Years A Room of Her Own
When Jane Welzel arrived at her Western Mass. college campus
in the early 1970s, women runners hadn’t yet been acknowledged. The big
university had no place for them. She wanted to run a race, and having grown up
in Hopkinton, MA, she, at age 19 and as a college sophomore, ran her
neighborhood race, the Boston Marathon. Why not? The large college in Amherst,
MA, did not have a women’s track or cross-country team. When some students
petitioned the athletic director to ask for women’s running teams, he responded
with a simple question: If the school offered such teams, would any women
bother to go out for them?
Jane Welzel ran the 1975 Boston Marathon in 3:30. She went
on to win the 1990 National Marathon Championship and win the 1992 Grandma’s
Marathon in 2:33:01. She became USA Masters Runner of the year in 1996 and
1997. She was diagnosed with an aggressive form of pancreatic cancer in the
spring of 2014 and died at age 59 in Colorado at the end of that summer. She
was one of the many pioneers of women’s running and left a legacy that many
women will follow.
The University of Massachusetts will build a new women’s
locker room that will be named for Jane Welzel. The school that didn’t have a
team for her, let alone a locker room, will have one for everyone with her name
on it once funds are raised. She was a charter member of the first women’s team
at UMass, and went on to run in the first ever women’s marathon trials in 1984
and again in 1988, 1992, 1996, and 2002.
She moved to Fort Collins, Colorado, in 1989 for the strong
running culture in that town and soon became a major contributor to that
strength. After her first Olympic Trials marathon, her neck was broken in a car
crash and she spent three months in a body cast. She survived that to come back
and qualify for the trials again. Her highest place was 9th in 1992.
She became a professional counselor specializing in therapy
for sports psychology, eating disorders, couples counseling and personal
In high school, Jane could not run track or cross-country
since they did not exist, but she played field hockey and basketball and played
the French horn in the school band which performed several times at the Boston
Marathon starting line.
I knew Jane very well in Amherst since I had graduated from
UMass the year Jane arrived, but had stayed in the area to coach and organize
the Sugarloaf Mt. AC. Jane and many other women in the late sixties and early
seventies were the pioneers of women’s running. Every high school and every
college had a “first” woman. They should each be celebrated. Every road race
had a first woman finisher. The Boston Marathon has the famous Bobbi Gibb who,
in 1966, was the first woman finisher in the race’s history.
Bobbi Gibb was honored at the Olympic Trials in L.A. and figures
in Amby Burfoot’s new book, First Ladies
of Running. Burfoot tells 22 stories of rebels, rules breakers, and visionaries.
Jane is certainly in all those categories with thousands of other women who
constituted the athletic crest of the second feminist wave in the US. Perhaps
every high school or college could find its first woman and name something big
and important after her.
Something happened in the late ’60s, and early ’70s to
unleash a cascade of women wanting to do things they had been discouraged or
prohibited from doing. There are thousands of women who pushed for these things
in all kinds of areas and not just running. For running’s female pioneers the
least we can do to honor their memory is to name items after them.
The same forces that pushed these women to step up to
running long distances (like men were doing) is the same force that has brought
us to a point where we have a woman running for president of the US. Regardless
of whether you support her and agree with her or not, your support or lack of is
based on considered arguments for and against her rather than a rejection
because of her gender.
In Fort Collins, Colorado a bench named the “Quada Quada” is
named after Jane Welzel, who also resides in the Colorado Running Hall of Fame.
She had said that the Boston Marathon is, “humanity at its best.” The name,
Quada, comes from the locals’ phonetic spelling of Jane’s pronunciation of
quarters (one lap of an outdoor track). For all her years in Colorado she never
lost her Massachusetts accent. She coached runners and urged them to run their
UMass has initiated a 40th anniversary campaign for women’s
cross-country and track and field. For differing donations one can contribute
to the purchase of a single locker, a bank of lockers or, for $10,000, naming
rights for one of the locker rooms. Those rights for the cross-country locker
room have already been reserved in Jane Welzel’s name.
I remember swimming out to a rock in Lake Maspenock in
Hopkinton after a run with Jane and other friends. We sat on the rock. We
thought being able to do that would last forever.
Derderian may be still sitting on a rock at email@example.com