On Oct. 23, 1977, 88 women — some local and some from as far away as California and Hawaii — lined up on East River Road in St. Paul.

It was the Women’s National Marathon Championship, the first ever run in the United States for women only. A woman would lead the race. A woman would break the tape. Women would not be lost in crowds of male runners.

The single-gender format was strategic, not only to celebrate how far and how fast — literally — women had come in distance running, but to lay the groundwork for an Olympic women’s marathon. Fifteen of the 79 finishers that day broke three hours, an astoundingly high 19 percent. On average, only two percent of all marathon finishers, men and women, will dip under the three-hour mark.

The first Olympic women’s marathon was held in 1984, and now 44 percent of all marathon finishers are women, according to Running USA, a nonprofit that supports the running industry. This Sunday’s Twin Cities Marathon speaks to the growth of women’s marathoning, too.

Those who ran 40 years ago say the historic value is in the way running has changed women’s lives. Like most trends, distance running was centered on the coasts, in Boston and California, but the Twin Cities had sported a robust running community since the 1960s, and that included women. After Title IX passed in 1972, mandating that women and men be provided equal educational opportunities, the number of Minnesota high schools offering girls track or cross-country programs rose from 164 to 494 in 1977. Running was the most popular sport for Minnesota girls. Nonetheless, it was still unusual for women to run marathons: Judy Lutter, who later founded Melpomone Institute to study women and sports, said she was one of three women who ran the 1975 City of Lakes Marathon. The notion that running long distances was damaging to women’s bodies persisted at the federation level, and though most marathons had a women’s division, the longest distance women contested in the 1976 Olympics was 1500 meters.

Alex Boies thought that was “silly.”

Boies, outspoken, opinionated, now 72 and living in Minneapolis, was the driving force behind the women’s marathon championship. She was introduced to running in the mid-1960s by her then-boyfriend Larry Boies, and ran her first marathon in 1967.

“Running helped my self-esteem. After I started running, I got three degrees, and found a career as an illustrator,” she said. “When I started running marathons, everybody would clap and say, ‘Aren’t you amazing.’ I thought, you can do this, too. What it does for your mind and body — I wanted this for other women.”

She became a regular at Twin Cities-area races. And she had a knack for organizing, for making things happen. In 1976, she was the first female president of the Minnesota Distance Running Association, and she and Larry hosted Sunday long runs that eventually became the all-women Northern Lights Running Club.

A group called the International Runners Committee, headed by two-time women’s marathon world record-holder Jacqueline Hansen, was lobbying to get women’s 5000 meters, 10,000 meters and marathon into the Olympics, which is why they’d established a women’s national marathon championship in 1974. An event needed to be contested in 25 countries and three continents, and hold national and international championships, to be accepted as a new Olympic event.

“I wanted a race just for women, to legitimize women’s running,” Boies said of the marathon’s origin. “So I went to the [Amateur Athletic Union] meeting, put in a bid for a women’s-only national championship, and it was accepted.”

Video (05:50) See the route the Twin Cities Marathon runners will be taking and view some of the highlights along the way.

John O’Leary, a local physician, served as the race director and brought New Balance in as a sponsor. A committee, Boies included, decided to use the flat East River Road to encourage fast times — starting at Summit and the River Road, north to Franklin Avenue, returning the same way, and continuing south to the entrance to the marina, where it made another 180-degree turn and finished back at Summit Avenue. The date conflicted with the established New York City Marathon, but many top marathoners including Nina Kuscsik (the first woman to officially win the Boston Marathon in 1972) chose to support the women’s initiative. Jacqueline Hansen had a knee injury at the time, but her teammate from the San Fernando Valley Track Club, Leal-Ann Reinhart, made the trip to Minnesota, and won the race in 2:46.34.

Still running

Some of the Minnesota women who ran that race 40 years ago were seasoned marathoners then, and are still running — or in the case of Boies, roller-skating. They talked about the make-it-up-as-you-go-along spirit that pervaded this counterculture sport, and what that meant for women who’d grown up before high schools offered girls sports. Much more than physical fitness, women’s running in 1977 was a social movement. To be a runner was to be a feminist. Below are excerpts from conversations about the early days of women’s marathoning and the 1977 race:

Said Boies: “I was 24 and a heavy smoker. Larry was a marathoner. I was just mesmerized by the idea. The next day, I measured a mile from my house, and tried to run it. Just about killed me. It took me about two weeks before I could do it, and of course, five or six packs of cigarettes. I was still smoking when I ran my first marathon; a fair number of runners smoked.”

