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Merry Lepper, first American woman to run a marathon: 1963, Culver City

by John Rabe | Off-Ramp®

A photo from the San Bernardino Sun newspaper documenting Merry Lepper's finish in the Western Hemisphere Marathon in Culver City in 1963. Merry remembers she didn't feel especially tired after accomplishing the feat, contrary to officials' claims that marathons would damage women's "delicate" health. Courtesy Merry Lepper

12/9/2013 UPDATE: Tonight at 7, the Culver City City Council will honor Merry Lepper for her accomplishment, which came 50 years ago this month. Lepper will be on hand to accept her commendation. We'll have more on this weekend's Off-Ramp.

In "Marathon Crasher," a great longread on Kindle released today, LA-based sports journalist David Davis tells a story few people know, about a woman everyone should know about. "Marathon Crasher" is about the day in 1963 that Merry Lepper became the first American woman to run a marathon. His story is also about the absurdity that patronizing, un-scientific, misogynist (pick one or all) track and field officials kept women from participating in all but the easiest races for decades. Here's an excerpt that takes us to December, 1963 (Merry's friend Lyn Carman had planned to become the first woman to run a marathon and trained with her husband Bob):

Merry dressed in clothes that were more appropriate for a day at the beach: a light-green blouse, with half sleeves, buttons and a collar, and a pair of white shorts. Over that she pulled on grey warm-up sweats. She had a new pair of white sneakers, flimsy compared to today's cushiony models.

In her haste she forgot to have breakfast. En route, she ate a Baby Ruth candy-bar. That would serve as her fuel—her protein and carbs--for the 26.2-mile race.

Outside Veterans Memorial Park in Culver City, the smallest Western Hemisphere field in years–just 67 men--bunched together by the starting line, stretching their legs, rotating their necks, windmilling their arms, and eyeing the competition.

Bob Carman was a last-minute scratch. Days before the race, he had suffered a fractured skull after tripping and falling inside their home. He had been discharged from the hospital, but he was unable to run or provide his usual support.

Merry and Lyn did not linger at the starting line. After removing their sweats, they hid in the bushes across the street, out of sight from the officials.

Merry felt nervous. "What have we got ourselves into?" she whispered to herself. "They don't want us here, we're not supposed to be here."

She took a deep breath and drew strength from Lyn's grim determination. At the gun, the pair hesitated for a moment as the men began their journey. Then, they jumped from the bushes and took off after them, chasing the field down Overland Boulevard.

Today, Merry lives along the border between Arizona and New Mexico, and Lyn lives in Northern California. They had lost touch until David reached them for his story. As Culver City continues its revitalization, perhaps it's time for a statue commemorating the city's place in history, and Merry Lepper's.

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