July 2024

Better Faster Farther

By Maggie Mertens
Review by
For centuries, women were discouraged from running. Better Faster Farther chronicles how and why they ran anyway.
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Women run everywhere: up mountains, on the beach, along city roads and country paths. They run for their health, to compete, for the joy of feeling lungs, heart and legs work in harmony. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a world where women don’t run. But in Better Faster Farther: How Running Changed Everything We Know About Women, sportswriter and essayist Maggie Mertens reveals that the history of women’s running was never smooth. Instead, it was like a hurdle race, but one where the obstacles became taller and harder over time.

As Mertens reports, nearly everything conspired against women who wanted to run. It took generations of stubborn, passionate athletes simply to get to the starting line. Mertens opens the book describing the erroneous reportage on 1928’s first Olympic women’s 800-meter race, which claimed that the competitors dropped like flies at the finish line. Male-dominated sports associations barred competitions for women. Doctors declared that running would cause irreparable damage to their reproductive organs. 

If a woman wanted to run, she was deemed either dangerously masculine, seriously misguided or mentally ill. Better Faster Father profiles dozens of athletes who faced these charges. Before Bobbi Gibb snuck into the 1966 Boston Marathon and became the first woman runner to complete it, her parents had sent her to a psychiatrist to “cure” her of her passion for running. When runners like Mary Decker and Mary Cain developed osteoporosis, sports scientists blamed feminine frailty, rather than ill-informed coaches who made their protégés starve themselves.

Women ran marathons and broke track records, but, as Mertens details, new barriers kept being erected, supposedly to protect women’s opportunities, including denying participation of trans and intersex athletes. Transgender women were and are targeted, even though their performance on the track is comparable to cisgender women competitors, and the “advantage” of testosterone remains unproven. Genetic testing, invasive physical exams and testosterone tests were and are performed on women deemed too fast, too muscular, too competitive to be female. 

And yet, women run. Like Jasmin Paris, who holds the world record for the Spine Race, a grueling 268-mile ultramarathon up and down the Pennine mountains. And Paula Radcliffe, who controversially kept training up until the day she gave birth—and won the 2007 New York City Marathon nine months later. Every woman you see jogging in the park or sprinting at a track meet. All prove that women can, indeed, run. 

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Better Faster Farther

Better Faster Farther

By Maggie Mertens
ISBN 9781643753355

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