When Julianne Grace began running in the streets of her Connecticut town in the early 1970s, she got strange looks.
“There were no other women out there,” Grace said. “None. People criticized women for running, because it was not typical at all. We were a spectacle.”
When she ran, she wore men’s gym shorts – “size small” – and “a regular, old t-shirt.” Her default sneakers were a pair of men’s Tiger Jayhawks.
“There were no running shoes for women,” she said. “There were no athletic clothes for women either.”
She entered her first race, a two-mile run in Southport, Conn., in 1972, and finished first. She was hooked. It was a pivotal year for women’s sports and women’s running in particular. The Boston and New York Marathon finally opened to women runners, and running pioneers such as Kathrine Switzer helped create the New York Mini 10K, the world’s first women-only road race. That June, Title IX – the landmark law that bans discrimination based on gender in education, including sports – was enacted.
Grace was inspired and empowered to keep running. In 1975, she decided to enter the New York Mini 10K.
“It was a big deal at the time, to have a race just for women,” she said. “But I was nervous, because I had only run five miles in training. I thought 10 kilometers was intimidating.”
Grace finished 195th out of 276 runners. “So I wasn’t last. Not even close!” she said. “I felt so great. I had done something remarkable.”
This year, Grace, now 84, did something even more remarkable: she completed the race, now in its 50th year, for the 46th time, alongside her daughter, Dede Beck, 60, and three granddaughters. What began as a spectacle has become a treasured family tradition for three generations of women – and a source of competition and camaraderie for the more than 200,000 runners who have crossed the New York Mini 10K finish line over the past 50 years, from Olympic medalists and world record-holders to women of all ages and fitness levels, many competing in their first race.
“It’s not just about running,” Grace said. “It’s about what women have achieved since the 1970s. How much women have achieved in education, in careers, in athletics. It’s about women’s progress through the years. That’s what this race means to me. It’s symbolic.”
This month marks the 50th anniversary of Title IX. A few weeks before its passage, a pioneering pack of women runners made their own strides toward gender equality.
One of those pioneers was Switzer, who in 1967 had become the first woman to officially finish the Boston Marathon, despite an official’s attempt to push her out of the 26.2-mile race.
Five years later, in April 1972, women were officially allowed to enter the Boston and New York Marathons. Hoping to build on that momentum, Switzer, fellow marathoner Nina Kuscsik and Fred Lebow, the founder of the New York City Marathon, hatched an idea.
“We thought, ‘Wouldn't it be cool to have a women’s-only marathon in Central Park?’” Switzer said. “The problem was there were only about eight of us who could run a marathon.”
They settled on the idea of running one lap of Central Park – six miles, or 10,000 meters.
On June 3, 1972, Switzer, Kuscsik and 76 other women lined up at the start. Each runner sported a t-shirt bearing the name of the race’s sponsor, Johnson Wax’s Crazylegs Shave Cream, for the inaugural Crazylegs Mini Marathon, named after a symbol of women's liberation: the miniskirt. Seventy-two women completed the race, led by 17-year-old Californian Jackie Dixon, who finished in 37:02, nearly a minute ahead of the rest of the field.
“It’s amazing, 50 years later, to look back at the accomplishment,” Switzer said on the eve of the anniversary of the inaugural race. “We knew, when we started this race, that we were stepping into history. It was the first-ever women-only road race in the world. We felt like we had claimed the streets. We had deserved this opportunity. And we were going to change history.”
Participation in the race grew rapidly, climbing to 1,894 finishers in 1977 and 4,118 in 1979. The 2022 race – now known as the Mastercard New York Mini 10K – drew more than 8,000 runners, including Switzer, who competed in her original Crazylegs t-shirt, and a dozen Olympians and Paralympians. Senbere Teferi of Ethiopia, a two-time Olympian, won the open division in 30 minutes 43 seconds. American Susannah Scaroni won the wheelchair division for the fourth consecutive time, in 21:10, bettering her own event record.
But countless other runners racked up personal victories just by completing the race. More than 200 women have finished the Mini 15 or more times. They’re known collectively as “Crazylegs runners,” a nod to the race’s original name. Among them: Julianne Grace and Dede Beck.
Grace has missed only one New York Mini 10K since her first in 1975 – for her 50th wedding anniversary in 2010 – while Beck has completed the race 42 consecutive times. This year, they were again joined by Beck’s daughters Julianne, 27, Melissa, 22, and Allison, 21.
Grace continued to run while raising her two children and pursuing a long career as a corporate executive, including becoming the first woman vice president at the Perkin Elmer Corporation, which manufactured the optics for the Hubble Space Telescope. She also went on to run three marathons.
Like her mother, Beck fell in love with running, and followed in her footsteps. She entered her first Mini at age 18, ran in high school and college, and was the captain of the cross-country team at Duke. She finished three marathons in under three hours and completed the New York Mini while pregnant with all four of her children, including the 1994 race just four weeks before her oldest, Julianne, was born.
Now Beck is facing her toughest challenge: runner’s dystonia, a rare neurological disorder that affects leg muscles.
