Venerable events like the Boston Marathon have their own special way of telling our stories. Not just singular tales of yearly victors and finishers, though those are its lifeblood, but something more, something bigger, as if each race were a chapter in an ongoing novel.
Stories told through people like Val Rogosheske.
Fifty years ago, the 25-year-old Minnesota native helped make history, one of eight women at the starting line in Hopkinton who made up the first official women’s field in Boston. Fifty years later, the 75-year-old is back to run again, this time flanked by her daughters, Allie and Abby, the three of them in a field that now includes some 14,000-plus women. Like links in a chain, they return as living examples of the power of progress, of the way minds can be changed and opportunities can open, of the way the nudge toward equality benefits us all.
Back then, Val didn’t look in a mirror and see a pioneer. Even as she packed her bags for Boston, it was the women who would run beside her, women like Sara Mae Berman, Kathrine Switzer, Nina Kuscsik, the ones who had worked so hard to lobby and push and, finally, to convince the BAA to make Boston an official women’s race — those were the ones she looked up to. And for many years hence, even as she returned to run again in 1973 and 1974, Val’s reflection didn’t change, at least in her own eyes. She was known to say with regularity: “I just showed up.”
But there is no teacher better than time, and the years between then and now have allowed Rogosheske to understand just how important it was ‘”just to show up.” For all the gratitude to those who break the doors down, if no one comes in behind them, there is no one to take the baton. If no one else shows up, the baton drops, and the chain is broken. And sometimes, those chains never get fixed.
“I think I’ve become more and more aware of that over the years,” Val says in a phone call from Minnesota, days before she, her husband Phil, her daughter Abby, with whom they share a duplex, and a cousin who is also running with them head to Boston. Daughter Allie, who lives in Wisconsin, traveled separately.
“Standing on the start line 50 years ago with the other seven women, there was a spark of excitement in the air, and I remember all of us knowing that no one was going to drop out, no one was going to walk,” she said. “I think over the years the importance of that day has grown in my mind. They had all been working so hard and I, being one of the younger ones, being from Minnesota, living in D.C. at the time where Phil was finishing a stint in the army, I didn’t feel part of the community. I didn’t know what was going on. So I would always say, ‘I just showed up.’
“My awareness of how hard they worked has grown over the years. All I did was show up, but my appreciation of my showing up is there now, too. I look at women playing ice hockey, kids just had to keep showing up at the rink and people finally said, ‘what are we going to do with these girls?’ I see it in the world of soccer players, fighting for pay equity and coverage and equality.
“Just showing up does have its place.”
So does living by example.
For Allie and Abby, watching their mom run up and down the street in their St. Cloud, Minn., neighborhood while they played within sight on the front lawn was as influential as watching her earn a masters degree and then a PhD in exercise physiology. They followed her example in obvious and tangible ways, Allie a rising soccer star who would go on to play at the University of Wisconsin, Abby a competitive distance runner through her high school years, Allie now a high school physical education teacher and soccer coach, Abby an equity and community engagement manager for a natural foods company, Allie the mother of 7-year-old twins who love to be outside, Abby the mother of an 18-year-old who will no doubt follow suit.
Their mom changed a conversation that once upon a time, would not have afforded them the athletic opportunities they cherish.
“Back in the day, we were told your uteruses would fall out, that you’d be unable to bear children, that you would not survive the event, like it was too much for our little bodies to do,” Val said. “I never felt like I had to have fortitude to challenge that because I knew in my bones it wasn’t true. I grew up being active, I had supportive parents. It just wasn’t true.”
Untrue, unfair, unequal, and ultimately, unsustainable. From Joan Benoit to Des Linden, women marathoners can rule the world. From Val Rogosheske to Abby and Allie Rogosheske, women marathoners can survive the challenge, can thrive in running communities, can show up and have a blast. Together.
“It’s interesting — this process of deciding to run with my mom, it has shifted something in me,” Abby said. “Maybe it was happening for me anyway, but my mom, she’s the most humble and self deprecating person. She would never say, ‘yes, I was a pioneer,’ saying instead ‘I just showed up.’ But what was it that compelled this woman from St. Cloud, Minnesota, who’d never run a mile to show up in Boston for the biggest marathon in the country, in a space where she may not have been welcomed?
“What I’ve come to realize about my mom is that she is a pioneer, and I’ve come to see showing up as a radical act, one that really can change history. And it sounds cliché but she showed up. That’s a really big deal to me. Seeing that in different ways that this plays out in other movements in history, or just showing up in someone’s life, it matters.”
As Allie echoed, “looking back to how it must have felt, it was just such a courageous thing to do.”
The Rogosheskes, along with their cousin Kris Swanson, plan to run as a pack of their own, keeping to the pace Val will set with her 30/30 system, 30 seconds of running followed by 30 seconds of walking. As much as she encouraged the others not to let her slow them down, both daughters laughed over the phone as they said, independent of each other, “I just hope I can keep up with my mom.”
Phil, a former Olympian himself at the 1972 Munich Games in flat water kayaking, will be rooting them on, as proud a witness as imaginable to this beautiful, symbolic passing of the baton. Val will note the crowds as she passes Wellesley, remembering the sound of the women who cheered so loudly in solidarity 50 years ago, how those faces looked more like her daughters than herself when she returned and completed about half the marathon 25 years ago, how she knows they will look more like her grandchildren’s age this time around.
“I’m just thinking about the cycle and how things have developed,” she said. “I was a phys ed major when there were no sports at the high school level or college level for me. My two girls, they played in high school and college, they could run the marathon whenever they wanted. Now with the three of us, the four us, when we are out there together, it links us all. It’s going to be wonderful.”
Amazing what happens when you just show up.
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