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Giant strides

Women marathon runners have come a long way since gaining official status in '72

The first woman who ran the Boston Marathon wore a hooded sweatshirt and hid in a Hopkinton hollow until after the gun went off. The granddaddy of road races was For Men Only in 1966, and Roberta Gibb was afraid she'd be arrested if her gender was discovered. "I could hear the guys behind me saying: 'Is that a girl?' " Gibb remembers. "I smiled and turned around and said, yeah."

On Monday morning, women will be front and center at the 111th running of the planet's oldest annual 26-miler, which will feature the world's three top-ranked runners in US record-holder Deena Kastor, Latvia's Jelena Prokopcuka, and Kenya's Rita Jeptoo, the defending champion. And, as a prelude to next year's Olympic trials here, the race will double as the US championships, with a separate purse of $70,000.

Thirty-five years after women made their first official appearance, a record 9,532 of them -- 40 percent of the field -- will take the starting line in Hopkinton. "It is a women's sport now as much as it is a men's sport," says Mary Wittenberg, race director of the New York City Marathon.

That was unthinkable a half-century ago, when the longest race for women in the Olympics still was only 200 meters because the sport's male officialdom believed females couldn't endure anything longer without endangering their health.

That's what Gibb, a 23-year-old Winchester native who'd been running long distances for fun, was told by Boston Athletic Association officials when she asked for an entry form. Women weren't physiologically able to run 26 miles and, furthermore, they weren't invited. Which is why she decided to run.

"I thought I could change the way people thought about women and the prejudices would drop," she says.

So Gibb turned up and ended up beating nearly 200 males, finishing in an estimated 3:21:40. "Sometimes I can't get these guys to run around the floor and a small broad goes and runs a marathon," Celtics coach Red Auerbach cracked the next day. "What's the world coming to?"

Yet because she didn't have a number Gibb was officially invisible. A woman may have been on the course at the same time, the BAA conceded, but she had not been in the race.

A woman definitely was in the race the next year, but officials couldn't tell by the entry form from "K.V. Switzer" and didn't notice her femininity when they herded her into the starting chute. It wasn't until Framingham when Cloney and Jock Semple, the race's Scottish gatekeeper, tried to rip off Kathrine Switzer's number. "Get out of my rrrrrrace!", Semple shouted.

But Switzer completed the course, as did the numberless (and, therefore, still invisible) Gibb. After Gibb and several other women turned up in 1968, it was clear that unauthorized or not, females were running and finishing the race. So the BAA began listing their results unofficially, with Cambridge's Sara Mae Berman winning three straight times.

It's a start
By 1972, after the Amateur Athletic Union finally gave in to reality, "selected women" were eligible to run Boston as long as they could meet the men's standard of 3 hours 30 minutes, and were started and scored separately.

Eight women took the line, Nina Kuscsik won by a whopping 10 minutes despite a gastrointestinal disorder, and the gender barrier was down forever. "I was just so pleased," recalls Kuscsik, who'll fire the gun to start the women's race Monday. "Not that I had won the race, but at what we had accomplished."

Two years later, there were 46 female entrants in Boston. Five years later, there were more than 140. By 1979, when Joan Benoit set an American record (2:35:15) here, the number had soared to 527 and the winning time had dropped by more than 35 minutes.

By then, the push was on to have the marathon added to the Olympic program, whose longest women's race still was only 1,500 meters. "We said, let's just leapfrog it," recalls Switzer, author of the just-published "Marathon Woman." "If a woman could do the marathon, she could do the other races."

Even before Benoit won the inaugural event at the 1984 Games, she'd proven that women could go the distance -- and quickly -- with her astounding 2:22:43 clocking a year earlier in Boston, which chopped nearly three minutes off the world record. "Lady, you better watch it," the men around her had cautioned as Benoit breezed past.

But it was her victory in Los Angeles that put US women's marathoning atop the world, much as Frank Shorter's 1972 triumph in Munich had done for the men. "The image of her coming into the Coliseum with her little cap is something that I don't think anybody would ever forget," says Kastor, who says that Benoit "remains my greatest inspiration in this sport and in life."

Until Kastor produced her surprise bronze medal in steamy Athens three years ago, no American woman had made the Olympic podium since. If she can win here Monday, Kastor will be the first domestic runner to manage it since Lisa Larsen-Weidenbach in 1985, the last year before Boston offered prize money.

"It would mean everything," says Wittenberg, whose New York race hasn't had a US victor since Miki Gorman in 1977. "It would be the most significant marathon victory in decades."

