(Earl Yost wrote this article in 2002, the 25th anniversary of the first official Woman's Division in the Manchester Road Race.)
Twenty-five years ago, in 1977, women were made eligible for performance awards in the Manchester Road Race for the first time. This important ruling came three years after the green light was given in 1974 for women to enter the race, and 16 years after women first sought entry into Manchester's Thanksgiving Day event when Julia Chase was denied in her attempt to enter the race due to Amateur Athletic Union rules that were being challenged by women sports activists throughout the northeast.
The first woman to officially claim a prize in the newly formed Women's Division in the Manchester Road Race was Lisa Berry, an 18-year-old cross country runner from Michigan State who came in 179th in 27:15. Over the quarter century since Berry led the female contestants across the finish line, women have played a significant part in the record overall number of entrants at Manchester each year. Today, females receive the same number of cash awards and trophies as males and in 2001 nearly 3,600 females completed the course, ranging in age from 13 to over 80.
Since the Road Race Committee, headed by Dave Prindiville, took over control of the race, the ranks of local female runners have been complemented by national and international world-class female athletes. The list of women's champions and elite participants over the last 25 years reads like a Who's Who in women's running: USA Olympians Judi St. Hillaire, Cathy O'Brien, Lynn Jennings, Mary Decker Slaney and Deena Drossin. Plus Shelly Steely, Jan Merrill, Gwyn Coogan, Laur Baker, and Jennifer Rhines. International stars like Chris McKenzie (Great Britain), Sonia Sullivan (Ireland), Breeda Denehy Willis (Ireland), Kathy Butler (Scotland), gold medallist Valentina Yergova (Russia) and Lydia Grigorieva (Russia) have all made Manchester their Turkey Day run
O'Brien, a two-time Olympian, holds the female course record, 24:06 set in 1991. Rudolph became the first woman to crack the top 25 with a 24th place finish in 2000 in 24:26. Jill Clarke of England was the first foreigner to pace the women in 1987 and Slaney was the oldest in 1993 at 35. Leslie Wrixon, a 17 year-old Glastonbury High student in 1982, was the youngest to pace the women and her 27:01 time in the Under 18 category is the longest standing record in the Manchester Road Race. Patti Lyons was the first "big name" winner in 1979. There have been 17 different female open winners over the past 25 years, St. Hillaire and Rudolph each boasting four titles, and O'Brien and Drossin two each.
These days we take for granted the enthusiastic participation of women of all ages and backgrounds on Main Street each Thanksgiving Day. But it's fitting on this 25th anniversary of the Women's Division to remember that it's thanks to pioneers like Julia Chase that today's Manchester Road Race is truly an equal opportunity event.
Women in the MRR
Women in the MRR
"A Matter of Gender" By Ana Foley-Schain
Chase felt the time was right for women runners. She had learned about opening doors from her grandmother, Mary Foulke Morrison, a leading suffragette of her day and the woman who gave the seconding address for Herbert Hoover at the 1920 Republican National Convention.
Chase's effort to enter the race did have support from a key male race figure, Dr. Charles Robbins. Robbins, a two-time race winner who was serving as the long distance running representative to the AAU from Connecticut, said women should be allowed to run because "It's the coming thing." Robbins went on to say "President Kennedy's physical fitness program should include everyone, not just half the nation…men. It is important that women maintain physical fitness as well." Robbins said that although the AAU rules prevented women from competing in events with men that the rule was bound to change soon. He noted that "It's being done in other countries and will eventually spread to the United States."
Talking about events of 1961 several years later, Chase said she had planned to just quietly return to Manchester, But she said, it did not work out that way: "About a month before the race I entered a seven mile race in Massachusetts and the Boston papers picked up this story of a woman who had run seven miles and was going to try and run in Manchester. All of a sudden, it just exploded."
