Nina Kuscsik changed the sport of running by breaking through the “Boys’ Club” barrier and changing the rules so they included women. A humble but consistently excellent distance runner throughout the 1970s, she opened doors for future generations.
Born in 1939, Kuscsik was a natural athlete who competed in cycling and skating in her youth. When she was 15, Roger Bannister broke the four-minute-mile barrier, and something about that accomplishment stuck with her. But she didn’t find her own talent for running until after she’d gotten married, gone to nursing school, and had kids.
Inspired by a $1 copy of Bill Bowerman’s instructional book, Jogging, Kuscsik started to go out for runs. She trained with men, including her husband, and in 1969, she ran the Boston Marathon—unofficially, because women weren’t allowed to enter. She finished in 3:46, but the time didn’t appear in the results, like the men’s did. It occurred to her that something was seriously wrong with the sport’s rules.
In 1971, Kuscsik attended the Amateur Athletic Union’s annual conference. She’d become a familiar face at races and had just run a sub-three-hour marathon—only the second American woman ever to do so. She presented a proposal to the AAU that asked for an end to the ban on women and allow them to race officially. The committee agreed to raise the maximum distance of AAU-sanctioned events for women from five to 10 miles and added that “certain women” could run marathons. The rules still required a separate women’s start.
Eight women, including Kuscsik, showed up for the 1972 Boston Marathon and ran under the new AAU rules. Her time of 3:10:26 was finally included in the official results; she was the first female champion.
NYRR founder and New York City Marathon race director Fred Lebow, Kuscsik, and Kathrine Switzer worked as a team. On June 3, 1972, they founded the Crazylegs Mini Marathon, the first all-women’s road race.
A few months later, at the 1972 New York City Marathon, Kuscsik and five other women changed the sport forever. They huddled together just before the Central Park start. When the gun went off, they sat down, protesting women’s separate-start status. After the press got their story, the ladies got up and started running. Kuscsik and a young runner named Pat Barrett finished all four and a half loops of Central Park. She was the first woman to triumph in New York and Boston in the same year. (She returned to New York in 1973 and won again.)
Kuscsik kept up the fight at the 1972 AAU convention; she brought a lawsuit prepared by ACLU lawyers demanding that the “separate but equal” starting line requirement be taken off the books. They won the case, and the rule was dropped.
At the age of 38, Kuscsik ran her fastest marathon, 2:50:22. The same year, she completed the annual NYRR 50-mile race in Central Park in 6:35:53, an American record. She was among the group that successfully lobbied for a women’s marathon to be added to the 1984 Summer Olympics. Though she never got to run on that stage, she relished Joan Benoit’s win that year.
Now 74, Kuscsik has completed 80 marathons. She returned to Central Park in 2012 to participate in the 40th-anniversary celebration of the race she co-founded, the Mini, and walked the race with friends. She was recognized by many and thanked by some, and was quietly happy to be part of something she loves.
|1972||New York City Marathon||1||3:08:41|
|1973||New York City Marathon||1||2:57:07|
|1977||NYRR 50-Mile||1||6:35:53 (American record)|
|1979||Empire State Building Run-Up||1||15:04 (event record)|
|1980||Empire State Building Run-Up||1||14:55 (event record)|
|1981||Empire State Building Run-Up||1||14:46 (event record)|