grew up on a small farm in Connecticut in the 1940s and 50s. I was an only girl with four brothers. If they were clearing the pond for hockey, I'd scrape snow off the ice and jump in the game. Once I was 12, I helped bail boats out during hurricanes. I got drafted into all sorts of things. I loved being a part of everything — as long as it was outdoors.
I think I was the only kid who liked missing the school bus. It meant I could run the mile and a half through back fields and along the salt marsh to get there. It was a giddy feeling of freedom. From the time I was five I loved to run. I was flying.
My dad's stories about the Boston marathon were my favorites. He'd tell me about John Kelley, a local teacher who ran the 26-miler every fall and was making a name for himself. I started going up to the golf course to watch Kelley whiz by on his daily run. I'd wave and call out: "Hi, Mr. Kelley!" He'd smile. I plastered my bedroom wall with newspaper photos of Kelley. In 1957 he won the Boston Marathon.
One day I worked up the courage to ask Mr. Kelley if I could run with him. He said better yet I should run with his trainer George Terry. George agreed and we started training together. George gave me tips to build strength and speed and urged me to compete in the New England Championship — a half mile race for girls in Needham, Mass. I had never run in an official race and never even thought about competing. The race was only a month away, so I threw myself into training.
On the morning of the race I showed up in tennis shoes and my brother's shabby shorts. I was so nervous I couldn't stop shaking. When the gun went off, I took off like a scared rabbit. I can still hear George shouting: "Slow down! Slow down!" I just focused on the race. I won and broke the track record. The drive to compete was in my blood.
You rarely heard about women runners in those days. Women weren't allowed to compete in events with men. And they weren't allowed to enter races longer than 880 yards. If a woman ran too much her uterus would fall out. That was the thinking. You never heard of an actual case, but it was just in the air.
There was no girls' track team at Smith College when I arrived as a freshman in 1960. But I was determined to keep training. Luckily George believed in me and drove to Northampton a couple of times a week to oversee my intervals through apple orchards and on back roads. Despite hitting the asphalt day after day, mile after mile, my uterus never fell out.
In early fall 1960 I registered for the popular 4.7 mile Manchester Road Race held every Thanksgiving in Connecticut — even though the AAU banned women from competing in this race. I averaged 60 miles a week and I was ready to challenge the ban. But when I showed up for the race, the officials flat out refused to let me run. I looked around and saw 12-year-old boys getting clearance. This didn't sit right with me. So I returned to school fired up. I registered again for the 1961 race — but this time I'd insist on running.
he press got wind of my plan. Reporters from LIFE, Sports Illustrated and many newspapers — some international — shadowed me for six weeks before the event. "Coed Just Likes to Run, Yet Burley Males Object." "Move Over, Marathoners, College Girl Horning In." Stories went viral, as we'd say today. I heard from fans in South Africa and Japan and even appeared in some newsreels. But all the fanfare was draining.
"At first and second glance, Miss Julia Chase appears to be young, lovely, charming, intelligent, talented, gentle, and brown-eyed. Yet there are people who insist she can't be because she is a young, lovely, charming, intelligent, talented, gentle, brown-eyed lady road racer."
Race day came. I woke up exhausted and feeling dread. Would protesters show up? Would the crowd be hostile? Would I get to the starting line? My stomach was in a knot. On the drive to the race, George tried to settle my nerves by giving me a pep talk. As soon as we arrived, strangers surrounded me. Even now I'm short of breath remembering this moment. People were staring and some were yelling: "You can do it!"... "What are you trying to prove?"... "Go home and cook the turkey!"
I kept my eyes on the ground and talked to myself: start your warm-up...take a deep breath...visualize the course.
Two other female runners showed up unexpectedly to run. I hadn't even thought about that possibility. Neither had registered. One was an experienced runner who was there to watch her husband compete. The other was a local teenager showing her solidarity. The three of us talked and spontaneously became a trio. Shoulder-to-shoulder we pushed through the crowd and approached the starting line.
A race official appeared out of nowhere and body-blocked us with outstretched arms. "Girls! Get off the road immediately." I looked him in the eye. "No, Sir, I'm an experienced runner and I registered months ago. We're doing this!" He tried to push us out of the way as a crowd of spectators circled around. "Girls, this is your final warning! ...Back down...Now!" "Sir, I'm sorry, but I'm gonna run!"
The gun fired and a swarm of male runners took off — including George and John Kelley. Seconds later, the three of us girls veered to the left of the official and sprinted after the men. We were way behind, but every time I passed a guy, he'd shout "Go for it!" or "Way to go!" The runners were gentlemen and class athletes. Their thinking was, hey, if you can do it, more power to you.
I ran hard, but was careful to not outpace myself. I knew if I didn't finish in style and grace, skeptics could lean back and say "See, I told you so."
ut in that final stretch down Main St. I let myself go. The crowd — a blur of winter coats — cheered so loudly that the sounds
reverberated in my chest: "Juuliiiiiaaa! Juuliiiiaaaaa! Go, go, go, go...Juuliiiiiaaa!" I picked up my pace and crossed the finish line. I did cartwheels in the street. John Kelley won the race and George came in fifth. Runners and spectators rushed forward to shake my hand. My time was 33:40, putting me in 128th place and ahead of 12 men. I was rejected as an official entry, so my time would never be official. But I was on cloud nine. I had run a good race and for the first time, women ran in the Manchester Road Race.
"A pretty girl can run as fast as a 'plain Jane.' Lipstick, powder and plain old-fashioned femininity are as important to most track stars as their shoes and uniforms. ....being an athlete doesn't make them Amazons or stupid."
Edward Temple, coach of the U.S. Olympic Women's Team 1960
At the women's AAU Track Nationals in 1962 I competed in the indoor 880. A high ranking female AAU official pulled me aside during a break: "Listen, Julia, just let the distance thing go, okay? Don't rock the boat. You don't want to become masculine, do you?" I was speechless. And I was angry. I couldn't understand why she, of all people, would be making this point, instead of encouraging me. Most of the male distance runners had our backs. Why were some of the women trailing behind?
ifty years later, I've come to understand this conversation. Women's toehold in running was so tentative that many felt we simply shouldn't risk losing the gains we had just made. Leading women athletic directors exercised extreme caution. Their motto: take it slowly ...don't shake things up.
My running career was cut short due to a car accident in 1965. I never considered myself a rebel or a pioneer. I loved running and I asserted my right to run. Now, from the