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50 years later, Culver City honors first female marathoner

by John Rabe | Off-Ramp®

Merry Lepper stands outside the Veterans Memorial Building in Culver City – the starting location for the century-old Western Hemisphere Marathon. At this intersection in December 1963, Lepper was the first woman to complete a marathon. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Last year, according to Running USA, women made up 42 percent of marathon finishers. But through the 1960s, female runners weren’t allowed to compete in anything longer than 880 meters. The first sign of change came not in Boston or New York, but in Culver City, 50 years ago Monday.

Back then, male race officials said running long distances would hurt women’s ovaries. Merry Lepper smiled when we talked about it in Culver City a few days ago. "I really had to laugh about that," she said, "because I was hearing the reason that men gave that women couldn’t drive automobiles in Saudi Arabia was that it would hurt their ovaries. Whose ovaries are they!?"

Lepper is an unheralded pioneer in women’s athletics. In 1963, she was a 20-year-old community college student who loved running long distances. "I’m not a very fast runner," she said. "So for me, the distance races were a place where I could run slow."

Lepper’s running partner was her friend Lyn Carman, and her coach was Lyn’s husband, the late  Bob Carman, a renowned marathoner. Bob and Lyn had a plan: Lyn would become the first U.S. woman to run a marathon.

Sports historian David Davis, who discovered the story and wrote about it in a Kindle long-read called "Marathon Crasher," says the race they planned to have Lyn crash was Culver City’s annual marathon. "It was called the Western Hemisphere Marathon. Actually started in the late '40s … and it was probably ranked second or third behind Boston as the preeminent marathon in the United States and certainly the biggest one on the West Coast."

Lepper picks up the story: "Lyn had been talking about running in it, and when we went to races we always went together. We were ready for it. We’d been running with the guys. We’d been out running 25 miles every Sunday for a couple of months.  We were ready, and she was intending to do that, so I went along."

So on Dec. 16, 1963, Lepper and Lyn Carman showed up at the starting line in Culver City. Lyn says they didn’t get a warm reception: "Before the race, there was one official  who spent about 20 minutes chewing me out, saying I’d never be able to have babies again. He said the men would be disqualified if we ran, and he gave me a bit of hell."

The men started, then Lyn Carman and Lepper. Lepper had a hard time finding her stride, so Lyn went ahead. Lepper almost got hit by a car at one point, and she rested on the curb for a bit, but eventually she got back into it.  

I was just running along, feeling comfortable, and I didn’t catch Lyn until about mile 20, and I was thinking, “Oh, nice here she is now we can run together.” And as soon as I got up there, she said, “Oh, I feel terrible. I can’t do this. I’m just not feeling good today.” And she said, “I’m quitting.” I said, “You can’t quit!” So I went on by myself.

She finished with a time of 3:37:07, which immediately became the world record for women.

It was obvious to us all along that women could run marathons, women could run distance races. So it wasn’t really a surprise to me. It was just like, now the world can see that women can do this without dying or fainting or something.

Except the world didn’t see the importance of Lepper’s achievement. Maybe it was still too focused on her ovaries. It took the Boston Marathon nine more years to allow women, and the Olympics didn't see the light until 1984 in Los Angeles, when Joan Benoit won the first women's Olympic marathon.

But Merry Lepper stayed her laid-back self, getting her masters in zoology and a Ph.D. in plant ecology, and becoming a large animal veterinarian. "I just kind of forgot about it," she says. "I was really pleased to see that women were competing in marathons and they were doing so well."

Then, this spring, David Davis got in touch with Culver City’s politicians, and pointed out their city’s place in history, and that an important anniversary was rapidly approaching. And on Monday, Culver City finally gave Merry Lepper the attention she didn’t get for 50 years.

The commendation reads: Now, therefore, the City Council of the City of Culver City, California, hereby congratulates and commends Merry Lepper, a shining example of how one person can overcome tremendous hurdles to fulfill a dream and, in the process, pave the way for generations to come.

By the way, Lepper, who turns 71 in a couple weeks, has a bad knee and can’t run anymore. But she happily drove the 600 miles from her home in Southeastern Arizona to Culver City to pick up the commendation. After all, she likes long distances.

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