David Davis, who writes about sports for Los Angeles Magazine, the LA Times and other publications — and an emeritus contributor to LA Observed — has a new ebook published this week about a fairly unknown chapter in American sports history. It happened here in 1963.
It's the story of Merry Lepper, who had to disguise herself to compete with her fellow runners in the 1963 Western Hemisphere Marathon in Culver City. That was an important race in its day. Lepper was a student then at San Bernardino Valley College.
History tried to forget Lepper. No retrospective stories have been done about her. No tributes. Davis tracked her down in the Arizona desert and offered her the chance to talk about the race, which she finished. In this excerpt from "Marathon Crasher: The Life and Times of Merry Lepper, the First American Woman to Run a Marathon," they meet at the Tucson airport.
Merry Lepper sits in a booth inside the restaurant. Her straight brown hair is tied into two pony-tails that encircle her ruddy face like parentheses. She sips hot tea.
She pulls out a newspaper article and a cache of photographs from a large envelope and spreads them on the table in front of her. The clipping is almost 50 years old, and the well-creased paper is burnt orange and brittle to the touch. The headline reads "Merry Runner."
In the photograph that accompanies the story, Merry is 20 years old. She is jogging in a park in Southern California accompanied by Lyn Carman, her training partner at that time. Merry's blond hair is worn up in a neat bun, and she strides confidently next to Lyn, dark-haired and shorter by a couple of inches. Two of Lyn's children watch from beneath a tree.
According to the newsprint, it's December of 1963, and Merry Lepper has just become the first American woman to complete a marathon race.
Perhaps, from the perspective of 2012, that doesn't sound like a big deal. Everyone knows someone who has run, or is training for, a marathon. But the current popularity of the marathon hides its ignoble past. From the moment the marathon was created, back in 1896, women were prohibited from entering them. The sexist, all-male officialdom that ruled sports' governing bodies decreed that women's bodies were not built to withstand the rigors of running 26.2 miles – never mind that women's bodies had once birthed those same sanctimonious officials.
Put another way: Women could legally vote in presidential elections long before they could officially enter a marathon.
Merry Lepper sips her tea and begins to speak softly, conjuring a moment in time when running was both a revolutionary blow against the powers-that-were and a lark to be shared with her pal Lyn: two women in their athletic prime, out for a weekend run on a sun-blanched afternoon almost a half-century ago.
Blink, and history will miss you.
Twenty one years later, Joan Benoit won the first women's Olympic marathon, in Los Angeles in 1984. Davis talks about Lepper and the book Saturday at noon on Off-Ramp on KPCC. Also on Saturday, Davis will be showing photos from the 1932 & 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles that he gleaned from the LAPL's collection. He's got Benoit as well as Babe Didrikson and Buster Crabbe, Carl Lewis, Mary Lou Retton and others. His talk is free at 2 p.m. in the Mark Taper Auditorium in the Central Library.
Top photo of Lepper, left, and Lyn Carman a few days after the '63 marathon. Benoit is by Paul Chinn from the Herald Examiner Collection at LAPL.