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What Happened to the 200-Meter Rule?

David Yon, July 30, 2018

Shelby Houlihan’s and her female teammates recent track triumphs took me back to Amby Burfoot’s book First Ladies of Running.  The book was an excellent reminder of the road blocks put in front of women, historically, when they tried to participate in distance running events. The recent performances by women on the professional track circuit show what happens when those road blocks are replaced by opportunities. 

The past two weeks confirmed again what a crazy thought it was that women should not be allowed to run more than 200 meters in competition as the record book for American distance running by women was rewritten and the depth of the competition displayed for all to see.    But for the efforts of many of these “First Ladies,” it likely never would have happened. After giving the 800-meter distance a chance in the 1928 Olympics, it was banned for women in the Olympics for 30 years and would not reappear until 1960 in Rome.  They had the audacity to sweat and some even “fell out” after crossing the finish line. Hopefully, you know the story of Joan Benoit Samuelson and the 1984 Olympic marathon.  If not, I am happy to loan you my book.

On July 21, 2018, Shelby Houlihan ran a 5000-meter race in an American record of 14:34.45.  The performance continued a fantastic year (national titles at 1500 meters and 5000 meters) for the 25-year-old who only recently turned pro. She ran the 4th fastest time ever in the 1500-meter race for an American woman with a time of 3:57.14. But Houlihan’s time (a PR by approximately 25 seconds and an American record by just over 4 seconds) was only part of the story as 6 more women from the US ran under 15:14. Molly Huddle, who has spent some time training in Tallahassee over the years, finished in second with a time of 15:01.44. And by the way, remember that 200-meter distance limit for women? Houlihan ran her last 400 meters in 60 seconds, making it likely she was at or below 30 seconds for the last 200 meters.  The world record for the women’s 5000-meter is still a distant goal, but at 14:11.15 (Tirunesh Dibaba, Ethiopia), it is within sight.

Of course, if I want to look beyond the shores of the United States for fast women, I would mention the July 13, Rabat Diamond League meet.  The race, according to Letsrun.com, was the deepest 5000-meter race ever run.  Just for good measure the women went out in a time of 2:16.4 for the first 800 meters.  When no one tried to pull them off the track, they kept going for the remaining 4600 meters and a total of 8 women broke 15 minutes.  Helen Obiri, from Kenya, ran 14:21.75 to win. Just behind her was Sifan Hassan from the Netherlands. Five women went under 14:25; that is 4 minutes and 40 seconds per mile.

What do you think those frosty old folks who declared anything beyond 200 meters too long for women would think of letting women run the steeplechase?  Ok, so the barricades in the women’s races are not as tall as they are for the men.   On July 20, Beatrice Chepkoech (Kenya) appeared to have wings on her ankles as she flew over the barricades and through the water hazards to set a new 3000-meter steeplechase world record, finishing in 8:44.32 at the Herculis Diamond League meet in Monaco.  While no woman from the US has broken the 9-minute barrier, it is likely coming very soon.  Courtney Frerichs set a new American record in the race by finishing in 9:00.85, good enough to finish second and leave world champion gold medalists Emma Coburn, the previous American recordholder, behind in 9:05.06.  Former FSU runner Colleen Quigley was 12th in 9:20.99.     Quigley’s finish shows just how deep the U.S. steeple team is. In 2004 the event was not on the Olympic schedule for women.  Seven U.S. women ran the steeple faster than 10 minutes.  In 2008, it was added to the calendar and in the first half of 2016, 44 women broke the 10-minute mark and now at least two are on the verge of breaking the 9-minute barrier.

There are plenty more opportunities to go in 2018.  Here is hoping all these ladies make the most of it and take time to appreciate the First Ladies who helped create the opportunities.