“I began having symptoms in 2018,” Beck said. “It started when I was running downhill. I was not able to control my right leg. I was tripping over it. I felt like I was going to fall on my face. I had been running for 45 years, almost my whole life, and to all of a sudden not be able to control my right leg? It was disconcerting. So I started taking these tiny little steps. Then it started to affect me on flat surfaces and going uphill too.”
Beck first consulted her primary care doctor, who ruled out Lyme disease, anemia and degenerative disc disease. Beck ran the New York Mini in 2019 – “slowly,” she said. She saw a neurologist who diagnosed her with a movement disorder. Three weeks later, she ruptured her ACL while walking on the sidewalk, the result of damage caused by her altered gait. She underwent reconstructive surgery in January 2020. It looked like her running career was over.
“Dede was just a super runner,” Grace said. “She loved running and had a lot of success in the sport. To have something she loves so much yanked away from her has been really tough.”
The Mini was canceled in 2020 because of COVID, but when it returned in 2021, so did Beck – this time on crutches. This year, Grace and Allison walked the course with her. They finished together in 2:09.
Beck said that there were a couple of years where she had to twist her daughters’ arms to get them to participate in the Mini. “Especially when they were teenagers, getting up at five in the morning and schlepping into New York City to run a race was not always their No. 1 priority,” she said. “So I told them, ‘This can be my birthday present, my Mother's Day present and even my Christmas present. You don't have to get me anything for the rest of my life. Just come show up for the Mini every year. Now they do it willingly.”
This was Julianne’s 13th New York Mini, Melissa’s ninth and Allison’s eighth. They came from Maryland, Boston and Rhode Island just for the race.
“It’s a sacrifice for them,” Grace said. “They’re not as hooked on running as we were. But the Mini is special, and they come for their mom and their grandmother. They're supporting their mom because it means a lot to her. They’re doing it out of love.”
"Not being able to run has been hard, Beck said. “It’s been like losing a best friend. I’m still trying to figure this out,” she said. “Dystonia is really hard to treat. There are medications, but the side effects – blurry vision, total dizziness, nausea – are pretty awful.
That said, you always have to keep things in perspective, right? Many people are in a lot worse shape, with bigger crosses to bear. I try to just stay positive.”
Grace still has a pair of her original running shoes, the Tiger Jayhawks.
“They had soles that were so thin. It was unbelievable,” she said. “When you hold them up next to the running shoes today, you go, ‘Oh my God. How did people run on no cushion whatsoever?’ I have no doubt that if people had continued to run on shoes like the Jayhawks, their running careers would have been cut short by the pounding on the roads. The athletic prowess matters, but so do the accoutrements.”
Another sign of progress? In 1972, banks could refuse to issue a credit card to an unmarried woman, and if a woman was married, her husband was required to cosign – until the the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 was signed into law.
This year, Mastercard – a payments company that you might recognize on the back of your credit card – served as title sponsor of the event for the second time.
“The idea that we couldn’t have a credit card [in 1972] and now we’re sponsored by a credit card company is symbolic of the progress we have made,” Switzer said.
Mastercard is also the presenting sponsor of the professional women’s athlete field and the New York Road Runners’ Run for the Future Program, which introduces 11th and 12th graders to the sport of running.
“Mastercard is committed to growing the visibility of sports and the women who participate in them,” said Anne Valentzas, Senior Vice President, North America Marketing at Mastercard. “This not only directly impacts the lives of athletes, but also signals to girls and women a brighter, more equitable future. We continue to push ahead even as we see progress being made. The 50th anniversary of the Mastercard New York Mini 10K and Title IX reminds us how far we’ve come, but there is still much to be done for women everywhere.”
The New York Mini 10K added a professional wheelchair division in 2018. Since then, Susannah Scaroni – a two-time Paralympic medalist – is the only athlete to have won the race.
“The Mastercard New York Mini 10K is a special one to me for so many reasons,” she said. “Not only is it the world’s original women-only road race, but it is also one of the only women-only wheelchair races. As a woman, a woman with a disability, getting to be here to race, to celebrate that racing and being outside and being active is for all people is just a joy and a celebration in and of itself.”
That joy was evident among the throng of runners in this year’s race.
“Running is an equalizer,” Beck said. “A lot of sports, like golf, have high barriers to entry. But anybody can run. To have these thousands of women from all over the world – all ages, all races, all religions, all educational backgrounds and all occupations – come together is amazing. We have this one common bond: that we love to run.”
Julianne Grace still loves to run. She says she logs four to six miles five times a week. Almost as soon as she finished her 46th Mini 10K, Grace started looking forward to next year’s race.
Her granddaughter Julianne got engaged in May. She’s planning a wedding for next June. But her family priorities remain in order. “I told her, ‘If you want a June wedding, you have to schedule it after the Mini,’” Beck said. “She purposely planned it around the race.”
Beck has much to look forward to in 2023. Her first goal is to relearn how to walk without crutches. “If I can walk first, then maybe I can get to running,” she said. “And then we’ll see.”
Regardless, “I plan to be there at the start line again next year,” Beck said. “And maybe next year I'll be able to ditch the crutches. That would be a dream come true.”
If all goes as planned, three generations of Julianne Grace’s family will gather at the New York Mini 10K start line next June for another go at their favorite race.
“I hope to continue doing it every year I can,” said Grace. “That’s why I show up.”