Review by Budd Bailey
If your memories of the 1984 Olympic women's marathon are anything like mine, you probably remember a single person running almost by herself.
Joan Benoit pulled away from the pack fairly early in the race, and no one went with her. So Benoit was lacking in company as she maintained a good-sized lead through much of the 26 miles, 385 yards that comprise the event. That can happen in a marathon, in which more than two hours of running can be decided by a single moment at almost any point. Benoit always will be remembered for winning that race, particularly since she had arthroscopic knee surgery shortly before the Olympic Trials.
With that in mind, it might seem ought to consider reading about a book that describes that race. After all, there wasn't much drama. But there were some dramatics just to get to a starting line, and author Stephen Lane wisely concentrates on that "run up" in his solidly written book, "Long Run to Glory."
The miracle of that Olympic marathon was not the race itself, but that it happened in the first place. It took a long, difficult battle over several years to allow runners of both sexes to go through the biggest test running has to offer on a large scale.
The problem was that women were considered too fragile and feminine to even consider running such a long distance. It took quite a while just to allow females to run farther than 800 meters at a time, as ridiculous as it sounds now. Those attitudes were still in place in the late 1960s, but cracks were starting to develop. You probably can credit the women's movement of that time with helping to change some minds. But more importantly, a few women simply liked to run long distances and were determined to do it. The walls eventually came down during the course of the 1970s, and a women's marathon was greenlighted for the Los Angeles Games of 1984.
After setting up the backstory, Lane moves toward the main event. We were lucky to have some great runners then who were really ahead of their time. They may not have had the depth of competition that today's runners do, but their achievements can hold up in any time period. Benoit joined with Grete Waitz, Ingrid Kristiansen and Rosa Mota to dominate the sport for several years. They combined to win all of the Olympic and World Championships in the 1980s.
They for the most part were generally unprepared for the rush of fame and publicity that hit them as the sport became more popular with fans. Running is often a solitary exercise, and glory probably was that last thing that all of them expected when they hit their final finish line as world-class athletes. But they did it anyway.
And they did it without often competing again the other top runners. It's fascinating to think that this group of runners all lined up on the same starting line once in their lives - and it came in Los Angeles in 1984.
Lane has the time and space to include some of the lesser players in the story. Other runners turn up as well, and some of the administrators - like the New York Marathon's Fred Lebow - are memorable in their own way. He talked to some of the principals as well as several others for the book, and he obviously did as much homework as he could under the circumstances. The one oddity I noticed is that for all of that research, there aren't many quotes in the story. But that won't affect your enjoyment.
It took a little more than 17 years to go from Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to be registered for the Boston Marathon in 1967, to Benoit's win in Los Angeles. Those years probably seemed endless to those involved then, but common sense eventually won out. "Long Run to Glory" is a good place to fine out how that happened.
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