It’s April and my thoughts, as always, return to Boston and Patriot’s Day, the third Monday in April, and the Boston Marathon, and this year I fondly remember my friend, Sara Mae Berman. Who is Sara Mae Berman? I wonder how many of you have heard of her? She is a pioneer of the women’s running movement, who ran the Boston Marathon in the late 1960s before women were officially allowed to compete.
The first woman to run the Boston Marathon was Roberta “Bobbi” Gibbs, who did it in 1966. She applied to run the race that year, but was turned down by race director, Will Cloney, who informed her that women were not physiologically capable of running marathon distances and under the rules of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) women were not allowed to run more than a mile and a half competitively. She not only ran, but finished in 3:21 ahead of 290 of the 415 official male starters. The following year she ran 3:27, almost a half hour ahead of Katherine Switzer, who Jock Semple famously tried to remove from the course when he discovered that a woman was running the race. Parenthetically it is the 50th anniversary of that event in 2017 and Switzer is planning to run Boston this year in commemoration.
Sara Mae won the Boston Marathon three consecutive years. In 1969 she finished in 3:22, and in 1970, the year I ran my first Boston Marathon, she and her husband, Larry, also ran. I did not know either of them then, but we all had great races on that rainy, cold Patriots Day. Larry finished first in a PR time of 2:38; I followed not too far behind in 2:41; Sara was the first woman to finish in the splendid time of 3:05, another PR, and a glimpse of what was to come as women knocked on the door of the three hour marathon, and ultimately broke through to run faster and faster times. After Larry finished, he quickly turned around and went back out on the course with Sara to offer encouragement, and run with her to the finish.
On that April day I didn’t know the Bermans, but later that May, Johna and I moved from Petersburg, Virginia to Somerville, Massachusetts, just across the line from Cambridge. I arrived first and stayed at the Cambridge YMCA while searching for an apartment to rent. As a runner, one of the first things I did on my arrival was to search out running routes from the Y. I quickly discovered the joys of New England running, and found myself gravitating to Fresh Pond, the municipal water supply for Cambridge and site of local 2.5 and five mile races sponsored by the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU). CSU was founded by Larry and Sara to promote running and fitness. It was the first competitive club for both men and women. The two of them were instrumental in transferring my AAU membership from Virginia to Massachusetts so I could compete for their club in New England AAU races.
At that time women were just beginning close in on the first sub-three-hour marathon. Sara Mae came within 35 seconds of being the first woman to do it when she ran 3:00:35 at the Plodders Marathon in Brockton-and-Avon, Massachusetts on May 1, 1971. Then less than six months later, the barrier was finally broken by Elizabeth Bonner with a 2:55 at the New York City Marathon on September 19, 1971. Sara Mae came so very close to being that woman, but it was not to be.
In 2015 Sara Mae was inducted into the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) Hall of Fame, based on her achievements as a runner but also for her other contributions to running, including serving as the first female RRCA officer from 1966-67. She was also one of the original road race course certifiers in New England in the 1960s. In 1967 she certified the Boston Marathon course so that it could be used by runners to qualify for the 1968 Olympic Marathon Trials, which were held in Alamosa, Colorado.
She was at the forefront of women’s long distance running, and I feel blessed to know her, and to have had the opportunity to run for the Cambridge Sports Union, and to share her story with other younger runners, who may not know of her contributions to women’s running.