Coach recalls era when running was a real boys' club
Standing on the Lincoln High School track on a Tuesday evening, Charlotte Richardson can't help but beam.
She is surrounded by more than 30 female runners of all ages, shapes and athletic abilities. Several have just snagged age-group honors in the Foot Traffic Flat Half Marathon and finished in the top 10 overall for women. Others have qualified for the prestigious Boston Marathon or have goals to do so.
It's a far cry from more than 30 years ago, when Richardson, nee Lettis, began competing. In 1972 she was one of the first women to qualify for the Boston Marathon, back when everyone - no matter what age or sex - had to run under three hours and 10 minutes. Nationally ranked, she made the 1976 Olympic trials in the 1,500 meters and won several New England track and cross country titles.
Despite all of these accomplishments, Richardson and the women she competed with often were treated as second-class citizens. Not so much by their male competitors as by race organizers and spectators.
Her experiences led her to make a documentary, 'Run Like a Girl' (for information, visit www.runlikeagirlfilm.com ). The movie profiles three runners, including Richardson, who exemplify how women's running has changed over the past half-century.
Richardson completed the film in 2005 as her final project for a degree from the Northwest Film Center. By that time she had been out of competitive racing for more than a decade, thanks to a back injury.
She was, and continues to be, the head track coach at Lincoln High School and the girls' cross-country coach. So when a group of young women approached her last fall about helping them with track workouts, no one would have blamed the busy coach for turning them down - especially given the fact that in the spring of 2005, Richardson was diagnosed with breast cancer after a routine mammogram.
She learned of her diagnosis on a Friday and immediately scheduled a lumpectomy for the following Tuesday so as not to interfere with Lincoln's trip to the district's track championship events.
By the Monday after her surgery, she was back to coaching. Months later, her cancer in remission, it never occurred to her to give up a chance to encourage other women to excel and improve.
'I love running, and I love what running did for me as a woman,' she says with her signature wide smile.
Group keeps growing
Richardson began meeting with a core group of about 15 runners, many of them post-collegiate competitors, every Tuesday evening at the Lincoln High School track. She assessed their abilities and came up with not only track workouts but weekly schedules for each runner to follow, depending on what distance they were training for.
'Coaching is all about progression,' she says. 'You start with a base and build upon that.'
Slowly word got out, and today the number of women who consistently show up each Tuesday has almost tripled. They range in age from early 20s to their 50s. No matter their level, Richardson and her 'co-coach,' Melissa Hill, treat each runner individually and with obvious interest and concern.
'I tend to identify with these women and worry about each athlete,' Richardson says.
Hill, the track and cross country coach at West Sylvan Middle School, adds, 'We're welcoming to all abilities. There's a place for everyone.'
This isn't just lip service. At a recent workout, one fortysomething, middle-of-the-pack runner was queried for several minutes about her awkward gait. Was she aware of it? Was this due to a past injury? Did she want tips on how to take care of it?
The coaches start each session by standing in a circle as Richardson introduces new members and makes announcements, including congratulating those who have recently raced. There's a two-mile warm-up and then runners are divided into several groups.
Richardson and Hill make sure each woman has a goal for the workout, be it a particular time or number of intervals. Out on the track there are echoes of 'Good job!' and 'Looking strong!' as runners cheer one another on.
The women themselves seem to thrive on the companionship and esprit de corps. Erin Skourtes, 26, has been running with the group for 'about a year.' She enjoys the camaraderie: 'It's fun. They push me, but they're not crazy competitive.'
Jenny Teppo, 47, recently was featured as an 'Age Group Ace' in Running Times magazine, as a result of her tendency to win not only her age division, but often the entire women's field. She drives in from Vancouver, Wash., every Tuesday night.
'I know the girls are going to be here. That's a huge thing. I drive all the way from Vancouver, in that traffic, just to be here.'
Every runner is different
Richardson's vision for the Tuesday track group includes increasing the number of women who participate and hopefully dividing the group into beginning runners, intermediates and advanced. Both she and Hill are adamant about extending the workouts to all levels.
'It's all about personal growth,' Richardson says with another of her wide grins. 'We'd love to see women with a passion for running and watch them see how well they can do.
'The confidence you get from running is amazing.'
As are the rewards that come from coaching the sport. Last spring, Richardson experienced one of the most moving moments in her running career. And she was standing absolutely still.
It was a gray, misty evening at the Lincoln High School track. She had just sent a group of women off on a 3,000 meter time trial. As they crested the second turn, Richardson found herself in awe of what she was watching.
'Here was this group of beautiful, strong women running together. When they finished, all of them had big smiles on their faces.'
It is an experience that is repeated week after week, much to their coach's delight.
'I get goose bumps whenever I watch them run.'
Women of all ages welcome to run
Women's track workouts are held each Tuesday beginning at 5:45 p.m. at the Lincoln High School track, at Southwest Jefferson Street and 16th Avenue. First-timers are encouraged to participate at no initial cost.
The monthly cost of $15 includes weekly track workouts and monthly workout schedules.
In addition, women interested in competing as a team are invited to participate in the newly organized Team Athena.
This is an all-female, all-ages running team with plans to participate in regional cross country and track events.