(This is another special posting by Suzy. I hope you enjoy it.)
The Philadelphia Marathon was run recently on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. In part, the press release read:
PHILADELPHIA (November 18, 2012) — Today’s 19th running of the Philadelphia Marathon witnessed a historic performance by women’s champion Irina Mashkantceva (Mash-kahn-tuh-sova), breaking Mariska Kramer’s 2011 course record. Mashkantceva, with a time of 2:35:35, goes into the Philadelphia Marathon record books in her first marathon on U.S. soil.
In the men’s division, local favorite Mike McKeeman was the clear winner, outpacing the second place finisher, Scott MacPherson, by 42 seconds. MacPherson took second in his first-ever marathon competition. McKeeman, with a winning time of 2:17:51, runs locally with Bryn Mawr Running Club, and does most of his training in Philadelphia.
It was interesting to note that the men’s division winner beat the historic finish run by the woman by close to 18 minutes. In fact, the fifth man to cross the finish line bested her time by fifteen minutes. This is after more than forty years of women striving to compete directly with men in various athletic events. I am not trying, even in a very miniscule way, to hint that I could in any way compete with these athletes. I can’t even generalize about how much influence on the times is genetic rather than environmental. In my case, I never tried to find out.
The summer before I began first grade we were living in Cement City in South Philadelphia. Dad had just made Chief in the US Navy, the initiation for which was to be thrown into the Delaware River. As with many of our waterways then, it was heavily polluted and he ended up with a horrendous fungal infection, which he shared with Moma, just pregnant with my brother, and me. It took many drab-green metal tubes of government issued anti-fungal cream to get rid of the infection. Even though Moma was using lots of Lysol to keep us from sharing his rash we only needed to step in his footsteps to have our own eruptions. In typically childish fashion I complained vociferously about the itchy red bumps between my toes. I was told I could go barefoot, as that would allow the air to keep my feet dry and lessen the infection. Daddy’s assignment then was to teach repair and maintenance for propeller driven plane engines. Moma needed a bit more rest just then. I was a pretty active child; many called me a tomboy, some with a fair amount of distain. To give Moma some respite, Daddy would take me to his classroom on Saturdays while he prepped some of his lessons and equipment. I really enjoyed the overhead slides and how I could take an engine apart and put it back together by pealing off or returning the layers of acetate. Sometimes he would give me leftover worksheets to color. I just had to be quiet and not fiddle with things.
My grandmother, after being widowed for a decade had recently remarried. Granddad Rich, who could drive and had a car, visited frequently to spell Moma. Grandmom felt I should be learning embroidery or at least hemming things. I didn’t want to do anything where I had to sit. In fact, all of the things that she tried to interest me in required sitting. I thought she was too stern and just wanted to go out and play with the other kids.
Cement City was a low cost rental development where almost all of the inhabitants were military and their dependents. Our unit was third from the end of a row with a lovely grassy square in front and a wide alley behind. Our yard had a walk from the back door straight to the gate with a strip of grass on each side. At the time all of these places seemed very spacious, but I do remember that the single tier blow up child’s pool that was large enough for me to rest my head on the side as a pillow and touch my feet to the other side across its diameter just fit on the one grassy strip. Being part of the Boomer generation there were plenty of kids within a couple of years of age up and down on either side of the alley. There was a big stony bump at one end of the row of houses where we would play King of the Mountain. It was my least favorite game that we would play. There was a tree we would climb. Often, we would play tag games in several variations. Hide and seek was always a favorite. In the dusk, we would catch lightening bugs. For the uninitiated, it went like this: Moma would get a big jar from the kitchen and poke holes in the metal lid with a church key, and I would stuff some grass in the bottom. Then she would sit with a couple of other mothers on the front stoop and keep my jar between her feet. Jars were glass and she didn’t want me running with it. All the kids would run over the grass and grab one of the flickering bugs gently in our grubby little fists, run back to our mothers, who would open our jars so we could slip our lightening bugs inside. She would carefully slide the lid back and I would take off to catch another. This would continue until it was really dark and we could only find our mothers by the lit tips of their cigarettes and the flickering bugs in the jars at their feet. When it was time to go inside the stifling house for the night, we would open the jars and allow all of the lightening bugs to fly away.
