By Patti Gray Bellan
Having the opportunity to dust off my spikes and take a stab at racing again after a VERY long hiatus has given me the opportunity to view so much progress in our sport. It was a privilege to meet the new, young, Aggie women and see them get down to business! The success of our Open Women's Team at XC Nationals, and the chance to race again with some of my old friends and competitors (e.g., Cal Poly SLO Hall of Famer Robyn Schmidt), has caused me to reflect on my personal experiences in this sport, and on how it was to ride that first wave of female distance running.
Those of you who also rode that first wave might remember a time when girls did not have their own cross country teams. Yes, during my freshman year of high school I ran on the boys' team, and was scored as a boy along with a few other girls at meets. Racing mostly boys was super tough as no boy wanted to get "girled." Maybe that made me stronger! Title 9 was then passed, and so in my sophomore year we were able to race in a separate girls' division. Sadly our girls' team had to forfeit most of the time unless we could beg a few friends to just walk the two mile course to fill our team. Muscles and sweat were not as cool then as they are now for girls and women!
Long before there were lycra tights and jog bras, The AIAW, not the NCAA, was the governing body for women’s collegiate sports. In 1981 I ran at the last AIAW National Track and Field Championship.
The following year I competed at the first NCAA DIV II and DIV I National Track and Field Championships where I became the first ever champion in the 3000m and 5000m at the DII National Meet.
My teammate and super famous Aggie, Linda Somers Smith, took 4th in the 10,000m as part of her debut track season. Until these championships, women had never competed alongside the men at nationals. Back then some of the male coaches were very concerned that the women athletes would be a distraction, really.
Being part of that first wave of female distance runners also included qualifying for the first ever Olympic Trials Marathon for women. Up until the 1984 games, the longest women's event in the Olympics was the 3000m. There still was not a 5,000m or 10,000m available at the ’84 Games, which is what forced me to move up to the marathon at a young age.
While I was in great shape heading into the trials, I suffered the only major injury of my career two weeks before the trials and was not able to compete. However, I was in the stands at the Los Angeles Coliseum when Joan Benoit entered the stadium to take the gold medal for team U.S.A. It still brings tears to my eyes.
Soon women were racing marathons like never before, but things were not yet equal. After winning the California International Marathon in 1987, in what felt like a hurricane, I was awarded the same prize money as the men’s winner. That was not always the case back then as usually the female purse was smaller. However, CIM thought it very important to pay women the same amount; revolutionary! Most recently I remember that Christine Olen (long time Aggie and best training partner ever) and I jumped into a few Idaho races to tune up for this year’s XC Nationals. In one of these races, the top 3 finishers were masters women! I never thought I would see that, not even at a small local race.
While all of these are historic/achievement oriented memories relating to being a part of the first wave, it is my first Aggie Running Club memory that really gets at what being an Aggie and creating wave after wave for our future runners is all about. I first met Peanut Harms and, more importantly, Tena Anex Harms (sorry, Nut!) during the summer of '81 after my first track season at UC Davis. Tena invited me for a run in the Bay Area. I was totally psyched to run with her as Tena was all over the record board at Davis. Her example and encouragement helped motivate me to follow in her footsteps and to keep paying the Aggie spirit forward.
Since the days that Tena and I ran for UC Davis, she as a pioneer and me as part of that first wave, a lot has changed in women's distance running. It fills me with pride to belong to a club that prioritizes the continued development of our women alongside our men, through coaching, training groups, and the huge support from HOKA ONE ONE.
Now, I want to hear your pioneering and first wave stories. I know there are quite a few to tell from both the men and women. Let’s share all of them so we can be reminded to keep ourselves at the forefront of opportunity and possibility.