‘I felt good’

Jill Hanson, first Minnesota finisher, fifth overall in 2:50.40: “When I ran I thought, I like how I feel. You’d be running down the road and they’d throw eggs at you. People thought you were weird. I didn’t care. I think it was 1976, my husband said, ‘I’m going to run a marathon.’ I said, ‘Fine, so am I.’ I ran that first marathon in a sweatshirt and sweatpants. There were no jog bras — I just put Band-Aids over my nipples. I was a [Nike] waffle trainer runner by then but prior to that, I wore Converse basketball shoes. I remember the Women’s Marathon was a well-run race with water stops, which was better than Boston. The 1977 Boston Marathon didn’t have mile markers or water stops, although residents along the course brought out hoses. [In the Women’s Marathon] I was surprised to be that far up. We went through five miles right about 30 minutes which felt really quick, but I felt good. Around 24 miles, I thought, this is getting hard, but up until then, it was the most fun race I’ve ever done. I felt like the center of attention; for once, people were actually seeing you.”

‘A milestone’

Val Rogosheske, finished 21st in 3:14.20: “I graduated as a PE major in 1969 and someone asked me how fast I could run a mile. I went to the track and couldn’t even finish a mile. It was quite embarrassing. So I started jogging. My husband said I should have a goal, that I should think about doing a race. The only race I’d heard of was the Boston Marathon. That was early 1972, before women were allowed in, but I thought I’d just hide in the bushes like Roberta Gibb. There were several people who planned to do that. I trained for a couple of months. Two weeks before the race they [Boston Marathon] welcomed official women entrants. There were eight of us standing together at the start — I had bib F7. We didn’t talk about it, but we all knew we couldn’t walk or drop out. All eyes were on us; we had to prove women could do this. It was the most painful run I ever did, but I finished and didn’t walk. Four hours, 29 minutes. I thought the women’s marathon was a milestone, that the winning woman was the first to cross the line.”

‘It seemed important to be a part of’

Judy Lutter, finished 17th in 3:06:25: “My husband was an orthopedic surgeon and worked long hours. I realized running was a release for him from the pressures of his job. One night I went out the door and did it myself, to get away from my job and the kids. I ran primarily for the release, but I loved being outside and discovered I had some talent for it, so that was fun. I ran every day but didn’t do intervals or things like that. Participation, not competition, was always my focus. I don’t know if I would have called myself a feminist back then, but I was interested in opportunities for women and girls in sports. The women’s marathon would have appealed to me politically; it seemed like an important thing to be a part of.”

‘Want to do this running thing’

Carol Klitzke, finished 33rd in 3:31.38: “In 1971, I had a summer job as a recreation director. Somehow I got the idea that to get in shape, you had to run. The only model I had for running wear was a gray sweatsuit with a towel around your neck. So I went to the Sears on Lake Street, bought a gray sweatsuit and a towel, and tried to run around Powderhorn Park where I lived. It was 80-some degrees. I was laying in the grass, just roasting, thinking, I kind of want to do this running thing. In 1974, a woman I worked with told me about a race in Langford Park on July 4th. She said, ‘You’re athletic. I bet you could run it.’ Anyway, I was thinking about that race as I was driving home from work one day, and that I hadn’t done any training. It was a beautiful day and I saw people walking around Lake Nokomis, so I stopped the car, took off my shoes, and ran about a quarter-mile out and back on the grass. I had on a skirt and nylon stockings. I walked and jogged the two-mile race at Langford Park in 18:36 and thought, ‘Wow, that’s good!’

Klitzke went on: “From there, I was hooked on running — it was so much fun. I ran mostly with men because I didn’t know many women who ran. I had run a marathon in August of 1977, so it was kind of quick to run the women’s marathon in October, but I wanted to participate because it was historic. I remember it was a very competitive field and in the excitement, I went out too fast. Those last miles were a struggle.”

Sarah Barker is a freelance writer from St. Paul.