I always sensed the silence as I ran amongst the towering redwood trees, the trails covered in lichen and fallen leaves, the softness of the morning light surrounding me while my legs fell one foot in front of the other. I was a neophyte in the late 1970s, running unencumbered, without pressure, only my dog and me on forested trails, yet there was a phenomenon brewing of which I was barely aware: high school, collegiate, and elite women athletes were running long, breaking barriers and stereotypes, creating a path for women runners to follow or from which to forge ahead.
It is in Frank Murphy’s book, The Silence of Great Distance: Women Running Long that I was able to go back in time and experience the dawn of competitive women’s running. In fact, if you’re a woman who loves to run and you haven’t read Silence yet, drop what you’re doing and get a copy now. It’s a must read and a great compliment book to Suzy Favor Hamilton’s, Fast Girl!
Silence, is a creative non-fiction book that chronicles the history of the development of women runners in the mid-to-late twentieth century. This book, though, is more than the singular stories of the early principals, like Doris Brown, Tatyana Kazankina, and Mary Decker. The book also focuses on the high school cross-country stars turned collegiate mid-distance champions, like Stephanie Herbst, Kathy Ormsby, Cathy Branta, and our recent interviewee, Suzy Favor; all NCAA champions and legends in the sport. It is more than a study of the women runners from behind the Iron Curtain, who redefined, at least in the Western mind, female athletes. It is more than the study of Title IX and the consideration of female athletes in sports that were historically, typically and, importantly, considered inherently male.
This book is a study and celebration of women runners, a lyrical testament to their strength of will when the pressure to succeed, whether from parents, peers, coaches, or internally generated, was beneath the surface of each practice, each race, each victory or defeat. These women were our forbearers, who might run without question, who might listen to adversaries or the press or their coaches to “run light,” often breaking down their bodies, not knowing the true impact of nutrition, exercise, training programs, but always running. These women experienced the unknown and the unknowable, the victories, the losses, the loneliness of running long. They were pioneers.
Murphy’s book delves into the beginning years of women’s running, parsing the attitudes of the public and male athletes, who extolled the beauty and litheness of the women runners while not attributing hard training and natural talent to their successes. He analyzes with exquisite detail women running the 800 meters, the 1500 meters, the mile—and then the 3000 meters and 5000 meters distances. He follows the progression within the US and Europe, women whose times and efforts were tainted by the super-human women of the USSR during the Cold War years, when transparency was opaque, whether training methods, state/nation-sponsored runners, or doping allegations. He breaks through with Mary Decker, the darling of US distance running, naturally talented, impetuous, fast, whose fall from grace after her collision with Zola Budd spoiled, for some, her place in this fascinating history and progression.
The book uses the conceit of Stephanie Herbst, a talented high school runner who ran with the University of Wisconsin when its teams were winning, consistently, to serve as the catalyst for this sports history. Murphy’s stated objective was to “…know how it was that Stephanie and other women of her age, were permitted to run long distances when that activity had been denied earlier generations, and I wanted to know what caused Stephanie to run, and I wanted to know what caused Stephanie to cease to run.” [Prologue] I think he succeeded well with this premise in informing us about this oft-times misunderstood or missing piece of history.
“The Silence of Great Distance” provided me with information I wish I’d had during my beginning years of running. Still, to learn in retrospect the struggles for recognition, the persistence of the women runners who came before me, the impact of Title IX on women’s running, the pressures (still here today, though) to be thin enough, strong enough, and focused enough to run well, the will of the individuals whose stories are, at least partially, told through this book, kept me reading this book well into the night.
Murphy’s literary style, his ruminations, his wanting to delve deeply into stories that deserve more than the sound bites they often received in the press, were a bonus in thinking about those brave women who came before the acceptance of women running long. We still have advances to make, e.g., when women runners can be assertive about their goals without being considered arrogant or too competitive. The backdrop of how far we’ve come, gleaned from this book, though, gives me hope that we will continue to move forward.
Have you read The Silence of Great Distance? What did you think about it? If not, will you now?