The irony of Marcy Schwam’s reign as one of the foremost female distance runners on the planet is that she entered her first marathon as a man.
At least in the eyes of the Boston Athletic Association.
A year after the sponsors of the Boston Marathon opened their famed race to women for the first time, Schwam stepped to the starting line in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, recognized officially by the BAA as Marc Schwam.
“I registered for Boston, and at that time they sent you back, believe it or not, a blue or a pink card, and I got a blue card,” said Schwam, a 1975 graduate who works as the director of US retail marketing for Reebok International. “They were so unused to women entering, the card came as Marc—they left the y off.”
Due in part to the trailblazing Schwam, women no longer are viewed as outliers at races. When she ran her first marathon at Boston in 1973, only 12 women took part; 9,985 were entered last April. Schwam later transitioned to ultrarunning, tackling even longer events that test the limits of physical endurance and mental toughness, and emphatically shattered any notions that only members of the opposite sex were capable of herculean athletic feats.
“I really wanted to prove that women could do these types of things,” Schwam said.
She succeeded beyond all expectation. Schwam set world records at 50 miles, 100 kilometers, and 100 miles, and for mileage run in 24 hours, 48 hours, and 6 days; raced up Pikes Peak and the steps of the Empire State Building; finished 100K and 153-mile events in Europe so grueling that mere survival is celebrated; appeared in the Guinness Book of World Records and Sports Illustrated’s Faces in the Crowd section; and, most recently, became the third person inducted into the American Ultrarunning Hall of Fame.
Here’s even more irony: While Schwam never for a moment doubted she would build a career as an elite athlete when she left White Plains, New York, for IUP in 1971, her game back then was tennis. Running, to Schwam, was nothing more than a training tool. She dreamed of dashing across a manicured lawn at Wimbledon, not a finish line in Boston.
“From the time I was five years old, I thought I was going to play professional tennis,” said Schwam, who compiled a 35-1 singles record at IUP. “In 1975, I had an opportunity to play in a Virginia Slims satellite tournament in Brownsville, Texas, and I didn’t like the other players. They were just rich, spoiled-brat kids, and when I thought about it—that these were the people that I was going to travel with and spend time with—I decided that just wasn’t for me.”
By then, she had embraced running, even when it didn’t involve pursuit of a tennis ball. Schwam began entering marathons—she won at Cleveland in 1983 and recorded her personal best of 2:48:17 at New York City later that year—but running 26.2 miles failed to satisfy her hunger for a challenge. Schwam craved something even more demanding.
“I was going for my master’s in exercise physiology, and I became fascinated with endurance and what the body was capable of,” she said. “I won a 50K in Central Park and realized, wow, I could’ve kept going. I ran a 40-miler in Forest Park in Queens a short time after that, quite successfully, and went to Boston for the marathon in ’78. I met some people from San Francisco there, ended up driving out to California, running the Pikes Peak Marathon along the way, and doing very, very well. Then I set a goal to be the first woman to run around Lake Tahoe.”
Schwam wasted little time crossing the Lake Tahoe 72-mile Ultra off her to-do list. She completed the arduous circuit, at elevations exceeding 6,000 feet, in 12 hours and 1 minute, a transcendent performance that served as the springboard to her Hall of Fame career.
“That’s really where it all started, in terms of becoming competitive within the ultra community,” Schwam said. “That got me hooked. I gave up all plans for a real job in search of the next challenge.”
She quickly became a veritable rock star in the world of ultrarunning. Schwam gained international acclaim with epic achievements such as running 111 miles and setting three world records during the Sri Chinmoy 24-Hour Race at Greenwich, Connecticut, in 1980: fastest 50 miles (6:43:23), 100K (8:46:35), and 100 miles (15:44:27). She lowered the 50-mile record two years later in Chicago, running a relatively brisk 5:59:26. Even now, few women have bettered that time.
“Being the first female to break six hours for 50 miles is probably the thing I’m most proud of,” Schwam said. “I remember they sent a guy out on a bicycle to keep everybody out of my way, and he told me with like three miles to go, ‘You have to run 10 seconds faster a mile for these last three miles and you’ve got it.’ So I picked up the pace. It was so close. When I crossed the finish line, I was like, ‘How in the hell did I just do that?’”
Schwam likely asked that same question after becoming the first woman to finish the Edward Payson Six-Day Track Race in Pennsauken, New Jersey. She ran a staggering 384 miles to place second in a field of 14—all the other competitors were men. The extreme physical toll and lack of sleep caused Schwam to hallucinate while running.
“One night, after the rain had stopped, there were puddles on the side of the track,” she recalled. “And I don’t remember exactly what I saw, but things were coming out of those puddles. It was just the moonlight hitting the puddles, but those things seemed real to me.”
Other highlights on Schwam’s running résumé include winning the women’s division in the first Empire State Building Run-Up in 1978, when she climbed 1,576 steps through dusty, narrow stairwells to the 86th-floor observation deck in 16:04; finishing the sun-baked 153-mile Spartathlon, from Athens, Greece, to Sparta, an excruciating ordeal that can leave even the fittest competitors doubled over, vomiting; demolishing the existing women’s 100K world record in Santander, Spain, where her time of 7:47:28 was good for third place in an otherwise all-male field and elicited praise from Ultrarunning magazine as “a performance for the ages”; and completing the Pikes Peak double, a 13.3-mile ascent on a Saturday followed the next day by the up-and-down marathon, both of which feature steep, sinuous climbs, thin air that tortures the lungs, and wildly unpredictable weather conditions at the 14,114-foot summit.
“It’s so crazy, you never know what to expect,” she said. “One year I did it and it was snowy, blustery, and cold, and there was slush at the top. Another year it was so hot. Obviously, as you get higher, above the tree line, there’s nothing between you and the sun. I felt like I was being fried.”
Schwam missed the Pikes Peak double this year because of knee surgery, but she plans to resume running—both marathons and ultras—in 2014 after a fifth winter spent running 10Ks on the national snowshoe racing circuit.
Adding up all the miles she has traversed in competition—on snow, tracks, trails, roads, and the steps of skyscrapers—would no doubt yield a phenomenal sum. While pondering that thought recently in her Massachusetts home, Schwam couldn’t help but think back to where her personal odometer began turning: the John F. Kennedy Memorial 5K Run in Pittsburgh’s Schenley Park.
“I ended up going with some of the guys from the IUP cross country team,” she said. “I kind of got bit by the running bug. I started getting into marathons and then into longer races when I realized I could go out [on a run] at sunrise and come back at sunset. I never would have imagined where that first race would lead.”
Indeed, that modest 5K launched a career. Only months later, Schwam toed the starting line at the Boston Marathon, surrounded by thousands of men, a handful of fellow females, and no small measure of irony.
The woman hailed as one of the greatest female distance performers ever was, thanks to a Boston Athletic Association snafu, about to run her first marathon…as a man.
More from the Fall-Winter 2013 Issue of IUP Magazine
Mike Barnett came to IUP to grow musically. Twenty years later, the CU-Boulder faculty member has enlisted the help of an IUP mentor on his latest project—a fusion of metal, rock, and jazz
As shrinking high school class sizes take their toll on student enrollment, IUP must rely on innovation to weather the challenge
Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
As thousands of alumni returned to campus in October to celebrate Homecoming 2013, they continued a tradition that has spanned eight decades
Junior Caitlin McCabe, a member of the IUP Color Guard, starts to get her gear together for the IUP Marching Band: her uniform, her flag—and her prosthetic leg
Since the start of the Fall semester, students have had access to a new gymnasium adjacent to the Hadley Union Building