Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of four articles leading up to the weekend of the Brookings Marathon May 10-11. For more information on the races, go to prairiestriders.net.
Kathy Magnuson had no inclination that she would be the first woman to ever complete, let alone win, the Longest Day, now Brookings, Marathon in 1975.
Even though her historical run was just three years after the Amateur Athletic Union declared that women could compete in marathons, Magnuson, 24, didn’t think of herself as a pioneer. She felt welcomed in the sport and was rarely the only woman in her races. On May 11, the city of Brookings will welcome her as the honorary starter of the 50th Brookings Marathon.
Push for women’s marathoning
Women struggled throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s to break into the running scene. In 1967, Kathrine Switzer registered for and ran the Boston Marathon under the gender-neutral name “K.V. Switzer.” About four miles into her race, the race director, Jock Semple, noticed Switzer was a woman and attempted to shove her off the race course. Unfazed, Switzer finished the race in 4:20.
By 1972, the AAU declared that women would be allowed to compete in marathons; however, they would be required to start at a separate time or starting line than men.
This stipulation was quickly removed after six women protested during the 1972 New York City Marathon. They refused to abide by the “special” start and sat down at the starting line for 10 minutes until the men’s gun went off. The women’s Olympic marathon wasn’t introduced until 1984 at the Los Angeles Summer Olympics.
Small running communities welcomed all
Magnuson first began running at age 23, only eight months prior to winning the Longest Day Marathon. She joined the small Minneapolis-St. Paul area running community, excited about the idea of taking part in organized sport.
“I was pre-Title IX, so there weren’t teams for girls,” she said. “There were baseball teams at the local rec center, but those were for boys. The running community was so small that they were happy to have anybody join in, so the guys were even accepting of women.”
Magnuson’s first marathon was the 1975 Bald Eagle Marathon in Bald Eagle Lake, Minn. She finished eight minutes over the 3:30 women’s qualifying time for the Boston Marathon.
Magnuson and a few other runners from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area who still wished to qualify made plans to race the nearby Longest Day Marathon the following month. They expected that the November weather would be much cooler and more conducive for hitting the Boston qualifying marks.
Perseverance led to victory
Despite the small population of runners, particularly female runners, at that time, Magnuson never anticipated being the only female in a race.
“When I went to local races, almost always there were two of us. The other woman was much faster than I was. If she showed up, I would get second place, but if she didn’t, I would win,” Magnuson said.
The other woman did not race the Longest Day Marathon in 1975, but this did not make Magnuson the sole female competitor. Fifty-three runners, three of whom were women, began the 1975 Longest Day Marathon. However, due to an unseasonably warm November day with 70-degree temperatures at race time, nearly half of the competitors dropped out. Only 28 runners completed the race. Magnuson was the only female. She finished in 28th place in 4:30.
During the race, Magnuson knew she was running slower than the time she needed to qualify for the Boston Marathon, but she was determined to finish the race. She finished to little fanfare because those she had traveled with did not finish the race and were anxious to begin the drive home. Magnuson left Brookings unaware that she was the first-ever female finisher.
Success in the Boston Marathon
Despite not achieving the Boston qualifying time, Magnuson went on to be one of 52 female competitors in the 80th running of the Boston Marathon in the spring of 1976.
“I wrote to the director of Boston and pleaded my case,” she said. “I explained the heat circumstances. I offered to run in another marathon.”
Magnuson contended with Jock Semple, the race director notoriously known for trying to shove Switzer off the race course. She explained to him that although she could run another marathon to qualify, running another would greatly increase her chance of injury.
At the time, many believed that long distance running was particularly dangerous for women.
This preconception was addressed about five years later in 1980 when the American College of Sports Medicine released a statement of support of the creation of the women’s Olympic Marathon.
They said, “There exists no conclusive scientific or medical evidence that long-distance running is contraindicated for the healthy, trained female athlete.”
Semple allowed Magnuson to compete on the condition that she didn’t tell anyone about the exception he made for her.
Magnuson finished 19th out of the 53 female competitors in 3:20:49, over an hour faster than her Longest Day Marathon performance. Switzer finished second.
“We actually had a locker room that was the women’s locker room at the start,” she said. “It was just a little bit surreal because I was in a locker with these world class women and then there was me.”
Championing women’s stories
After the Boston Marathon, Magnuson completed a few other marathons in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and continued to run nearly every day, often with her neighborhood running group.
She dedicated her career to advancing women. She helped launch the Minnesota Women’s Press, a magazine for women, by women and about women, in 1985.
Twin Cities publications at that time were run predominantly by men, Magnuson said. “Men decided what the stories would be, who the subjects would be. The subjects were men, written about by men, photographed by men and edited by men.”
It is the oldest continuous women’s publication of its kind in the country. Magnuson served as the editor until December 2017.
As the first female finisher of the Longest Day/Brookings Marathon, Magnuson wrote her own story into the Brookings Marathon history books – a story of the determination and beginnings of women in running.