Once every 28 years February 29th falls on a Monday and Greater Lowell’s monthly meeting lands on Leap Day. And appropriately, 45 years ago this month’s speaker led women runners on a great leap ahead. Sara Mae Berman was a pioneer in women’s distance running; the fastest female in the Boston Marathon three years in a row in the years before women were given official numbers. Her success and competitive times helped convince a skeptical male establishment that women runners were legitimate athletes, not merely after publicity.
Sara Mae took up running because several months after having her second of three children, her husband Larry asked her if she was comfortable with the shape she was in, saying that the body you have at age 30 sets the patterns for the rest of your life. Sara Mae took the challenge and began training. With Larry, who was already an accomplished runner, as a coach, Sara Mae progressed from circling the track a few times to road races where she was the only woman. Gradually she improved and became familiar to the male runners who encouraged her and sometimes ran interference when a little protection from curbside toughs was needed.
Logically, marathon running was the next step. However, a history of prejudice and superstition had created rules that limited women’s distances, at first to only 200 meters. Sara Mae and Larry, who had founded Cambridge Sports Union by now, lobbied the AAU to allow longer races and eventually the quarter and half mile runs were opened and then a 1-1/4-mile cross-country standard. Through it all Sara Mae continued to run and she and Larry organized races around Fresh Pond as well as coached a team of sprinters trying cross country.
Larry applied his engineering background to coaching, reading about the methods of the best coaches, particularly from Scandinavia. His methods in the 60s sound like today’s cutting edge. Sara Mae told us of running interval loops around their neighborhood and telling her 7-year-old daughter to watch out the front door every 12 minutes in case she was needed.
Eventually Sara Mae was first female at Boston in 1969, ‘70 and ‘71 and went on to win or place highly in 18 marathons. She was also a pioneer of Nordic skiing, winning the first race she entered and later was named to the first ever US Nordic ski team. Like Joanie Benoit, Sara Mae believes strongly in low-impact cross-country skiing as a winter replacement for running. In fact, despite stopping running in 2000 because of a bad knee, Sara Mae at 79 continues scoring points for CSU at Nordic races.
For us in the audience on that Leap Day evening, nursing our little injuries and feeling ourselves aging, Sara Mae and Larry Berman were an inspiration and a reassurance that maybe we too can grow older with grace, fitness and joie de vivre.