Hard as it may be for young women today to comprehend, this summer will mark only the 11th time that a women’s marathon has been held at the Olympic Games. Had women been allowed to participate just two Olympics sooner, they would have had to do so without the benefit of a sports bra, which wasn’t invented until 1977. 

In her new book, Better Faster Farther: How Running Changed Everything We Know About Women, Maggie Mertens tells the stories of the groundbreaking runners who redefined society’s understanding of what women can accomplish.

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Growing up with four brothers, Maggie took playing sports for granted. “We all just did the sports; we were signed up for whatever. And I remember the moment when I recognized that I was maybe unique. I remember in gym class, people being surprised, like, ‘You can hit the ball in baseball?’ or ‘You can catch?’  That was really weird to me because I was like, ‘Why wouldn’t I be able to do this?’ I was always encouraged. And I think a lot of young women, especially in the US, especially in the 90s, were given this girl power, go play sports message, and didn’t quite recognize that that was a response to prior generations being told ‘No, no, no.’”

She ran cross country during junior high, but didn’t pursue it any further. “I think I just had this teenage, you know, ‘I’m gonna be a new person in high school,’ and wanted to quit everything and get a boyfriend and all of that.” It wasn’t until her old coach came to her book launch and told her that she would have been a good runner if she’d continued, that Maggie realized that the attitude towards women in sport may have impacted her personally. “I was just like, ‘Man, if one person would have told me that in high school, I would have been like, ‘Great, I’ll do it.’’ And it made me think about part of this narrative around girls and sport and why do they drop out more often than boys, than men?”

When Maggie started writing Better Faster Farther, she knew that it was going to be about gender and physical capability. “But,” she says, “as I was digging into this broader idea of boundaries placed on women athletes, and what they had been told over time that was incorrect and things that they weren’t allowed to do, running became the perfect tool for that because it’s so straightforward. It’s so human. And I feel like it’s something that is very universal or acceptable today. 

“I don’t think girls today who start running are thinking, ‘This is very out-of-the-norm for my gender.’ But I kept coming back to a few points in time, like the Boston Marathon images of Kathrine Switzer being pushed out. And then the 1928 [Summer Olympics] 800 meter race, in which all of these newspaper reports afterwards claimed that the women all had some terrible experience and passed out or went unconscious or were convulsing on the ground. And so I kept thinking about those two things.

Then as I looked more into marathon running, and I would tell someone that the Olympic women’s marathon didn’t start until 1984, people would be visibly shocked. And to think about that; I was born in ‘87. So I’m like, ‘Okay, that happened right before I was born.’ Bobbi Gibb snuck into the Boston Marathon in ‘66; my mom was in junior high at that time. So to think that between those generations that much had changed in running, and what women were told they could do physically, I was like, ‘Okay, this has to be about running.’” 

The book’s title comes from the persistent idea that men are better, faster, stronger, and bigger than women. “There are just these excuses that get given out a lot when we talk about differences in women’s sports,” Maggie says. “And I was always kind of struck by that being a response, this biological description, and one that’s actually not a binary truth. All women are not weaker and smaller and slower than all men. So that was part of choosing that title.

“At first, we were going to call it Better Faster Stronger. And then as I knew it was going to be framed through running, it felt good to put in ‘Farther,” once I realized I’d be writing about the ultra marathoners and how some of the sports science is showing advantages there for women. I thought that was a nice kind of nod to that. But I do love that it’s kind of reclaiming that whole better, faster, stronger idea. Also, it does speak to the Olympic motto [Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together] in a bit of a way. And there’s a lot of Olympic history here and explaining how that has a very gendered history, as well.”

The prevalence of inaccurate data about women’s running is an important thread in the book. “Like these ideas that we can’t run the 800 meter race because we won’t be able to have babies. These were ideas that were in the medical world. They are in medical literature. This was the belief system. And so finding the real data is definitely a part of this story. 

“And in some way, it was necessary, right? Because even though men were running marathons and having health effects, they weren’t being told, ‘Don’t run marathons. We don’t want you to be harmed.’ But women were being told, ‘No, you’re not allowed because you might be harmed.’  It ended up as this idea that women’s bodies weren’t cut out for this. And that girls are being injured if they’re pushed too much, if they’re trained in this extensive way, like we push our elite athletes.

“The sports medicine people today will say, ‘Of course, we need more information.’ But I think what we also really need is less focus on women and men as totally different species. The whole point of sport is to witness humanity, right? See what makes us move, what makes us human, what makes us tick, what makes us competitive. 

“Running isn’t just some biological function; it’s tactical and it’s mental and you have to tap into all of these other things. It’s training, but it’s also a mental game, and it’s who else is running with you, and what does this race mean to you? I think that’s what’s so beautiful. And when we boil it down to whose testosterone levels are what, it kind of loses some of that beauty.”


Maggie’s website

Order Better Faster Farther: How Running Changed Everything We Know About Women

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