Book Review: Long Run to Glory

Laura Clark reviews Long Run to Glory: The Story of the Greatest Marathon in Olympic History and the Women Who Made It Happen, by Stephen Lane. Lyons Press, 2023. Laura is a trail runner, snowshoer and children’s librarian based in Saratoga Springs, NY.

In August, 1984, four of the greatest marathoners joined forces at the historic Olympic Marathon in Los Angeles: America’s Joan Benoit Samuelson, Norway’s Greta Waitz and Ingrid Kristiansen and Portugal’s Rosa Mota. Individually, they were all primed to win the first women’s Olympic Marathon. Collectively, they were focused on proving once and for all that women can and should run as hard and as long as they could. Realistically, the race could have gone to either one and it is a credit to the emerging sport of women’s distance running that four of the greatest marathoners, women all of them, took this stand.

Before, women’s distance running was viewed as somewhat of a publicity gimmick side-circus, with Bobbi Gibb hiding in the bushes and jumping in to run Boston and Kathrine Switzer’s boyfriend tackling Race Director Jock Semple so she could complete Boston as the first officially registered woman.

After the Olympics, women demanded and received larger appearance fees than the men. But there was so much more to woman’s running than that single moment of glory, and author Stephen Lane travels back in time to help us fully appreciate every nuance. A history teacher, race director and author, he takes a broad view of events and skillfully places them in context. His is the voice of a coach and sports reporter as he offers a compelling play-by-play of the Olympic Marathon, building suspense throughout the book with well-placed italicized interlude teasers for what is to come.

If, like me, you are old enough, this book will be a trip down memory lane. As a somewhat plodding runner, but enthusiastic sports writer and race director, I was fortunate to have met Katherine Switzer at her Battery Park Women’s Relay, to have recently snowshoed with Patty Catalano, and to have run a few precious minutes with Joanie at the Friehofer’s Run for Women. But even after having lived through much of this history, it is all jumbled images in my mind. Reading this book put the events in order.

For those of you to whom this is more like ancient history, this read will help you appreciate the small steps that led to the big picture of where we stand now. And for those others who are now campaigning for neuro-divergent rights and LGBTQ+ inclusion, it will help to recognize that women did not suddenly wake up one day and run a marathon. There were so many signposts to check off along the way.

I appreciated the glimpse into the “Wild West” of early racing where colorful Barnum-style characters like Jock Semple and Fred Lebow could bully their way around rules that were merely suggestions, and ordinary running males were so supportive when there was a woman in the crowd. I railed against the political rules of the dictatorial, old-school racing organizations which necessitated under-the-table payments to keep athletes afloat. And I was awed and shocked at how much self-promoting even name brand athletes still have to do to make a living.

Most of all, I was impressed by those early pioneers who quietly paved the way, organized women’s races and spoke out. As Stephen Lane comments, “They created opportunities that didn’t exist during their own careers.”

Most telling for me was Bobbi Gibbs’ comment, “I would have liked to run in the Olympics.” Thanks to her and her friends, that possibility is now open to any female.

Editor’s note: Enjoy more book reviews from Laura Clark here.