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Berman a women's movement unto herself with 3 unofficial wins

It was the age when June Cleaver wore high heels and pearls as she packed the Beaver's lunchbox before school. When the rules in girls' basketball divided the court in half so players wouldn't overtax themselves by running the length of the floor. And when traditionalists were alarmed by the stridency of bra-burning feminists.

And few sports were more traditional than the Boston Marathon. Just check those well-publicized 1967 photos of race official Jock Semple confronting runner Kathrine Switzer and snarling, ''Get the hell out of my race and give me that number."

Semple was not about to let ''his" Boston Marathon become the stage for a political publicity stunt.

Three years after that race, Sara Mae Berman, a Cambridge native running her second Boston with husband/coach Larry, was met at the finish by a reporter who asked her a question that irked her to no end.

''Why did you do it?"

So many years after that race -- run in wet conditions and bone-numbing cold -- the question has stayed with Berman. Not as a personal affront, but as a measure of how far attitudes have evolved.

Tomorrow, more than 8,000 women will toe the start line in Hopkinton as registered runners. Names such as Benoit, Pippig, and Ndereba helped pave the way for gender equality, but Berman still fumes over the attitudes toward female athletes of her era.

''They were just so patronizing," said Berman, who still lives in Cambridge with her husband. ''There were headlines like 'Mother Runs' or 'Housewife Runs.' Those kinds of attitudes. They were just there."

A cross-country ski racer during the winter, Berman had minimal time to train for the Marathon. But in 1970, after failing to make the International Ski Federation team, she got an early start in her training, running on Harvard's wooden track. Berman not only was the top women's finisher for the second straight year (only three women ran in 1969, and just five the following April), she completed the race in 3:05:07, bettering the previous best women's time by more than 16 minutes.

After it was over, she pondered the reporter's question. Why had she run the Marathon?

The rain was nearly freezing that day, she remembered, and about halfway through the race, the cold in her hands was beginning to affect her. When a friend, Julian Segal, happened by and offered his gloves, Berman readily accepted, but found that her fingers were so stiff she had to pull them on with her teeth.

''I was searching the crowd frantically for a pair of gloves," Berman recalled. ''We knew the pace to run that day, knew where the quarters were for the speed traps. So while the race was going OK, my cold hands were beginning to put a drag on my race."

For the rest of the race, she and Segal shared the gloves. Meanwhile, Larry Berman ran one of his best races, finishing in 2:38.

''He decided he hadn't run enough, so he came back to find me, and we came into the finish together," Sara Mae said.

Even though women weren't exactly welcomed with open arms by 1970, at least Semple wasn't pulling them out of the race.

''He had seen me out running races for several years," Berman said, ''and he had no problem with me. I didn't have a number [Switzer did in '67] and so I was nonsanctioned. What he really objected to was the 'beer bellies' -- guys who'd run out in the middle of a race to get on TV for a stunt."

In 1970, the Boston Athletic Association didn't have complete postrace accommodations, so while the men went to their usual hot shower room, the women had to use the ice skating changing room with nothing but lockers and benches. Women may have been gaining acceptance, said Berman, but it came grudgingly.

At least part of the problem was a general belief that long-distance running was too much of a strain on women. In their first attempts at distance running, many women were so poorly coached that they went out too fast and spent too much energy early. Those crossing the finish line looked wounded.

''In the 1932 Olympics, they had a women's half-mile," said Berman, ''but the women were not coached and several of them collapsed. So it was decided that women couldn't do these races."

In 1964, Berman, a graduate of Rhode Island School of Design, was married, and with three young children, she began distance running with a 5-mile handicap race in Marlborough. At 28, she was the first woman to run the race and remembers the looks she got on her way to a 38:37 finish.

Within five years, Berman was running 60 miles per week, and women such as Switzer and Roberta Gibb had broken the ice by running Boston. Berman was becoming a fixture in many shorter races around Boston, often beating half the men in the field, and drawing the notice of Semple, which she feels led him to accept her in the Marathon.

Berman remembers feeling vindicated when Gibb became the first woman to complete the Marathon in 1966, but she wishes she had done it first. Berman won her third straight Marathon in 1971, the year before women were recognized as official participants.

The Bermans are not running anymore. But they are still cross-country skiers and are involved in ski-orienteering, a sport that combines the skills of cross-country ski racing and topographical navigation. Sara Mae has found time along the way to serve two terms on the Cambridge School Committee. In warm weather, the Bermans can be found in their Cambridge gardens or keeping fit on roller skis.

To this day, Sara Mae Berman remembers the question posed to her in 1970. It does not infuriate her anymore; in fact, it reminds her of her status as a pioneer. And it gives her pleasure, she says, that ''women are not asked questions like that anymore."

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