The year was 1994. Tonya Harding (allegedly!) attacked Nancy Kerrigan by proxy, O. J. Simpson led a dramatic police chase in his white Bronco and Oprah Winfrey ran her first marathon followed by a TV crew. I was in the third grade, and primarily consumed with which Jonathan Taylor Thomas poster to tack on my bedroom wall. Who would have guessed that out of all of the year’s dramatic events, it would be Oprah’s race that changed the course of thousands of people’s lives—mine included?
When running through a list of influential female runners, we don’t typically add Oprah’s name. There’s Kathrine, Flo-Jo, Joanie, Grete, Deena, Shalane, Sanya and many more—but they’re elites who became lifelong advocates for the sport. Oprah was neither of those things. However, when she crested the final hill of the Marine Corps Marathon that October in 4 hours and 29 minutes, she represented women everywhere.
Aside from her incredible wealth, many women could relate: Oprah had struggled with her weight for years and worked a nonstop job, fighting to find the balance between taking care of herself and her career. When Oprah crossed the finish line, it suddenly occurred to women around the world that we didn’t need to be elites to be runners, too.
It wasn’t so long ago that running was a sport reserved only for men who were exceedingly speedy, slender and talented. As children and young adults, many of us felt self-conscious about running because we “didn’t look like runners” or didn’t think we’d be fast enough to make it worth our while.
I myself was one of those reluctant runners; everyone I knew who ran as an adult had run competitively in high school or college. It seemed to me that if you didn’t catch on as a kid (which I definitely did not), it was too late to start. It wasn’t until I saw some normal people from my neighborhood—acquaintances I knew in real life—chatting as they ran down the sidewalks that the possibility of running really dawned on me. And even then, I didn’t start right away. I thought I was too out of shape to ever take up a sport as serious as running. I bet Oprah thought that, too.
For years, we have looked to the elites, the record setters, history makers and activists to change the game for female runners—without ever realizing that we are doing it ourselves. Like Oprah, who probably didn’t expect to become a national inspiration when she first laced up her running shoes, we are role models for future generations. No matter how fast or how slow we go, others witness the smiles that spread across our faces when we run a little farther or a little faster than the day before. They see us, and in us, they see themselves without even knowing it.