Women’s Running Bracket: The Sweet Sixteen

A few contenders. (From left: Tirunesh Dibaba; Wilma Rudolph; Ellie Greenwood; Catherine Ndereba and Fanny Blankers-Koen)
A few contenders. (From left: Tirunesh Dibaba; Wilma Rudolph; Ellie Greenwood; Catherine Ndereba and Fanny Blankers-Koen)

You, the Salty Running readers, have spoken, and only 16 athletes remain in our search for the Greatest Woman Runner of All Time. Who will come out on top? Our remaining field includes runners specializing in distances from 100 meters to 100 miles, athletes from the first days of women’s competitive running to those still in the prime of their careers. Voting ends at midnight on Thursday, April 4.


We’ll kick things off with the heroes, those women who inspire us to dig deeper and give our all because of the trails they have blazed. Kathrine Switzer (or K.V. Switzer, as she was known in Beantown), stunned the competition by getting 100% of the vote in her face-off with Gordon Bakoulis. Also worth noting? No more contemporary women remain in this category. (Complete Heroes Round Two results.)

Doris Heritage vs. Wilma Rudolph

After being banned from using her school track because she was a girl, Heritage joined a local running club, setting a national record in the 440-yard dash. She went on to run with the men’s team at Seattle Pacific College, becoming the first woman to run a sub-5 minute mile indoors, and at one point, holding every women’s national and world record from the 440 up through the mile. Heritage won the first five world cross country titles and 14 U.S. track titles in her career.

An African-American girl born prematurely in the pre-Civil Rights South, Rudolph suffered from polio, forcing her to wear a leg brace until age nine. By the time she was just 16, Wilma earned her first Olympic berth, winning a bronze medal in the 4×100 meter relay in Melbourne’s 1956 Games.  Yet the 1960 Rome  Olympics are where she truly made her mark. Nicknamed “The Tornado”, she was the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field during a single Games. Her 100 meter time was a world-fastest (not counted as a record since it was wind-aided), her time in the 200 meters marked a new Olympic record and her 4×100 meter squad set a new world record as well.

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Kathrine Switzer vs. Babe Didrikson

Kathrine Switzer was the first woman to run Boston with a bib and went on to fight for equality in women’s sports. In 1972, she organized the first women’s-only 10K, known today as the New York Mini. Kathrine became President of the Women’s Sports Foundation and organized the Avon International Marathon for women in 1978. The growing success of that event and the improvements in women’s times bolstered the case for Olympic inclusion. Kathrine led the effort to lobby the International Olympic Committee and in 1981, the Committee voted that the women’s marathon would be added to the lineup for the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

Didrikson’s goal was to the be greatest athlete who ever lived. At a time when competition for women was focused on sports like figure skating and tennis, Babe challenged the idea of female athletes having to be ultra-feminine.  She was known for her trash-talking ways and jaw-dropping results, winning the U.S. Olympic Trials track meet singlehandedly, competing in eight events. At the 1932 Olympics, she won gold medals in the javelin and the 80 meter hurdles and a silver medal in the high jump. Babe went on play professional golf, co-founding the LPGA.

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For the second round in a row, Catherine Ndereba completely dominated her matchup. That’s an understatement, actually – she got 100% of the votes vs. Mizuki Noguchi! Mary Keitany just barely edged out Ingrid Kristiansen, 55% to 45%. (Complete Round Two Marathoner Results.)

Paula Radcliffe vs. Catherine Ndereba

Paula Radcliffe is the current world record holder with her 2:15:25. Besides being blazing fast, she gave all mother runners hope when she won the New York City Marathon just months after delivering her first child.

“Catherine the Great” as she is widely known is definitely one of the world’s best. If we seeded this competition, she’d probably be seeded #1! Two-time World Champion, two-time Olympic silver medalist and four time Boston Marathon winner, Catherine Ndereba was a force to be reckoned with. In 2001, she set the world record with her 2:18:47 run in Chicago. She is tied for the record of most marathons run under 2:30 with 21!

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Mary Keitany vs. Joan Benoit Samuelson

Mary Keitany is the third-fastest woman EVER to run 26.2 miles, boasting a very impressive PR of 2:18:37…. and she’s only been running the distance since November 2010. Her marathon debut at New York 2010 included a third-place finish and time of 2:29:01. You know, NBD.

