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Karen Bdera was riding a New York City bus one day in 1984 when she noticed an ad for a women’s 10K that asked: “Who says women can’t run the world?”
Although she was a self-described “couch potato,” Bdera was so inspired by the message that she vowed to run what was then called the L’eggs Mini Marathon.
“If I set my mind to something, I’m going to do it,” said Bdera, now 58.
With just a few months of training, Bdera not only completed the Mini Marathon that June, she fell in love with the event, setting the stage for an incredible streak of Mini finishes over the past three decades.
The New York Mini 10K on June 8 will mark her 36th consecutive go at the event. Only two women have completed the race more times than Bdera, according to event records.
“I can’t imagine not doing it,” she said during a recent phone interview with Women’s Running. “I had knee surgery in 1988 and I walked the Mini that year because it was important enough to do it.”
Considered the world’s first women-only road race when it was created in 1972, the event was originally called the Crazylegs Mini Marathon, a name loaded with sexism by today’s standards. Crazylegs Shaving Gel was a new product promoted by the race’s sponsor, Johnson Wax, and “Mini” was added to the event title as a reference to the then-popular miniskirt. (Because women need to show off those smooth legs, right?)
When Bdera started running the race in the 1980s, it was sponsored by L’eegs Hosiery. Back when women had few activewear options, pantyhose was a popular option on the running scene. Bdera was one of many female runners wearing it under shorts for comfort and warmth.
The Mini has become a powerful place to bring women together to celebrate each other. This year it also serves as the U.S. 10K road championships—the field includes Jordan Hasay, Deena Kastor, Aliphine Tuliamuk, and Stephanie Bruce, who is defending her national title.
“The lack of testosterone at the start line makes it very welcoming, very inclusive, and to me, it was a really special thing,” Bdera said.
Men don’t run, but they have always filled the sidelines. Looking at her 1984 finish line photo years later, Karen Bdera realized that her future husband, Nick Bdera, was in the shot, working as a volunteer at the finish line. They didn’t know each other at the time.
“You look back and say, ‘Wow. We were in each other’s lives longer than we thought,’” she said.
They would finally meet years later, thanks to his mother, Mayme Bdera. Mayme died in 2010 at age 95, but she took up running in her 60s and was a familiar face in Central Park in the 1980s. Karen Bdera, then Karen Polcer, watched in awe as Mayme tackled the park’s hills. They became friends.
Nick, a local runner and national-caliber race walker, felt an instant connection with his mother’s younger running pal, but it was Karen who pursued him.
“I was very serious about my race walking, and I was trying not to get deeply involved with anyone,” Nick said. “She was very persistent to the point that at one race at the end, she handed me her business card with her home number on the back and said, ‘Call me sometime.’”
Eventually they began dating, and by the late 1980s, “running in all these women’s events empowered me because I proposed to him,” Karen said. The couple married in 1989, a time when Karen’s romance with races was also growing.
In addition to doing the Mini every year, Karen Bdera has racked up an impressive number of finishes at New York Road Runners’ races—542 of them to be exact. They’ve ranged in distance from one mile to 30 miles. She has also participated in scores of other running and walking events in the region, raising $255,000 over the years for breast cancer organizations.
“She focuses on something and she’s like a dog with a sock—she can’t stop,” said Nick, 70, who is a retired engineer.
Bdera, a retired customer care and information technology manager, said running and racing are therapeutic.
“Some people do yoga, I go out and do races,” she said. “It’s very cathartic and calming, in addition to the camaraderie.”
Meanwhile, her husband, a competitor in the 50K race walk at the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1987 and 2004, is content to stand back and let her shine.
“I was always the big cheese, but now she’s doing more than I am, so it’s wonderful I am there to support her,” Nick said.
As she gears up for yet another Mini, Bdera looks forward to enjoying the day with all the girlfriends she’s met through running. And as she gets older, she hopes other women will find inspiration in her unflagging drive.
“Women can run the world,” she said. “It’s important for me to be a part of that as long as I can.”