Until Kastor broke through at Olympus and won London in last year's fastest time (a US-record 2:19:36), American females had fallen off the global map. Except for Kastor, they're still missing among the international elite. None of them cracked the world top 50 in 2006 and only Jen Rhines (2:29:32) was under 2:30. That's literally 2 miles behind Kastor. "There is that void right now," says BAA executive director Guy Morse.

Reasons for the lack of depth abound, the same ones that were proffered before the US males revived their fortunes during the past quadrennium. Not enough financial support. Too many opportunities to make money on the track or running shorter road races. Not enough promising talents moving up to the marathon early enough. No critical mass of top-level colleagues that can push each other, as the Kenyans do.

But the biggest challenge may be simply the daunting nature of the distance, the heavy training workload required, and the fear that becoming a marathoner forces a runner to forsake all other events.

"One of the problems in getting people to move up is that they think they can't do anything else," says Jim Estes, USA Track & Field's long-distance running program manager. "But I think that Deena, Meb Keflezighi, and Abdi Abdirahman have shown that you can still do those other things and do them well."

Back and forth
Kastor, a magnificent cross-country runner, will be trying to make the US team in the 10,000 meters for this summer's world track and field championships in Osaka. Then, she'll return here next April to bid for a place on the Olympic marathon team and go to Beijing "with hopes for a better medal than bronze."

Switchbacks have become more common as gifted distance runners dip their toes in the marathon -- as Marla Runyan did here and in New York a few years ago -- go back to shorter races, then come back for another 26-mile taste. "It mostly seems to be a personal comfort level," says Estes, "and a lot of that can come from the coaches."

Katie McGregor, who had an excellent marathon debut (2:32:36) in New York last year, is back on the track. Acton native Blake Russell, who had a 2:30:41 marathon debut in 2003 and is one of the top four domestic runners in the 5,000, will be running in London later this month.

"A lot of marathon experts look at Blake and say she's capable of running 2:22 easily," says Estes. "It's just a matter of getting the right mix on race day. She definitely has the mentality."

One breakout can lead to another. Keflezighi's silver in Athens, the first by a US male at Olympus since Shorter in 1976, was followed by a surge that included the likes of Alan Culpepper, Brian Sell, Clint Verran, Peter Gilmore, Dathan Ritzenhein, and most recently Ryan Hall, the new hardtop phenom who'll make his marathon debut in London.

Though Kastor may be separated from her American colleagues by more than Copley Square is from Kenmore Square, there is a cluster of women around the 2:30 mark who are capable of closing the gap.

Besides Rhines, Runyan, and McGregor, there's Elva Dryer (2:31:48), Heather Hanscom (2:31:53), Sara Wells (2:33:15), Sylvia Mosqueda (2:33:47), Mary Akor (2:33:50), and Samia Akbar (2:34:14). "There's a whole level of them that are poised to make the jump," says Estes.

Conditions permitting, it could happen here Monday, where Hanscom, Wells, Mosqueda, and Akor all will be lining up alongside Kastor. That was a key reason why the US championships are being held here and now -- to give the next wave a taste of a Big 5 marathon as well as a sneak preview of Boston on a huge race weekend. "You're on a different stage here," says Morse. "You have to be able to deal with it."

Hesitant to change
The big stage, and the big cash that comes with it, are powerful inducements to move up to the marathon distance. "We're waiting for the women to come to us," says Chicago race director Carey Pinkowski. "We've got to be more proactive. We've got to do it with prize money and race visibility."

If Kastor wins here, she'll not only pocket the $100,000 payoff but also $25,000 as US titlist, and will vault atop the leaderboard of the World Marathon Majors, which delivers a $500,000 bonus to the top woman at year's end.

Right now, though, Kastor is the only American woman remotely capable of winning a major. "Her challenge here is going to come from non-Americans," says Morse.

The 10 minutes between her and her countrywomen is jammed with foreigners who make for a formidable obstacle course.

Among last year's top 40, there were nine Russians, eight Japanese, five Kenyans, and four Ethiopians, all of whom ran better than 2:28.

"It's a marathon and not a sprint in more ways than one," says Morse. "It's going to take some time."

Is knocking five minutes from your personal best just to be in the middle of the global pack worth all the travail when you can make Olympic and world teams in shorter distances?

"Maybe it's that our depth isn't so great at 5,000 and 10,000 meters," muses Keith Hanson, whose Michigan-based club is bringing five women to Boston, including the promising Melissa White. "They're not being crowded out and pushed up, so perhaps they don't feel the need to move to the marathon."

Forty years ago, the women were being pushed out of the race. Thirty-five years ago, they balked at the idea of a separate start because it implied they weren't good enough to run with men.

On Monday, they'll be in Framingham before the men have heard the gun.

"Now," says Wittenberg, "the women aren't running with the men because they deserve to have the spotlight on them."