Our running group here will be celebrating its ninth anniversary next month. Over the last nine years since its inception, there has been a tradition of a city-wide coming together of all distance runners, to run a 21 km (13 miles) stretch on the city roads every first Sunday of every month. As a result, the anniversary run is going to be held on the seventh of July this year. As a line up to the celebrations, I will be writing a series of articles, featuring international distance runners.
First up is Violet Piercy, considered the pioneer of women’s running.
Violet Piercy is recognized by the International Association of Athletics Federation as having set the first women’s world’s best in the marathon distance. Now-a-days, women of all shapes and sizes run along the streets and compete in marathons around the world. But there was a time when running was considered injurious to women’s health, and one of the rules of the Women’s Amateur Athletic Association (WAAA) was that no race should exceed 1000 meters, since any distance over a kilometer would be a “strain” and adversely affect child-bearing ability. Violet Percy blithely broke the rules of the WAAA and even broadcast an account of it on the BBC.
In 1926, probably in response to the acclaim received by American Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel, Violet ran from Windsor to London, thereby becoming the first Englishwoman to attempt a marathon and the first to be officially timed when she ran 3:40:22 on 3rd October 1926 on the Polytechnic Marathon course. She started at 4:27 pm, and was slowed down by suburban traffic outside Battersea Town Hall, till she finished at 8 pm. This time stood as a world record for the next 37 years, until American Merry Lepper ran 3:37:07 in California’s Western Hemisphere Marathon on 16th December 1963. Englishwoman Paula Radcliffe currently holds the world record for the fastest women’s marathon, with a time of 2:15:25 set in London in 2003.
Piercy fell into obscurity over the years, and athletics historian Peter Lovesey conducted a series of investigations into her athletics career. As we inch towards 2020, almost a century has passed since Violet Piercy ran the marathon in the 1920s, when the rules barred any woman from running more than two laps. Research by various historians shows that Violet ran five marathons between 1926 and 1936, in a pair of walking shoes with cross straps and heels. Piercy’s white jersey, black shorts and dance-like shoes serve as a priceless insight into a runner from a different era.
Violet Stewart Louisa Piercy was born in Croydon, Surrey on 24th December 1889. She was 36 at the time of her first distance run, and her athletics career carried on till the age of 46. Over a period of 12 years and between two world wars, Piercy was widely regarded as an eccentric and feisty runner, who had a flair for slapping court cases against people who upset her. Rules were “tosh and piffle” to Violet, who ran solo marathons to prove to the world that women could be good at sport and endurance events. She referred to the sport as being based on rhythm, co-ordinated movements and clean living.
Reactions to her feats at the time?
The Westminister Gazette wrote: “It must be hoped that no other girl will be so foolish as to imitate her.”
Piercy’s response: “I am the only long-distance woman runner in this country, and people rather shout at me about it. I really don’t see why they should. Running is about the healthiest form of exercise a woman can have.” Piercy worked as a doctor’s secretary and encouraged others to take up distance running, but no one took up the challenge in her lifetime, and her runs were always solo.
The second world war affected her stream of marathons, and there is no trail of hers since the 1950s. She is known to have passed away in a London hospital in April 1972, having suffered from brain hemorrhage, hypertension and chronic kidney-related infection. Violet Piercy had languished in obscurity for about 70 years, but the British Pathe archives, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and Track Stats magazine have been instrumental in finally securing for her the recognition she deserves.
The link below is from the British Pathe website, and is a copyrighted video of Violet Piercy.
~In The Running – Phil Hewitt