It was on June 3, 1972, three weeks before Title IX became law, that 78 female runners gathered in New York City's Central Park for the Crazylegs Mini Marathon, the first road race in the world exclusively for women. For 17-year-old Jacki Dixon (now Marsh), just getting to the starting line was a victory.
Jacki grew up in Southern California in a troubled home. As a result, says Marsh, 57, "I was painfully shy." She found her salvation at age 12 when her father took her to an all-comers track meet at San Jose City College. She joined the San Jose Cindergals track club, and "every step I took gave me self-confidence and self-worth," she says.
Within a few years Jacki was one of the best female distance runners in the country. That's how she earned an invitation from the New York Road Runners to fly in for the historic race.
Today road racing is arguably the most prominent women's sport nationwide. In 2010 women accounted for more than half of all finishers (6.9 million) in U.S. races. But in the early '70s women were discouraged from running long distances. Not that it stopped Jacki, who entered some races as "Jack Dixon." Recalls Marsh, "There was the feeling that [women] weren't mentally or physically strong enough to run distance. People said it would damage us."
So when Jacki (left, number 5) and her fellow competitors toed the line for the first Mini, it was for a pioneering event. This year, the 40th running, on June 9 in Central Park, will draw 7,000 entrants. Marsh, whose "rabbits" for the first 100 yards of the 1972 race were three Playboy bunnies, won handily in 37:02 that year. In 2011 (below), Kenya's Linet Masai took first in 31:39.
Marsh stopped training when she got married six months after the Mini, only to resume in 1981 after the women's marathon was added to the Olympic slate for '84. But in '82, Marsh was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, a progressive heart disease, and told she had two years to live. Instead, she suffered from fatigue and irregular heart beats for two decades before receiving a biventricular pacemaker in '03 that "gave me my life back," she says. Still, her running career had long since ended. Marsh is now the general manager of American Housekeeping of Utah and makes jewelry on the side. She'll be back in New York to watch the 40th Mini. "The acceptability of it is so different," she says, "that this is something that should be cherished and encouraged."