There is an interesting article in Outside Magazine online penned by Sally Bergesen, founder of Oiselle, the Seattle-based women’s athletic apparel company, asking where are the female equivalents of the sub-four minute mile or the sub-two hour marathon? (Article)

“How are our own benchmarks so unfamiliar?” she asks rhetorically.

Her conclusion, in part, is that “the dearth of women’s milestones and tradition is a result of our relatively recent entry into competitive sports.”

I wouldn’t disagree with that assessment, but perhaps in that understanding there is another way to look at the underlying question.

What if there have already been such women barrier breakers, but since women’s athletics have only in recent times come into the spotlight, we missed them in their own day?

On May 29, 1954 England’s Diane Leather ran the first sub-5 women’s mile in Birmingham, England (4:59.6), just 23 days after Roger Bannister achieved history’s first sub-4 men’s mile in Oxford (3:59.4). And Ms. Leather’s sub-5 came just three days after another of her attempts fell just short at 5:00.2 on the same Birmingham track. Why wasn’t that milestone celebrated like Bannister’s?

Was it because one minute per lap over four laps of a 400 yard track equating to a sub-4 mile had a more  aesthetically pleasing symmetry than four laps at 1:15 per lap equating to sub-5?  Or was it that women’s athletics hadn’t yet reached into the public consciousness?

What if women’s sports had always been the centerpiece of cultural athletic attention rather than men’s?  What if women had engineered running tracks rather than men? Would those tracks have been laid at 400 meters?

As for the marathon, what if the messenger sent to Athens from Marathon in 492 B.C. to tell of the Greek victory over the invading Persian force had been a woman and not Pheidippides? What if a sub-3 hour marathon had been the big Kahuna milestone?

Beth Bonner of the U.S. ran 2:55:22 at the 1971 New York City Marathon to become the first woman under 3:00. But women’s running wasn’t accorded an equal position with race organizers at the time, nor in the mind’s of the general public, or the sporting press.  So it wasn’t publicized as groundbreaking despite the fact that it was.

It wasn’t till Norway’s Grete Waitz entered the scene in 1978 running 2:32:30 in her debut in NYC that women’s marathoning was begun to be taken seriously from an athletic achievement standpoint.  Fairly quickly following came the first Women’s Olympic Marathon in Los Angeles in 1984. And attention to women’s running has been on par with men’s pretty much ever since.

Men created the rules, regulations, and distances of both ancient and modern sports based on men being the primary competitors. Why do you think a basketball hoop is 10 feet off the ground? Because it’s based on the stature of male athletes, not female athletes. And yet women play basketball with a hoop 10 feet off the ground.

Like so much else in life, we see how it has always been a man’s world, and women have been made to fit within its man-defined parameters. That is primarily a cultural holdover from our might-makes-right pre-agricultural evolutionary past.

The fight for women’s equality along many societal metrics is an on-going effort that has seen peaks and valleys like any other long journey.  In 1972, the passage of Title IX  legislation in the U.S. made it illegal to discriminate against female participation in sports at federally funded schools. That was a peak.

But in seeking new vistas ahead, let’s not overlook the road already travelled, and the mountains already climbed.



  1. Unfortunately, I think that the lack of public attention paid to women’s barrier breaking is more due to the general lack of attention paid to our sport in general than to the inherent gender prejudice in the sport itself. And of course to a lack of knowledge on the part of the spectating public. Women’s running has lots of nice “even” milestones–I can’t believe the author in her ruminating about a 4:00 mile equivalent didn’t even mention a 4:00 1500–a nice round number that only the very best can approach. And it’s far less common than a sub 4:00 mile. Then there’s the 2:00 800, which is similar. And the 11 second 100m, and the 22 second 200, and the 50 second 400. The 15 minute 5000, the 9:00 steeple, and the 30 minute 10000. The level of accomplishment to reach all of these varies–but the level of public awareness of the “barriers” is very similar. It doesn’t exist. For that matter, for the sake of gender equality, I would add the men’s 3:30 1500, 13:00 5K, 8:00 steeple, and 27:00 10K to the list. The relatively few track fans in the US pay attention when these barriers get surpassed–the general public doesn’t know or care.

    I don’t disagree at all with the premise that women’s sports still suffers from the gender based discrimination that’s been around for a long time. But lets not look for discrimination when simple ignorance will do.

    1. I think it’s both, but has more to do with gender. Even in track circles, the 8-minute men’s steeplechase barrier gets much more attention than the 9-minute women’s barrier.

  2. Toni: Interesting that Sally seems to be so concerned suddenly with women’s competitive running. I wrote a three-part article on cheating for the June, July and August issues of Road Race Management. In my research I learned about an Oiselle athlete, who runs on their team, who has a habit of either running with someone else’s number or just jumping into a race and running it “as a training run”, taking selfies all along the way. Thanks to Derek Murphy, who owns the website, I discovered that when it was brought to Oiselle’s attention that their athlete was cheating the response, at least initially was this tweet from the marketing director: “If you’re uncomfortable w/banditing, I’d take a long look at the history of women’s running, Disobedience=our tradition. #Bobbiwasabandit”, an obviously disrespectful and very uniformed comment to make regarding Bobbi Gibb. A few hours later Sally tweeted: “Proud to sponsor pro athlete @KellyKKRoberts!#sportsbrasquad helping a lot of women find their confidence”. 24-hours later this tweet went out (from Oiselle): “FWIW, Oiselle does not condone, support, or think it’s a good idea to bandit a race. Run right, run registered!” I reached out to Sally twice through LinkedIn, asking for her comments, she never responded. Outside picked the wrong person to write that article.

    1. I agree that Oiselle’s and Bergeson’s handling of the Roberts issue was terrible, but I’m not sure what that has to do with the topic at hand. People can be wrong on one issue but right on another.

      1. It has everything to do with the topic at hand, which Bergeson addressed in the statement when she said: “how are our own benchmarks so unfamiliar?” They’re obviously unfamiliar to her because she let her marketing director tweet that totally disrespectful statement about Bobbi Gibb, thereby indicating that they have no understanding of the history of women’s running. That’s why I wrote my comment and I stand by it: she and her company were very wrong on that issue, and I believe she’s wrong on the issue of women’s running in general. Anyone who truly cares about the sport wouldn’t be supporting athletes who cheat.

  3. For me the first notable milestone women passed was done by Cheryl Bridges, as she was known then, with her sub 2:50 in 1971….it showed to me, at least, that women could really run fast over the marathon. It actually got quite a bit of notice at the time in the running community.

    1. Washington University in St. Louis, home of 1904 Olympics and 2004 Women’s Olympic Marathon Trials has a 1/3 mile track. I was going way back before the developers of modern stadiums.

  4. All good points, Toni. In my age-deteriorating mind, I consider Grete breaking 2:30, Joanie in LA, and Paula’s sub 2:20s all milestones. Of course, it’s all open to interpretation.

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