Marcy Schwam: Pioneer of Women’s Ultrarunning

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After my enjoyable interview with Ian Maddieson, accomplished ultrarunner and Adjunct Research Professor for the Department of Linguistics at the University of New Mexico, comparing young to aging athletes, I wanted to seek out more stories from legendary runners who have been trail running for decades. Marcy Schwam, as you will see in my interview with her below, tells amazing stories about what it was like to be a pioneer in the women’s ultrarunning movement in the 1970s and 1980s and how she challenged social stigmas that restricted women from competing in long distance running at the time.

[TAYTE] Let’s dive into the beginning of your running career. How did you get into running? What kinds of distances were you racing? What did your training look like?
[MARCY] I started running in the late 60s to stay in shape for tennis. In the early 70s, I became hooked and started to experiment with marathons. By 1978, I was hooked on running ultras. Not many women were doing long distance running back then. I began training 140-160 mile weeks and changed my entire life and career to run longer and faster. As I started to have success as the lone female in many events finishing with the men, the more I trained and explored events in other parts of the world. When I moved out to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1978, I focused more on trail running. Although I raced marathons, the U.S. Olympic Team Trials and road ultras, trail running was where I found my true love.

[TAYTE] How did you get into ultrarunning? Did you have a mentor, coach or source of inspiration for getting started?
[MARCY] I got into ultras as a student during my master’s studies in exercise physiology. The more I learned about the human body, the more I found myself wanting to test my body’s limits. There was such a stigma about women and long distance running that needed to be proven false and I took that upon myself to do so. I found that the mind and body are much stronger than I would have imagined. I set goals for combining speed and ultra running and chipped away at American records and other time challenges in the sport.

[TAYTE] What are some of your most memorable races?
[MARCY] There are many memorable races. The Pikes Peak Marathon is still one of my favorites. The Santander 100K in Spain was epic at the time and the Spartathlon in Greece is also on my list. Many of my multi-day track events were memorable because they were so strategic and robotic at the same time.

[TAYTE] Do you have any particularly memorable years in your early running career you’d like to tell us about? Were there times when everything seemed to click? When and what would you consider to be your career highpoint?
[MARCY] The years between 1980 and 1984 were probably the highlight of my career. This was where I set numerous world and American records in ultra distances and qualified for the first women’s U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in 1984. The most amazing achievement for me was breaking 6 hours for 50 miles. I set out to break 6 hours and conditions were perfect on race day.

[TAYTE] You placed 3rd overall at one of the world’s premier ultras at the time, the 1981 Santander 100K in Spain. UltraRunning Magazine considers this a “performance for the ages.” Could you tell us a little about this race? What brought you to this race? How did you feel afterwards? Was it the result you expected?
[MARCY] Santander was very special in many ways. I was invited there twice. When I came in third overall, the Italian men wanted me to be tested as it was “impossible” that a woman could run so fast. Since I had already been exposed to the Santander community before, it was a real homecoming. I did my awards ceremony speech in Spanish and it was all over the news. From this race, I quickly realized that speed and ultra could be used in the same sentence.

[TAYTE] Sandra Kiddy and Sue Ellen Trapp were some of your contemporary American ultrarunning competitors during the 1970s and 1980s. These women, like yourself, have been inducted into the American Ultrarunning Hall of Fame. How did these women help push you to new limits? Did you ever compete head-to-head?
[MARCY] I don’t think that we ever competed in the same events, but we were very aware of each other’s times and there was some juggling of American records. I believe that we all excelled at certain ultra-distances and tried to outdo each other, but the mutual respect for one another always remained.

[TAYTE] What are some things that mark this era (1970s-1980s) in ultrarunning? What makes it different from ultrarunning today? How has the sport changed? What did you love most about the sport in the 1970s and 80s?
[MARCY] The 70s and 80s were pure. There were less events and participants. Footwear and apparel were not advanced. There were no real nutrition supplements, hydration packs or many of the accessories that we have today. Ultrarunning was not a mass participation sport like it is today. It was more of a race and I loved that, but I also love that now so many people and events give everyone the opportunity to test their limits.

[TAYTE] What are your plans for the future of your running career? What’s next on the racing schedule? What does your running look like these days?
[MARCY] I’ve been running for well over 50 years. At 67, I have a knee that bit the dust. My mind and endurance still want to do long races, but the knee and new ‘Marcy gait’ just don’t let me. I love mountain racing (especially hill climbs ), and winter snowshoe racing. I’ve accepted that trail and mountain racing (even the shorter distances), still satisfy my competitiveness, even if only against myself. I had a full race schedule for the summer/fall, but I’m slowly watching it disappear due to the current situation. We shall see what remains on the schedule for 2020.

Editor’s Note: Be safe as we continue to navigate the uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic. Please continue to follow the recommendations and updates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), including proper hygiene practices. Also consider reading iRunFar’s COVID-19: A Trail Running and Ultrarunning Community Guide.

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