Meeting Sara Mae Berman: A Boston Marathon Pioneer

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"It’s the thing.”

That is what Sara Mae Berman answered when asked why she wanted to run the Boston Marathon; that, and encouragement from her husband, Larry, who told her she could be a pioneer.

“That’s what motivated me,” said Berman.

But that’s not all I learned during Berman’s visit to Hopkinton on March 20. I also learned where Sara Mae met her husband, the year she was married, where she went to school and when she began to run.

In 1962, Sara Mae and Larry Berman founded the Cambridge Sports Union, the first competitive sports club in New England for men and women. Activities included competitive running, cross country skiing and orienteering. Two years later, Berman was named to the first U.S. Women’s National Nordic Team and to help with her training she often ran unofficially in men’s road races.

And then her husband told her she could be a pioneer. She could do something that very few women were doing; she could run the Boston Marathon, unofficially. In 1969, 1970 and 1971, Berman not only ran, but won. In 1970, she set a course record with a finish time of 3:05:07.

“I didn’t jump in,” said Berman. “I just mixed in with the other runners, and started running when those around me did.”

In the few hours that I spent with Sara Mae, copying photos and news clippings in preparation for the upcoming “Celebrating 4 Decades of Women Running Boston” event, I was able to get a very personal view of what it was like for her and other women runners, both before and after Monday, April 17, 1972, the year women were officially allowed to enter the race.

Berman had many stories to tell and her recall of past events was very detailed. Among other things, she talked about the camaraderie of the women runners, and how they supported each other.

“We just wanted to train well enough to finish,” said Berman, who explained that the general belief during that time was that women did not have the physical strength and stamina to run long distances.

“We had good relations. We had no time for jealousy; we were too busy training, taking care of our families and careers, and fighting the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) for recognition,” said Berman.

Berman did not run Boston in 1974, 1975 or 1976, but did run again in 1977, 1978 and 1979, the year of her last marathon.

In 1977 Berman also participated in a series of 10km road races for women sponsored by Bonne Bell cosmetics. At the time, she was also running for re-election to the Cambridge School Committee and decided to use the race to help promote her campaign. Berman recruited her daughter, then a student at M.I.T., and her mother, aged 65, to run with her, and had t-shirts made that read “Sara Mae Berman Runs Again”.

“I finished in just over 40 minutes,” said Berman, “the first woman over 40. We were interviewed by TV reporters and other media. Just beyond the finish line, we were met by my mom’s knee surgeon, who was thrilled to see how well his ‘old’ knee patient did in the race.”

Berman had many more memories to share, but I don’t want to give too much away. When I volunteered to help with publicity for the event in Hopkinton, I did not expect to have the opportunity to meet Sara Mae beforehand, but consider myself fortunate to have had the chance to hear her story and to be inspired by her accomplishments.

You too, can meet Sara Mae Berman, and several other Boston Marathon pioneers of the 1972 Boston Marathon, on Friday, April 13th at 7PM in the Hopkinton High School Auditorium, where they will join WBZ Anchor Lisa Hughes in a discussion to celebrate four decades of women running Boston.

“Celebrating 4 Decades of Women Running Boston”
Friday, April 13th at 7PM
Hopkinton High School Auditorium
Tickets Online Here.