Three Hours and Thirty-Seven Minutes

Mary Wellesley

Before I ran the London Marathon on Sunday I was told that I would ‘enjoy the first 15 miles’ and ‘be buoyed by the crowd’. No such luck. It hurt from the start – I never hit the famous ‘wall’, just felt a steady increase of pain over time – and the crowd might as well not have been there, as far as I was concerned. I posted 3 hours and 37 minutes, which if I have some kind of memory lapse, I will probably try to better in the future.

It would be ungrateful of me, however, not to recognise that it’s been a bit of a struggle in the last century for women to be allowed to compete in marathons at all. Women have fought for my right to feel that amount of discomfort. For many years it was felt that women’s bodies could not withstand the stress of 26.3 miles. (The 0.3, incidentally, is the fault of the royal family. At the 1908 London Olympics, the extra 385 yards were tacked on so that the race could begin on the east lawn of Windsor Castle and finish in front of the royal box at the White City stadium. London runners may experience republican sentiments as they pound the final agonising distance, past Buckingham Palace, to the finish line.) Marathons were thought to make women infertile. In 1928, a controversial decision was taken to include a women’s 800m event at the Amsterdam Olympics. The Daily Mail quoted doctors who said that women undertaking such ‘feats of endurance’ (we’re talking 800m here) would ‘become old too soon’. The New York Times noted querulously that ‘even this distance makes too great a call on feminine strength.’ Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, observed more generally that women in sport ‘have but one task – that of the role of crowning the victor with garlands’. There was no women’s Olympic marathon until Los Angeles in 1984.

Women have been running marathons since their modern inauguration, however. On 11 April 1896, the day after the first Olympic marathon, Stamata Revithi ran the distance alone (according to some accounts she ran on the day of the race, at the side of the course). It took her five and a half hours; she reportedly stopped to observe the ships out to sea on her way. Very little is known about her. An equally hazy historical figure is the first woman to run an officially timed marathon. Violet Piercy ran from Battersea to Windsor on 2 October 1926. An American woman had just swum the channel for the first time and Piercy said she wanted to ‘prove that Englishwomen are some good after all’. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has a photograph of her, in a little woolly hat and a neat jumper with a collar, mid-calf white socks and improbable leather cross-bar shoes, running down a road flanked by men in suits on bicycles. She posted a time of 3 hours and 40 minutes. How she achieved it in that outfit is a mystery.

After Piercy, the history of women’s marathons involves a lot of trailblazers hiding in bushes and jumping out onto the course. In 1963, Merry Lepper and Lyn Carman leapt the barrier of the Culver City Marathon in California. After dodging officials, Lepper finished in 3 hours and 37 minutes. In 1966, 23 year-old Bobbi Gibb hid in the bushes near the start of the Boston Marathon, leaping out at the crucial moment and somehow completing the race unmolested in 3 hours 21 minutes. The following year Katherine Switzer entered the Boston race officially as ‘K.V. Switzer’. Four miles in, she was spotted and chased by race officials intent on tackling her to the ground. Switzer was running with her boyfriend (a hefty 16-stone hammer-thrower) and coach, who delivered a body block to the race official and Switzer sped off, finishing in 4 hours and 20 minutes. Switzer’s feat garnered a lot of favourable press attention. After that, road races began to open up for women and Switzer started a series of female-only races, sponsored by Avon. In 1983, the Olympic Association bowed to pressure and agreed to introduce a women’s marathon.

Since the time of Violet Piercy, women have been closing in on men for world record times. Paula Radcliffe completed the London course in 2003 in a scorching 2 hours, 15 minutes and 25 seconds. The male record is held by Wilson Kipsang (the winner of Sunday’s men’s race) who finished Berlin in 2013 in 2 hours, 3 minutes and 23 seconds. Maybe one day the gap will shrink further. But for now, as I struggle to move my shattered legs, I like to think back on those extraordinary women – their ridiculous shoes, their hiding places in the undergrowth, their steely determination – and give thanks for the pain I am experiencing in every fibre of every muscle.


  • 18 April 2014 at 1:53pm
    muzzle30 says:
    A marathon, as you note, is 26 miles and 385 yards, or 26.21875 miles. Not 26.3 miles :)

  • 19 July 2015 at 12:44am
    JudyS says:
    This was delightful to read!