Most of our games involved running, but my favorite was racing the length of the alley. The cement square seam at one end was the starting line and the finish was the seam at the far end. There were kids older and younger, age didn’t seem to matter, we would just run. I had begun the summer with low cut blue sneakers that were soon smooth on the bottom. Then with the red bumps that wouldn’t go away, Moma threw them out. Even the Lysol didn’t keep my feet from becoming re-infected. I was told I could go barefoot outside as well as in the house as long as I would watch for broken glass that might be in the alley. Before we would begin racing for the day a number of us would walk up and down once to pick up any sharp stones or glass. Then we would run and run and run. On more than one occasion I ran the skin off my toes and the balls of my feet. Mom bought another pair of sneakers — these were red. We had our choice of red, white or blue and I was generally allowed to choose between red and blue. I really wanted a pair of black high tops, but was told that they were for boys.
In late August, Daddy’s unit held an all day picnic for the guys and their families. I don’t remember exactly where we went, but it was a full service recreation area somewhere near-by with ball fields, swimming, open areas and lots of shade trees and picnic benches. Toward the end of the afternoon, when the shadows began getting deep, there were foot races. I was almost six, so Daddy entered me in the 6-12 year old group. Some of those kids were really big. First race was just to run. I don’t know where I came in, but I hadn’t won. Next came a relay race. Daddy was at one end to hand me the token, Moma at the other to collect it. I started at Moma’s side. As I neared Daddy he simply said that there were a few ahead of me, go faster. I dropped my token with Moma and ran back. Daddy encouraged me to go faster, there were still others ahead of me. Again, I dropped my token with Moma and ran back. Daddy ordered me to go faster there was still one ahead of me. I ran as hard as I could and right into Moma. I had won. The trophy was a duffle bag, which became my carryall for toys to amuse myself on car rides. As I collected my prize, surprised that I had gone faster than all those big kids, I heard two men on the side comment that I sure didn’t run like a girl. They most likely meant it as a compliment, but what I heard were my grandmother’s admonitions over the course of the summer about my lack of femininity.
That was the last time I ever ran full out. I swam a bit or played a little tennis or badminton over the years. One place we lived, I joined a bowling league with the other mothers in the area. Until we took up dancing, I really hadn’t done anything athletic in years. Even as much as I have enjoyed the dancing, I have just played at it. When I heard the marathon results, I wondered how much of the time difference was an environmental influence. Is there still a mind set with women that we can’t compete with men? Shouldn’t really compete with men? Or, are our physical differences, particularly as we reach adulthood, really restricting our performance? Obviously there isn’t a wall with men on one side and women on the other, but two continuums with some part of their lengths running parallel. Men on average have greater upper body strength; women often have greater immunity to disease and longer life spans. Those are both very generalized statements reflecting no specific individual. Does it matter? Should we be pushing for more similarity between the sexes? Personally, I think I’ll just enjoy the differences and not worry about it.
The last word:
About a dozen years after Suzy’s “last run” I was on the high school track team. That year was the first year the school had a girl’s track team, although the girls were not allowed to run any race longer than a half-mile. This was still seven years before Title IX “leveled the playing field” in sports. At the end of one typical practice, our coach invited a few of us to run against the girls’ mile relay team. Four girls each run one quarter of a mile, passing a baton. We would each run the full mile. We beat them. The girls’ coach was not pleased. Our coach just grinned.
These were active young ladies, but they had not been training for at least four years like we had – the culture, and the rules, did not support that.
As I started in the computer business, I noticed that there were very few women in the field. Four decades later, it is still mostly a male field. I do not know why. On average, the women were as good as the men. My first boss was a lady. I suspect there is still some culturally imposed bias.
We can’t afford this, either as a company, a country, or a species. Any attempt to restrict what someone can do or put a limit on how far they can go based on any kind of classification except their own individual talent or physical limits is wasteful and ultimately expensive. It does not matter whether a religion, a government, or a tradition imposes those limits.
Keep your sense of humor.