Starting Line 1928 is an oral history project documenting the lived experiences of female distance running pioneers. This is the second episode of the podcast. We hope you’ll listen, and hit the “subscribe” button on your preferred podcasting app so you never miss an interview. And if you have suggestions for pioneers to profile, or want to join this effort, email us at email@example.com. In the meantime, thanks for listening, and being a part of this unfolding story.
Marilyn Bevans, born in 1949 in Baltimore Maryland, was the first African-American woman marathoner. Her career highlights include winning two Baltimore Marathons and being a top finisher in several Boston Marathons, including second female overall in 1977. Bevans, a retired teacher, still lives in Baltimore and is a girls’ high school track coach.
Bevans was fortunate to come from a family that loved track and field. Her uncle would take her to the Penn Relays in Philadelphia where she fell in love with the sprinters, who were mostly African-American. Black women dominated the sport then and she already knew of Wilma Rudolph who won three gold medals at the 1960 Rome Olympics.
Her first race, a 100-yard dash, was as a 12-year-old. She was the only Black girl in the race. She had this made, she thought, her confidence getting the better of her. But she quickly realized she was sorely out of her league. “All I saw was everyone’s backside as they flew past me,” she recalled. She had no clue about pacing, timing, nothing. She realized she wasn’t cut out to be a sprinter.
As a kid, Bevans spent all her free time on the move, whether that was playing basketball, running through the parks, chasing her friends, she was an outdoors kid. In school, though, there was no outlet for her running. No track team or cross-country for girls. So on her own, she walked to a reservoir and started to run loops. After a few loops she realized she was cut out for distance. But there was an unwritten rule that no female was allowed to run distance, only sprints. Bevans decided she was going to break that rule.
After finishing Morgan State University in 1967, she attended Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts, for a master’s degree in physical education. But still no track for females. So like time and time again, she ran on her own. But this time someone was watching.
The men’s track coach, Vern Cox, noticed her and invited her to run with the men. She was elated to finally have some company, even if she could only keep up with the back-of-the-packers. The men were friendly, considerate, and encouraged her. Soon she was entering local races but often she was the only Black female in the race. It didn’t bother her, as she never wanted to make that her personal statement. She just kept her head down, concentrated on the task at hand – the race – and went back to the dorms to study. Upon graduating she returned to Baltimore and a teaching job. She joined a running group and started running longer distances. When a small running club organized the first Maryland Marathon in 1973, she decided to try it. Kathrine Switzer took first place and Bevans took second in 3:31:45. Bevans found her distance.
Encouraged by her good time, three months later she ran the Beltsville Marathon, taking five minutes off her time. Two months later she was at the starting line for her first Boston, finishing in 3:17:42. Bevans was making a name for herself. She started training more seriously, putting in 100-mile weeks on top of her full-time job as a physical education teacher. Despite her elite times, no one was reaching out to her for coaching or sponsorship or interviews. If she was mentioned at all in the media, it was usually something along the lines of the Black female who won the marathon last year but all eyes will be on the – fill in the blank – white girl. “Sure there was racism and discrimination, but I chose not to let it get to me. I was always a solo runner on my own and that was fine with me,” said Bevans. She was also too polite back then to make a scene when called the N-word. Now, she states, it would be a whole new ballgame, saying, “I’d get real mad.”
“Sure there was racism and discrimination, but I chose not to let it get to me. I was always a solo runner on my own and that was fine with me”— Marilyn Bevans
Bevans personal best was 2:49:56 at the 1979 Boston Marathon. After more than 25 marathons, she developed exercise-induced asthma and had to stop competing. She had qualified for the first qualifying standards for the women’s marathon in the Olympics, but realized she was done. “I would have loved to run in the Olympic trials that one time, just for the experience. I don’t know if I would’ve made the team, but that would have been great,” she adds.
Bevans has no regrets. She did what she loved to do and did it on her own terms. In her own quiet way, she became a trailblazer for African-American women and set a standard for grace and decency. In 1977 Track & Field News ranked her the 10th fastest female marathoner in the world. She ran her PR of 2:49:56 at the 1979 Boston Marathon. In November 2013, she was inducted into the National Black Marathoners Association’s Distance Runner Hall of Fame.
Note about the author: Gail Waesche Kislevitz is an award-winning journalist and the author of six books on running and sports. She was a columnist for Runner’s World for fifteen years and her freelance work has appeared in Shape, Marathon and Beyond, and New York Runner.