The first time I ever got passed by a woman was December 21, 1975. I was running the Christmas Relays, a fifty-mile team event from Santa Cruz to Half Moon Bay. If you drive that highway, as I did just a couple months ago, it's one of the most scenic stretches of road in America. The pavement parallels and overlooks the Pacific Ocean in many spots. Soaring green hills rise to the right as you travel north. The road swoops and soars through a mostly undeveloped landscape. It's one of those drives that can be best described as good for the soul, a stretch of beauty you wish would never end.
All of that was lost on me back in 1975. I was running a ten-mile leg in a cold winter rain, feeling very sorry for myself and not at all enjoying the view — particularly those rolling stretches of highway that seemed to climb forever. I was fourteen. My dad was off in Vietnam. Our junior high track club, named "Canadian Bacon" for our Canuck coach, was my sanctuary from the loneliness of missing your dad and the nightly prayer that puberty would one day — hopefully — arrive.
Team names were a little looser back then. There were the Buffalo Chips and the Fastest Foxes, and Six Studs and One Tie Tack (I think I can guess what that means).
The sun was setting. The rain was pouring down. I was the anchor of our seven-man team. We would finish 68th that day (I just found the results online!), out of more than 130 teams. But after almost fifty miles of racing that highway didn't feel like a brotherhood of runners, just a bitch of a road with no sign of Half Moon Bay or the finish line looming in the darkness. The racers were strung out, so much so that it felt like I was running alone.
I heard footsteps. You can always tell if the runner coming up on you is fast or slow by the sound of their cadence and heaviness of their tread. This particular runner didn't seem to be having any problems at all, even as I endured what I still remember as one of the worst running experiences of my entire life.
The runner came alongside me. I was shocked to see that it was a woman. Back then, female runners were becoming a common addition to the boys club but I could never remember seeing one really race with authority. More specifically, I'd never had one run stride for stride with me. At the time, I could throw down a thirty-five minute 10K and had broken an hour for ten miles.
She didn't look at me. Her eyes were focused up the road. "Nice race," she said with a swagger that let us both know we wouldn't be running side by side much longer. I was a little shocked to see that my rival was Dr. Joan Ullyot, one of the great early voices of women's running. My, she could run fast.
I thought of her this morning as my team ran a predawn workout. It's supposed to be a hundred degrees here today, so the girls and guys were out there at 5:30 to beat the heat. There's no longer anything extreme about women running. In fact, statistics show that more women run these days than men. My girls team is no different from the boys in their level of effort or my degree of expectation. I expect all my athletes to suffer equally. In turn, the farting, spitting, swearing, and bathroom discussions that come part and parcel with being a runner show no sign of being gender-specific.
I certainly don't see myself as much of a pioneer in women's athletics, but I like being on both ends of the spectrum — the first few years when women were doing something a little on the edgy side by choosing distance running, and nowadays, when being a runner just means being a runner.
Having said that, I'm still stung by the memory of those words: "Nice race."
No one likes getting their ass kicked.