December 5, 2023

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She Was One of the Boston Marathon’s First-Ever Female Finishers — at 75 Years Old, She’s Racing Again

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Up until about April 1, 1972, Val Rogosheske’s plan was to go full Roberta Gibb — hide in the bushes until the gun went off and jump in with the men running the Boston Marathon. This was a legitimate plan, since women couldn’t officially enter. And truth be told, Val was looking forward to it. Hiding in the bushes and banditing the race had a dash of adventure, a bit of rebellion about it.

About two weeks before race day, the Boston Athletic Association reversed course and officially opened the race to women. Eight registered. Twenty-five-year-old Rogosheske, running in her first marathon, wore bib F7. And did not jump out of the bushes.

“I’m a little ashamed to say, when we were officially welcomed, I was a teeny bit disappointed. I was so focused on being this woman who hides in the bushes and runs,” Rogosheske told Runner’s World. “But you know, Nina Kusick and Kathrine Switzer and Sara Mae Berman had been working for years to make that happen. I just kind of showed up and took advantage of it.”

Though she didn’t fully realize the historic nature of her race at the time, she’s gained an appreciation for showing up as a form of activism, as a way to make change happen.

Rogosheske is still showing up and still running. Of the 1972 eight, she’s the only one running this year, and will be joined by her two daughters and a cousin. “I love the ‘cycle of life’ aspect,” she said recently from her home in Minneapolis. “I was 25 when the eight of us ran that first year. I returned when I was 50 to mark the 25th Anniversary, even though I had to drop out at the halfway mark. And now I’m 75, and this time I intend to finish!”

Val talked about that 1972 Boston Marathon, and what she’ll be thinking about when she joins 14,000 women running this year.

“Back in 1969 when I was at St. Cloud State College, a friend asked me how fast I could run a mile, so I went down to the track and I was so surprised and embarrassed. I couldn’t finish a mile. That’s what started it. I bought a copy of that book, Jogging, by Bill Bowerman.

“Training was based on time, starting with running gently for 10 minutes and gradually expanding the amount of time you could keep jogging. There weren’t really other women doing it. I just did it on my own.

“For the first race, I wore [Onitsuka] Tiger shoes. There were only about three brands back then, and they were paper thin. But for training, maybe I just wore tennis shoes. It was summer so I wore Bermuda shorts or something. When I met [my husband] Phil in 1970, he gave me my first actual T-shirt.

“I didn’t know of any races. This sounds so strange, but the whole idea of women competing and racing was foreign to me. I never considered it. I was kind of a tomboy, and there were a lot of boys in the neighborhood. I’d go to their little league games, but it never even crossed my mind that I should be playing too. I’m almost embarrassed to say that, like I should have been a little girl activist, but I wasn’t.

“I was telling Phil I enjoyed this jogging, but I was still sometimes having trouble getting out the door. He thought I needed a race to train for. This was in 1971. The Boston Marathon was the only race I’d heard of. I’d heard of women hiding in the bushes and running. I knew we weren’t allowed to run, and that kind of appealed to me. Maybe my activism was coming alive by then.

“I got mono and spent all of January [1972] in bed, so that left only February and March to train.

“Phil helped me with training. Basically, every week I did a little bit longer long run, and in between, shorter things. I remember I did some repeat half-miles to add some speed to the mix.

“I found out we could register maybe two weeks, three weeks max beforehand. I don’t remember if I mailed something in or if there was a number to call, but I got a call from a man from the BAA. Apparently there was a qualifying time and the other women had all run under 3:30 before. I had to admit I’d never run a marathon before, but I told him about my training and that I’d gone as far as 16 miles, and he gave me permission to enter, which was a nice thing that he did.

“They had the eight of us grouped together right on the starting line. That was very cool. There were about 1,200 runners that year, which seemed like a whole lot of runners to me. It might have been unspoken [between the eight of us], but all of us had this thought that we couldn’t quit and we couldn’t even walk. We were only there on the line maybe 10 minutes, and after the gun went off, I never saw a woman again.

“I had trouble with chafing, sometimes even Bermuda shorts would ride up, so I had these long nylon orienteering pants from Sweden. Phil picked them up somewhere. It was a hot day, and there I was in long nylon pants. And that bucket hat! My thought was I needed protection from the sun, and there weren’t a lot of choices back then.

“I think there were a few water stops on the course, but mostly I remember drinking out of people’s hoses and trying not to get my feet wet. I ate some orange slices that kids were handing out.

“The response from male runners was completely positive. They were the ones who knew what a nice effect doing something like this could have on your life.

“I wanted to make sure I finished so I was careful not to go out too fast. I have two big memories of that race. One was Wellesley College. They were all lined up and so excited to see the women. They’d yell, ‘Right on, sista!’ It was thrilling for me to get that kind of support. Second was Heartbreak Hill. I was already well beyond what I’d run before and I knew I couldn’t walk, but every single person around me was walking. It was so hard not to. Phil showed up there. It was easier to check in with people then, and I almost started to cry but I told him I was going to finish.

“My time was 4:29. My goal was just to finish. It’s kind of crazy how that finish line has changed. Spectators were really close. My husband was right there at the finish.

“I was always a tomboy, but I had never thought of myself as an athlete, and I think, after that, I did.

“Right when I finished I thought, ‘I’m going to really train and come back and do this again.’ So I trained and I talked two of my friends into doing it too. In 1973, there were 15 women entered, so 20 percent of the women’s field was from St. Cloud, Minnesota.

“I had never competed in anything before and I was discovering I kind of liked it. I was not competing against other women. I never even saw other women. I was competing against myself. I was well-trained [for Boston] in 1974 and ran the whole second half of the race with this guy, Mel Opstad. We both got our PR, 3:09, and found out we lived 30 miles apart in Minnesota. I still keep in touch with Mel.

“When I talked to the BAA about getting into this year’s race, they said the cut-off time was six hours, and could I do that? My old brain said, ‘Oh sure,’ but then I started timing myself. You’d think you could stroll six hours, but let me tell you, you can’t.

“I’m astounded by the progress [women’s sports has] made. I was a P.E. major, and there was no organized sports in high school or college, but my daughter got a soccer scholarship. So there’s been all this progress, and you wouldn’t think that would go away, but I’m reminded of the early 1900s when women’s basketball was everywhere in Minnesota. But around 1930, there was a change in public opinion about what was acceptable or healthy for women, and those opportunities went away, all the way until the 1970s. Even in the early days of running, they kept thinking your uterus was going to drop out of position or something. So you can’t take these things for granted.

“This year I’m really looking forward to getting to Wellesley College. Fifty years ago there were eight of us, and this year I think there are 14,000 women. It’s kind of mind-blowing.

[Originally reported by Runner’s World. Edited for clarity.]

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