars like Sara Hall who is the two-time defending champion. The history of the race is not lost on her.
"It's really meaningful, especially having four daughters and seeing the power of running in their lives," said Hall who, with husband Ryan, adopted four sisters from Ethiopia. "They came from a culture where women weren't super-empowered and I've seen how awesome running has been in building confidence in them and translating to other areas of their lives. So, yeah, I believe in this event so much and so thankful for the opportunities I have."
Hall's younger rival, Emily Sisson, has never run the Mini before. Back in March she decided with her coach Ray Treacy that she would skip the track season and concentrate on the roads, and the Mini was one of the first races she put on her list.
"I've wanted to do it for years," Sisson told Race Results Weekly. "There's always been something --like the pandemic-- that got in the way. So, I've been really excited about doing this one. Everyone's said it's so much fun. And this year, after the Olympic year last year, I just wanted to throw myself into a bunch of races so I wanted to pick ones that I was excited about. This is one of the first ones that I thought of."
Switzer, who is now 75, said that although the Mini has had an impact of "millions of women's lives," there is still much work to do. The Mini's mission goes on, she said.
"It's a wonderful feeling to have helped create something, of course," said Switzer. "It's like a baby. But also, it's a big burden of responsibility because it never ends. You know, even though we have these freedoms and we're celebrating, and people are cheering us and the media is all over us today, we have 50 more years of hard work to do. There are many countries where women aren't allowed to go out the door, drive a car, get an education, and they have no idea this is happening. We've got to get running to them because it's easy, cheap and totally accessible."