Timeline: Women’s Running Through the Years
A few of the watershed moments in running history that shifted the sport of running toward inclusiveness and highlighted women's excellence.
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Running was a sport for the men once upon a time, but that notion slowly deteriorated as historical events changed the perception of who could take part. Here are some of those watershed moments that shifted the sport of running toward one of inclusiveness.
Watershed Moments in Women’s Running History
1954 — British-born Diane Leather becomes the first woman to run a sub-5-minute mile (4:59.6) on May 29, just 23 days after Roger Bannister ran his 3:59.4 mile. The IAAF didn’t recognize the women’s mile as a world record event until 1967.
1960 — Women are allowed to participate in five running events in the Summer Olympics, including the 800 meters, which had been banned after the race in 1928 because of questions as to whether it was too taxing for female athletes.
1967 — Kathrine Switzer is the first woman to run the Boston Marathon with an official bib registered under the name K.V. Switzer. Although race official Jock Semple tried to pull her off the course, she finished the race in 4:20 and was subsequently banned by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU).
1972 — The AAU allows women to register for marathons after dropping its 1961 ban on women competing in U.S. road races. However, women are required to start at a separate time. In protest of the “special” start, women sit at the starting line of the NYC Marathon.
1975— After becoming a law in 1972, Title IX begins to got into effect, discouraging unequal federal financial aid and university support for women’s programs. The average number of women’s sports teams for an NCAA school at the time is 2.1.
1977 — Running apparel for women makes huge strides with the invention of the sports bra and the launch of Moving Comfort, Inc.
1978 — Nike introduces first women-specific running shoe, with the Nike Waffle Racer.
1983 — After being unable to compete in the 1980 Summer Olympic Games due to the U.S. boycott, Mary Decker Slaney wins gold medals in the 1,500-meter and 3,000-meter runs at the inaugural IAAF World Track & Field Championships in Helsinki, Finland.
1984 — Joan Benoit Samuelson of the United States wins the first women’s Olympic marathon, held in Los Angeles. She broke away from the pack just 14 minutes into the race and never looked back.
1985 — Great Britain’s Zola Budd breaks the world record in the 5,000-meter on the track running barefoot for the second time in three years with a 14:48.07 effort.
1987 — Jackie Joyner-Kersee becomes the first female runner to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated. The cover line next to her photo reads: “Super Woman.”
1988 — Florence Griffith Joyner set world record times in the 100m and 200m at the 1998 Summer Olympics in Seoul.
1988 — Norway’s Grete Waitz wins the New York City Marathon for the ninth time (a record that still stands).
1991 — Susan G. Komen’s Race for the Cure debuts the first pink ribbon at its NYC event. The now-iconic symbol for breast cancer awareness was given to all breast cancer survivors and participants of the race.
1994 — TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey crosses the finish line at the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. in 4:29:15. Her effort, which included her losing 72 pounds in the year leading up to the race, sparked a new running boom among women, with the theme of “anyone can do it.”
1996 — Russian middle-distance runner Svetlana Masterkova sets the women’s mile world record of 4:12.56 at a race in Zurich, Switzerland just a few weeks after becoming the second woman in history to win Olympic gold medals in the 800- and 1,500-meter events.
1996 — Molly Barker starts Girls on the Run, which now impacts more than 130,000 girls across North America every year.
2002 — Ultrarunner Pam Reed wins the Badwater Ultramarathon, a grueling 135-mile course through Death Valley in the middle of July when temperatures peak at 120 degrees. She beats both men and women entered in the race and repeated the feat in 2003, when she beat legendary ultrarunner Dean Karnazes.
2004 — Nicole Deboom founds Skirt Sports after winning Ironman Wisconsin in the prototype of what would become the original Race Belt skirt. Her brand has continued to change women’s go-to race-day outfits around the world.
2007 — British runner and marathon world record-holder Paula Radcliffe wins the New York City Marathon 10 months after giving birth to her daughter, inspiring mother-runners all over the world.
2009 — Women’s Running publishes its first issue and is now the largest women-specific running magazine in the world. Founder
2012 — Shalane Flanagan, Desiree Davila (now Linden) and Kara Goucher finish 1-2-3 at the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Houston. It was the first time the top three finishers ran sub-2:30 in the trials.
2011 — Jenny Simpson wins the gold medal in the 1,500m at the world championships in Daegu, South Korea, the first of four global medals the American earns during her career.
2013 — High school running prodigy Mary Cain of Bronxville, N.Y., finishes second in the 1,500 meters at the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, thus becoming the youngest American to represent the U.S. at an IAAF World Championships meet. She became the youngest woman ever to make the finals and wound up placing 10th.
2017 — Maria Lorena Ramírez of Mexico’s Tarahumara community wins the 2017 Ultra Trail Cerro Rojo Ultramarathon wearing sandals and a skirt.
2017 — Shalane Flanagan becomes the first American woman to win the NYC Marathon since 1977 in a time of 2 hours, 26 minutes and 53 seconds.
2017 — Emma Coburn wins the U.S. its first gold medal in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 2017 IAAF World Championships, while Amy Cragg breaks a 34-year American medal drought while taking the bronze in the marathon.
2018 — Desi Linden wins the Boston Marathon in notoriously windy, cold weather, becoming the first American woman to do so since 1985. Her time was 2 hours, 39 minutes, and 54 seconds.
2019 — Dutch distance runner Sifan Hassan breaks the women’s mile world record, running 4:12.33 in her win at the Monaco Diamond League.
2019 — Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei smashes the women’s marathon world record by 81 seconds to win the Chicago Marathon with a time of 2 hours 14 minutes 4 seconds.
2019 — Maggie Guterl becomes the first woman to be the last runner standing at Big’s Backyard Ultra in Tennessee, covering 250 miles by running singular laps on a 4.16-mile loop for 60 straight hours.
2020 — Aliphine Tuliamuk, Molly Seidel, and Sally Kipyego finish 1-2-3 at the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Atlanta where more than 450 women raced.
2021 – In just her third marathon, Molly Seidel earns the bronze medal in the marathon at the Tokyo Olympics — ending a 17-year American medal drought.
2021 – Courtney Dauwalter wins her second consecutive women’s title at the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc 171K race in Chamonix, France, setting a new women’s course record (22:30:54) and placing seventh overall.