Women Racing in Mud: the Early History of Women's Cross-Country


The early history of women’s cross-country

Running Times “Footsteps” column, December 2008

No one has written the history of women’s cross-country, so I thought I’d start to lay a paper-trail over that unfamiliar ground. I have long loved the early history of harriers and steeplechases, but the stories are all male. Women’s cross-country did not begin with Tirunesh Dibaba, though her wondrously versatile harrier skills took it to new levels.
The first pioneers we know of were Native Americans, whose women as well as men ran long distances, sometimes as part of girls’ initiation rituals, and raced in events like the Tarahumara women’s “hoop races.” The “smock races” in European village sports were sprints, but in Paris in 1903 a 12k race to Nanterre, mostly on dirt roads, attracted 2,500 shop-girls, a surprising level of enthusiasm. Maybe they got a day off work. 
English women track runners used cross-country runs for winter training as early as 1922, but the big discovery for the history of women’s running is that there were official cross-country races, even national championships, as early as the 1920s. A photo from that era shows three women in shorts and long-sleeved jerseys vigorously leaping a muddy ditch. The French were first to stage a women’s national championship, in 1923, followed by England in 1927. The first women’s international race, between England, France and Belgium at Douai, France, in 1931, was won by Gladys Lunn, leading an England team victory. These races need to be acknowledged alongside the gloomier story of the resistance to women running long distances in track and field and (especially in America) the marathon.
             Progress often depended on energetic pioneers. Dale Greig, remembered now for her marathon world record in 1964, was also one of ten founders of the Scottish women’s cross-country association. And since there was no local women’s club, the intrepid Greig founded one, naming it after the street she lived on, Tannahill Harriers. 
            The first US national championship, won by Marie Mulder, was in 1964, ten years before the first US women’s marathon. Soon, America produced one of the most influential of all women runners, Doris Brown Heritage. When women were allowed a semi-official international cross-country championship in 1967, Brown Heritage headed all the elite Europeans across 2.5 miles of muddy Welsh cow paddocks by a massive 33 seconds. She won the title five consecutive years.
            Official acceptance still lagged. In 1969, New Zealand had a women’s championship, but declined to send a women’s team alongside the men to the International Cross-Country (as the World Championship was then known). Defiantly, the appropriately named Ladies Pioneer Harriers from Christchurch sold raffles to send a “club” team. They finished second to USA, running in home-made uniforms of a blue so dark that it was indistinguishable (deliberately) from the national all black.
In 1970, things almost fell apart internationally, when two rival women’s championships were held on the same weekend, one in Maryland, the other at Vichy, France. The dispute was resolved when the first IAAF World Cross-Country in 1973 included an official women’s championship.
            Soon the sheer brilliance of Brown Heritage, Joyce Smith (England), Paula Pigni (Italy), Carmen Valero (Spain), and Grete Waitz (Norway) had made women’s cross-country indisputably a serious international sport. Girls and women today from high school to the world championship run in their muddy but lightly-stepping footsteps.        

Footnote: When this article was first published, I invited readers to send me information on the early development of women’s cross-country, especially in American colleges. None came. The history of women’s cross-country is still unexplored terrain.  

Tags: , cross country, Doris Brown Heritage, Grete Waitz, Running Times, Women in Running

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