“Joanie” was the first-ever women’s Olympic marathon champ, has qualified for seven Olympic Trials and held the American record in the marathon for 18 (!) years. Oh yeah, and her times at the Olympics and the Chicago Marathon are still the fastest for American women in those respective races. Did we mention that she ran her first Olympic Trials marathon just 17 days after knee surgery?

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Things were heating up on the track in Round Two! This round of competition belonged largely to the ladies who can go the distance, with only one sprinter – Fanny Blankers-Koen – still in the mix for the Round of 16. (View full results from Tracksters, Round Two.)

Shalane Flanagan vs. Fanny Blankers-Koen

Shalane Flanagan is the American record holder in the 3,000, 5,000 and 10,000 meter races. She won the 2008 Olympic Bronze in the 10,000 meters and holds several U.S. national track championships.

Fanny Blankers-Koen was the most successful athlete at the 1948 Olympics winning 4 gold medals (100m, 200m, 80m hurdles and the 4 x 100m relay). Not only did she do that, but she was a 30 year-old mother of two at the time, which earned her the nickname, “The Flying Housewife.”

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Meseret Defar vs. Tirunesh Dibaba

Meseret Defar might be the all-time best 5,000 meter runner, winning the Olympic gold in the event in both 2004 and 2012. She also won Bronze in 2008. She also holds multiple world championships and has set the world record in the 5,000 two times. Her personal best of 14:12.88 is nothing short of astonishingly fast! She still holds the two-mile world record and the indoor world records for the 3,000 and 5,000 meter races.

You might remember Tirunesh Dibaba from her breath-taking 10,000 meter gold medal performance during the 2012 London Olympics. She also won both the 10,000 and 5,000 meter golds in the 2008 Olympics. In addition to that, she is the current 5,000 meter world record holder. She took the record from fellow contender, Meseret Defar, with her amazing 14:11.15 run in 2008. She also holds the 15k road record. She’s won several world championships in both the 5,000 and 10,000 meters.

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Trail & Ultrarunners

Ann Trason ran away with the field in Round Two, trouncing Jamie Donaldson, 80% to 20%. None of the other contests were decided by such  wide margin, and strangely enough, all of the winners made it to the Sweet 16 by a margin of 60% to 40%. (Full results for Trail & Ultrarunners, Round Two.)

Ann Trason vs. Ellie Greenwood

Ann Trason holds several course records at top ultra races, including the American River 50, Leadville Trail 100 and Comrades. In both 1996 and 1997,  Trason won both the Western States 100 just 12 days after winning the Comrades Marathon in South Africa – a race with a misleading name, as it is actually 56 miles! She has won Western States 100 a whopping 14 times, and broken 20 world records during her career.

Ellie Greenwood is a 2:42 marathoner who holds the Western States 100 course record. She was the 2010 100k world-champion and was named the female Ultrarunner of the Year twice by Ultrarunning Magazine.

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Amy Palmiero-Winters vs. Tomoe Abe

Amy Palmiero-Winters was a runner in high school, but lost her left leg below the knee in a motorcycle accident in 1994. A decade later, she entered her first marathon, winning her age group!  Palmiero-Winters turned to ultras in 2009, winning the Arizona Road Racers Run to the Future twenty-four-hour race, marking the first time an amputee had won an ultramarathon. In 2010, she became the first amputee to finish Western States and in 2011, she became the first female amputee to finish Badwater.

Tomoe Abe straddled the marathon and ultramarathon worlds during her competitive career in the 1990s and early 2000s. Her marathon best was 2:26:09, and she won a bronze medal in the 1993 World Marathon Championship. On the other side of the coin, Abe shocked the ultrarunning world in 2000 by setting a women’s world record in the 100k with a time of 6:33:11 – nearly 30 minutes faster than the previous record!

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Southern-transplant lass who loves 90s boy bands, outdoor adventures and college basketball, although not necessarily in that order. After cracking the 4 hour marathon mark, I'm hoping to run a Boston Qualifying time!

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  1. I’m rooting for Paula Radcliffe for the overall win! GO PAULA! Ha, but in all seriousness, I think she is the GOAT because not only is her marathon world record outstanding and tough, it’s likely clean (unlike the women’s 10k record that is suspected to be dirty). On top of that, she also has excellent times and success in the 10k and 5k on the track and roads. She also is an advocate for the sport, has such an amazing following worldwide, and seems very likeable. Some would ask, “what about not having any Olympic medals?” To that I would say that all of her other accomplishments trump that. And you never know, the fact that she doesn’t want to give up just yet could be another story for the ages!