The undercover 'hike' that existed long before women were allowed to enter distance races
Rita Liberti was new to California when she hiked the Dipsea Trail for the first time in the late 1990s. She knew little about the path other than it was a wonderful way to enjoy a day in Marin County.
When she stopped by a ranger station, she noticed some vintage photos of women in a long-ago event on the same trail. "I just got interested," says Liberti, a sports historian and professor at California State University East Bay in Hayward. "What is this women's Dipsea thing?"
The event was the Women's Dipsea Hike, a little-remembered race -- especially outside the Bay Area -- that busted barriers for women's sports.
For five years, from 1918 to 1922, hundreds of women gathered for what was billed as the first cross-country sporting event exclusively for females, a 7-plus mile hike from Mill Valley -- about 30 miles north of San Francisco -- over rugged, steep terrain to the Pacific Ocean. It was called a "hike" to get around the Amateur Athletic Union's ban of women in long-distance runs. Yet it was indeed a race -- a trophy was awarded to the first finisher -- and many women ran the trail.
Ten years before the debut of Olympic track events for women and 54 years before they were allowed to enter the Boston Marathon or run as far as 1,500 meters in the Olympics, adventurous females charged over the Dipsea Trail in bulky heeled shoes or boots and heavy wool clothes -- and showed they could do just fine.
"It really was remarkable," says Liberti, who wrote about the hikes and their significance in the journal "California History" in 2002. "To know how steadfast against women's athleticism that people were, to realize that this event was happening is phenomenal."
Now Liberti and about 500 others will recreate and celebrate that first event. A 100th anniversary hike will be held on April 21, the date of the 1918 hike, following almost the same route from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach.
The anniversary event was the idea of Barry Spitz, historian and longtime announcer of the Dipsea Race, the nation's oldest trail run held in the same location each June. To Spitz, it's important people know about those pioneer-athlete women of the early 20th century. "I made it my mission to tell people how special it was, how important it was," Spitz says.
The Women's Dipsea Hike of 1918 was the idea of an organizer named George James and was promoted by the San Francisco Call newspaper. Edith Hickman of San Francisco won that first race, finishing the course in 1 hour, 18 minutes, 48 seconds. She was one of 148 finishers (among 171 starters).
Hickman, a noted swimmer who won races across the Golden Gate strait long before the bridge was built, didn't have a running background, but trained for the event and entered along with several teammates from San Francisco's Olympic Club. All wore dark, beanie-style hats with the club's winged logo.
Spitz says Hickman's time was remarkable. Breaking an hour in the modern Dipsea Race -- over an often narrow, root- and stair-filled trail -- is still a challenge. In 2017, only 101 of the 1,411 finishers (men and women) broke 60 minutes.
"That's a time not many women are running today," says Spitz. "And they ran in those boots."
At the time, James was ecstatic. He said participants symbolized "the modern woman," and showed the female athlete "is more game, more tenacious and has greater power of endurance" than most believed.
The hikes proved popular with spectators, too. Photos of the 1919 finish at Willow Camp (now Stinson Beach) show crowds lining the route. The Call reported crowds were even larger than for the established annual men's Dipsea Race. Fans at the finish were kept apprised of participants' progress, with soldiers from San Francisco's Presidio stationed along the route using signal flags to relay information.
There was stiff competition, too. In 1919, one competitor, Dolly Harcus, claimed to a reporter she was bumped off course by Gladys Hofvenahl "so roughly that she lost one of the heels of her shoes."
Emma Reimann of Mill Valley was the star of the next four races after the inaugural one, winning twice and finishing second twice. In 1922 she set a record of 1:12:06, which is still unbroken because the race was discontinued. James, the organizer, became ill (and may have died, according to Spitz) and local groups opposed to the race exerted pressure. Mark Reese, who did a history of the Dipsea Race and Hike in 1980, wrote the hike was halted "due to opposition from local clergy and physicians objecting to the 'hiking costumes' and 'undue stress on women's bodies.'"
Liberti is impressed the hikes were held at all.
"There were so many voices against their participation and involvement in rigorous physical activity that was athletic, the fact that this happened in 1918 ... despite the fierce opposition to it at times, is remarkable," she says.
One hundred years after the first race, Arianna Van Meurs, the granddaughter of 1918 winner Hickman, will be there at the anniversary event. She recalls her grandmother -- who died in 1981 at 82 -- as being an adventurous outdoorswoman who loved to hike, sail, swim and travel. "She didn't recognize barriers to anything she could do in the out of doors," she says.
As a girl, Van Meurs walked the Dipsea Trail "countless times" with her grandmother and mother, Barbara Van Meurs. Barbara Van Meurs, 89, will serve as the official starter on April 21.
Mary Etta Boitano Blanchard will also be at the anniversary, wearing a shirt and black beanie similar to the ones Hickman wore. At age 10, Boitano Blanchard was the first official female winner of the Dipsea Race when women were allowed to register in 1973. She's also hoping her mother, Mary Lucille Boitano, 94 -- who's completed 50 marathons -- will do part of the hike.
Boitano Blanchard remembers not being able to officially register for races as a girl, because it wasn't allowed, and wants to honor Hickman and the women who participated in these early hikes.
That's Spitz's goal, too, to let people know that women were doing something special a century ago when many believed females were too fragile to run long distances.
"That was the last major women's distance race in the United States for decades," Spitz says of the 1922 hike. "I may be wrong about that, but nobody's shown me otherwise."