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Starting Line 1928: Marilyn Bevans

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 startingline1928@gmail.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.

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Starting Line 1928: Bjorg Austrheim-Smith

Starting Line 1928 is an oral history project documenting the lived experiences of female distance running pioneers. This is the first 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 startingline1928@gmail.com. In the meantime, thanks for listening, and being a part of this unfolding story.

Author’s note: The following is just a snippet of the conversation I had with Bjorg Austrheim-Smith. I urge you to listen to the full conversation; we delve deeper into training and the ultrarunning scene of the time.  

Bjorg Austrheim-Smith, multiple Western States winner (1981, 1982, 1983), will tell you upfront that her story does not fit the typical narrative, “I was just a stay-at-home mom with three small children who one day stuck the kids in a baby buggy with groceries underneath it and started running the streets. I needed to get out of the house,” she said. 

Bjorg Austrheim-Smith pushing her child in a stroller while listening to music.
Image courtesy of Bjorg Austrheim-Smith

She started racing a local three-mile race and she will readily admit that she is not a middle-distance runner. So, when there was a marathon on the streets she ran, she signed up.

“And, and as a matter of fact that first marathon I ran I came to the start line with my husband and two kids. And two men came up to my husband and said,  ‘she’s not running’ and my husband said, ‘yes, yes,’ and they said, ‘no she’s not.’” “And they tried to pull me off,” she said. Her husband used a bicycle to keep the men away while Austraheim-Smith hid in the bushes until the race began. She ran a 3:45. 

Austrheim-Smith has always had a sense of adventure. After serving as a tour guide to a group of Americans, she decided to immigrate to the US.  “So they didn’t like me and I didn’t like them, and so, when we were done, they said, ‘we would like you to come to the US. We will be your sponsors’ and I said, if you have the guts to offer that to me, I have the guts to take you up on it, so I can go to America,” she said. 

She continued to run with a group that was running the three-mile races and was convinced to do a 50 miler. “I started training every day and I did my first 50 and there were the absolute worst conditions ever. It was windy, it was February; it was pouring. The rain came in sideways and we were running on the levee,” she said “That was the first 50 ultra. I was never doing that again and, of course, that group said, ‘let’s go there’s a 100 miler.’  I said, “over my dead body. I’m not doing a 100 ultra.” 

Bjorg Austrheim-Smith holding Western States trophy.
Image courtesy of Bjorg Austrheim-Smith

But with some prodding, she made it to the start line and finished two minutes and eleven seconds out of first. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I put one foot in front of the other. My family didn’t know what they were doing either and then the following three years I won Western States and then took second and then fourth the next year” she said. 

During a race, she met training partner Bruce Labelle. They would push each other on longer runs on the weekend doing double 50s. “I said, how can we go out and kill ourselves in training, because I don’t want to be dead during a race, so I might as well, kill myself training.”

She was doing about 200-mile training weeks. “What I did with my children, we had an agreement we’ll take the baby buggy. And we’ll go to the bakery and you can get whatever you want and it doesn’t matter what.  One donut was 15 miles.  So I would never put my shoes on anything under 15 miles,” she said, “So my son would ask if it was one-donut day or a two-donut day. Two donuts is 30 miles so that’s how we measured.” 

Bjorg Austrheim-Smith runs on a trail
Image courtesy of Bjorg Austrheim-Smith

After winning Western States, she garnered a sponsorship from Nike but gear at the time was just a smaller version of men’s gear. “I am built like a woman, I have curves, and so they did not make clothes for women.” She said, “It was a great problem, both shoes and clothes didn’t do it for women.” 

She still runs every day, “It keeps you healthy. I don’t believe in sitting in a rocking chair and waiting to die,” she said. She also continues to mentor and coach runners, “I like to help. I’m a problem solver. I like problems to solve.” 

Looking back, she didn’t realize she was making history, “I was doing it for my own survival, because I was a stay-at-home mom. And I felt that I needed to do something for me, because I felt like my brain was dying. I needed something for me.  It just turned out that way, I just didn’t know. I was pleased when people would come out and maybe I encouraged somebody else to do that,” she said. 

Note about the author: Cara Hawkins-Jedlicka is a longtime supporter of women’s running and is part of the leadership team for Starting Line 1928. She is currently an assistant scholarly professor at Washington State University in the Murrow College of Communication. She enjoys running all distances and has taken Austraheim-Smith’s advice to just run with the toddler in a jogging stroller.