On a rainy Sunday morning in 2018, I completed the Chicago Marathon with a time of 2:18:55, qualifying for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials. Twenty seconds ahead of me, Brigid Kosgei of Kenya won the women’s race. After she crossed the finish line, she put her hands on her hips, turned around, and watched me fulfill a dream I’d had since I was in high school. I’ll never forget it.
A year later, on the same course, Kosgei smashed the women’s world record, running 2:14:04. This time I was the one watching, as I sat glued to my television in Toronto. I followed her historic race with awe, but many others around the world watched it with incredulity.
Within minutes of Kosgei’s finish, the running community’s snarky corner of the internet erupted with skepticism. Clearly, she was doping and had missed drug tests back in Kenya. Clearly, she couldn’t have run that fast without the Vaporfly Next% (Nike’s controversial shoe, which I also wear). And clearly, the previous record had been set by a dirty athlete anyway. “She finished and immediately looked down in dismay,” one anonymous know-it-all wrote on the popular Letsrun.com message boards. “Her subconscious definitely knows she’s a cheater. She didn’t even look happy with winning, a clear sign that she cheated!”
The modern marathon was born with the 1896 Olympics, when seventeen men lined up for a forty-kilometre race between Marathon and Athens. The slightly longer distance that we run today, 42.2 kilometres, was established when the 1908 Olympic Marathon started at Windsor Castle and ended at London’s White City Stadium. Up until 1963, only four or five women had tackled the event; for the most part, they weren’t allowed to even try. In 1926, Violet Percy somehow managed to complete the London Marathon, in a time of 3:40:22. In 1963, Merry Lepper snuck onto the course of the Western Hemisphere Marathon, in Culver City, California. After she was taunted by spectators for more than three and a half hours, race organizers refused to recognize her as an official finisher. And then in April 1967, Kathrine Switzer, a journalism student at Syracuse University, became the first woman to properly register for the Boston Marathon. She had used her initials, not her full name, on her entry form, and a chauvinistic race director tried to tackle her in midstride when he realized a woman was on his course. She finished the race but was promptly banned from the sport.
Whether officially or unofficially, fewer than thirty women have held the world record in the marathon, and most have battled vitriol every step of the way. One of those women, Maureen Wilton, set the record while running eight-kilometre laps around York University at the Eastern Canadian Marathon Championships, in May 1967. She was thirteen. Like Kosgei’s fifty-two years later, Wilton’s historic accomplishment was immediately called into question by self-anointed experts. Had this youngster actually run the whole distance? Did she have unfair assistance? Was she even biologically female? No matter how one looked at it, Wilton’s time — 3:15:23 — was too good to be true. Besides, women still shouldn’t be running marathons; they weren’t built for it.
Amid all the enmity and doubt, Wilton left road racing, and the running community (like everyone else) more or less forgot her. For that reason, we owe a debt to Rachel Swaby and Kit Fox’s Mighty Moe: The True Story of a Thirteen-Year-Old Women’s Running Revolutionary, which builds on the work of the journalist and CBC producer John Chipman. Farrar Straus Giroux has marketed the book toward young readers, but that label does both it and adult readers a disservice. Mighty Moe is a compelling, uncomfortable, and timely reminder of how far we’ve come — and how far we haven’t — in achieving gender equality in sport.
I’m no Pollyanna when it comes to elite distance running. Both men and women cheat. Some of them live and train in Kenya. Some live and train here in Canada. I’m sure some will join me on February 29 as we toe the line in Atlanta for the Olympic Trials. But the story of Maureen Wilton reminds us just how short-sighted it is to hurl scoffing accusations whenever someone — whether Brigid Kosgei or anybody else — does a remarkable thing.