On Thanksgiving morning, 1961, under the glare of the media and thousands of spectators, Chase took her spot on the starting line andshocked the running world. She became the first woman in the United States to participate in a major distance road race. She finished in unofficial 128th place, in a field of 157 seasoned, male runners. The anticipation of her running was so great that reporters from national publications, such as the New York Times, the Boston Globe, Life magazine and Look magazine came to Manchester. Film clips were aired by national television networks and Manchester, Connecticut made its mark on the road racing map. In a story headlined, "Tomboy Out on a Limb," Life magazine wrote, "She runs four miles a day, tops off the jog with cartwheels and calisthenics, frequently follows with some tree climbing." A reporter from the Boston Globe wrote, "Julia Chase is causing almost as much dither these days as Amelia Bloomer did when she introduced unconventional ladies garments."
After hearing of Chase's entry, two other women decided to join her on Thanksgiving Day. Chase said, "We went to the starting line and got pushed off to the side. So we slipped through the crowd, jumped in, ran it and finished." Christine McKenzie, a former Olympian for her native England, was the first of these three women to complete the course. For the last 50 yards, she ran almost unnoticed on the sidewalks. She actually never crossed the finish line, because she was concerned about sanctions from the AAU. Julia Chase finished shortly after her. The third women, 18-year old Dianne Lechausse of Manchester, trailed behind most of the race. She did, however, finish in 138th place, ahead of some of the men.
After this trio of women ran the race in 1961, the pressure to allow women to officially enter the race began to build. Race officials said that in addition to the AAU rules, allowing women would cause many problems. They said if women were allowed to enter, there would be too many runners, a need for more room for runners todress, and financial strains to supply prizes for additional winners in women's categories. Women runners took issue with this logic. One woman, June Mywrang, who wanted to run the race with her husband, said, the real reason women were not being allowed to enter officially was that, "the race has been male for 37 years, and that's the way (the race director) wants it."
In 1972, a member of the newly sanctioned girls cross country team at Manchester High School, sent a letter to the race committee asking them to allow women to compete officially. The girl, Diane Kellsey, wrote: This year girls cross country was officially recognized. The girls competing at a high school level are dedicated athletes, serious about competition. We obviously cannot compete at a male level, but it is only fair that there should be some female division for us to compete within. After all, there is a Schoolboy Division, shouldn't there also be a Schoolgirl Division…the Boston Marathon has finally recognized women as official competitors…must women still be stubbornly overlooked in Manchester?
The next year, 1973, saw women picketing before the race and protesting outside the race headquarters at East Side Rec., and near the starting line. The protestors carried banners saying the race should be open to all runners. At the sound of the starting gun, several picketers dropped their signs and joined the race, trailing in the back of the pack as unofficial entrants.
Apparently the protest made an impact. In 1974, race officials "finally gave in after a 13-year battle to open the competition to all." It was the year women were finally allowed to officially enter the Manchester Road Race. In that year's race field of 1,093, there were approximately 50 women runners. Cynthia Wadsworth, a state high school champion, became the first official women's finisher. Her time was 29:10. It was not until three years later, in 1977, that the women runners became a part of the formal prize structure, with awards for top female runners in various age categories. Even that step was a struggle. It was achieved only after Amby Burfoot made an impassioned plea in 1976 by giving Wadsworth the television set he had been awarded. Burfoot said, "I've won more than my share of prizes in Manchester, and today, I want my prize to go to the first woman finisher, Cynthia Wadsworth." In 1977, Lisa Berry received a prize from the race committee as the first winner of the Woman's Division.
The number of women registered to run in the Manchester Road Race grew quickly in numbers and finishing times became faster. In 1981, Julia Chase Brand returned to run on the 20th anniversary of her historic appearance in the 1961 race. In a letter to Manchester sports editor Earl Yost, Chase wrote: "I'm planning to run again this year, and am trying to get Chris McKenzie to join me. I have no idea how to contact the third girl who ran in '61, Diane LeChausse. It's our 20th anniversary, and since it was rather a landmark case, I thought it would be fun to do a repeat."
Chase Brand, now 39, had not been focusing on running, but had promised to return. "I made up my mind that I would come back to run Manchester again, on the 20th anniversary of my 1961 experience. There was so much less pressure this time. It was lovely."
In 2000, women broke another barrier. Amy Rudolph cracked the top 25 overall finishers, the first time a woman had done this. Coming in 24th place, with a time only 20 seconds from a female course record, Rudolph won the women's division for the fourth time.