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Thursday, November 1, 2012
Nina Kuscsik earns hall of fame spot

By Bonnie D. Ford

HUNTINGTON, N.Y. -- Nina Kuscsik doesn't remember how she heard an Englishman named Roger Bannister had run a mile in less than four minutes in the spring of 1954, but she vividly recalls what she did next.

Energized by the news, the 15-year-old hopped on her bike, rode through her Brooklyn neighborhood to nearby Wingate High School, climbed over a cyclone fence and ran around the track -- just once -- timing herself in 85 seconds. "I thought, he did it faster, and he did four of them," she said, laughing delightedly in the kitchen of her home on Long Island.

In the mid-1950s, running for running's sake wasn't something Kuscsik or any other girl she knew aspired to. But she was a driven, natural athlete who found her own outlets. She raced on roller skates and speed skates and a hand-me-down track bike. Kuscsik didn't take up running seriously until after she went to nursing school, got married and started having kids. Her training partners were her husband and two of their male friends, and her instructional manual was a $1 copy of "Jogging," co-authored by future Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman.

Nina Kuscsik
Nina Kuscsik completed 80 marathons during her competitive career, including this, the 1972 Boston Marathon, which she won in 3:10:58.

"In that book there were ladies with raincoats and those little plastic kerchiefs on, running around the track," Kuscsik said. "If they could do it, I could do it."

Thus was a distance running trailblazer born. Kuscsik, now 73, will be inducted into the New York Road Runners Hall of Fame on Thursday. The ceremony will include the raising of a banner not far from the spot in Central Park where she made history on Oct. 1, 1972, by becoming the first official female winner of the New York City Marathon -- a race nearly 25,000 women will start Sunday.

Yet the beginning of that race was more notable than the finish. At the sound of the gun -- 10 minutes before the men's start, as was required at that time by the Amateur Athletic Union -- Kuscsik and five other women sat down cross-legged and propped hand-lettered protest signs against their knees.

Race founder Fred Lebow, who had encouraged Kuscsik to be the ringleader, made sure the press was there to record the moment. An iconic shot by New York Times photographer Patrick Burns shows Kuscsik with a plaid ribbon knotted into a headband in her short brown hair, smiling down at a poster that says "The AAU is UNFAIR."

Only two of the six women (in a total field of 278) completed the race. The AAU huffily added 10 minutes to their times. If the organization hoped that would deflate Kuscsik, the move backfired. She showed up at the next AAU convention with a civil rights complaint written and a threat to sue. The rule was changed.

Women were supposed to give birth. Girls could exercise, but not women. ... It just didn't make any sense, that they would try to stop people from running. They thought your uterus was going to fall out.

-- Nina Kuscsik

Kuscsik first became convinced she might have a little aptitude for distance running when she read that any high school girl who ran a seven-minute mile was "worth training." She was on vacation in Lake Placid, six weeks pregnant at the time. Curious to see what she could do, Kuscsik went out and ran a 7:05.

She began to consult a magazine called "Long Distance Log," but for the most part, she and her male training partners were self-taught. "We didn't have interaction with anybody else," she said. They ran in 24-hour relay races with their kids sleeping in the car. She stepped onto the course at the 1969 Boston Marathon -- her first competitive race -- as an unofficial entrant, memorizing the bib number of the man next to her when she finished so she could check her time later in the results.

In short, Kuscsik was an unassuming rebel who simply couldn't understand or tolerate the illogic of gender-based bias. "As a teenager, I sat in class for my nursing studies and learned about degenerative diseases appearing around the age of 40," she wrote in a 1981 op-ed piece for the New York Times. She resolved to "exercise and delight in it, until my body, not any age chart, told me to stop."

In the years just before and after the passage of Title IX in 1972, female road runners were still an unusual sight. Kuscsik was frequently asked if she needed help. She had a shoulder joint that popped loose easily, and on one occasion when she was running on the grass alongside the Northern State Parkway on Long Island with her arm in a sling, wearing a red shirt, the police responded to the report of a fleeing, bloodied woman. When the cops caught up to Kuscsik, they were not amused at her explanation and ordered her to ride with them to the next exit.

Kuscsik divorced when her children were still young. She went back to work at Mount Sinai Hospital as a patient representative. She kept running, sometimes doing an hour's worth of laps on the circular cul-de-sac outside her house at night so she could hear if one of the kids needed her.

She ran her fastest marathon at age 38 in 1977 (2:50:22) in Minneapolis. "Now, that's so slow," Kuscsik said. "I never thought women would break 2:30. ... I don't think I ever thought about beating people. If I did what I wanted, then that was my best, and if I beat people, that was fine."

The same year, she completed what was then an annual 50-mile race in Central Park in 6:35:53. "Every lap, I pretended that I was on the phone with a different friend," Kuscsik said.

Kuscsik's running days ended a few years ago when she underwent knee replacement surgery, the payback for an old skiing injury and the cumulative toll of an impact sport. She eschews red meat and dairy products, walks a lot and isn't too far off her old fighting weight. Never one to sit still, she's currently taking belly dancing classes.

She was among the group that successfully lobbied for the addition of the women's marathon to the program for the 1984 Summer Olympics. Kuscsik still gets emotional when she talks about watching Joan Benoit win that race in Los Angeles in 1984. Similarly, her voice still swells with outrage when she talks about the societal forces that wanted to slow women down.

"Women were supposed to give birth," Kuscsik said. "Girls could exercise, but not women. ... It just didn't make any sense, that they would try to stop people from running. They thought your uterus was going to fall out.

"They weren't doing it for our safety. It was discriminatory."