Women runners and walkers are encouraged to turn out in force on July 13 at Washington Park to celebrate the 40th annual Springfield Women’s Distance Festival (WDF). The first was July 26, 1980. Why is a two-mile race called a distance festival? Debbie Huffman, who codirected the first WDF with George Anne Daly, explains that it was a protest race because there was no women’s marathon in the Olympics.
The Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) initiated the WDF in response to the lack of distance running events for women in the Olympics. WDFs were held throughout the country, with the first on July 13, 1980, the day of the men’s marathon at the Moscow Olympics. The short distance meant lots of women could participate. WDFs continue to flourish and celebrate the history of women’s rights to participate in running events at any distance and at any age.
Springfield’s 1980 WDF was a 4K (2.4 miles), and subsequent events have been two miles. The 1980 race results list 115 women finishers, ranging in age from eight to 58. Most were under 40. Only two were over 50, and eight were in their 40s. This year’s race directors, Heather Glessner and Teri Taylor, weren’t yet born. Much has changed in 40 years. Last year 293 women completed the race; 47 percent were over 40, including 47 women in their 50s, 27 in their 60s and four over the age of 70.
The first women’s Olympic marathon was August 1984 in Los Angeles, four years after the first WDFs. Two local women who were involved with the first WDF qualified for the Olympic marathon trials. Becky Baum qualified at the St. Louis marathon in December 1983 where she was the first place overall female with a time of 2:50:06. Due to a hamstring injury, she did not go to the Olympic trials. Genny Kaufmann (now Genny DiStasio) qualified at the 1983 Chicago marathon and competed in the Olympic trials in Olympia, Washington, in May 1984. Her time of 2:48:14 was not sufficient to earn a spot to compete in the first women’s Olympic marathon. The Springfield Road Runner’s Club (SRRC) created the Genny Kaufmann award, presented annually to the top female high school runner of the year.
Sally Cadagin directed the race for more than 15 years. The current race directors are in their fifth year. All of the race directors add their own personal touch and flair. Jan Wilson was known for decorating the women’s restrooms, which she is doing again this year. For several years Susan Helm arranged for a women’s health and fitness fair with demonstrations and educational displays, attracting a sold-out crowd of 600 participants.
Cadagin says it was a special race for only women and girls, which for the time was significant in itself. “It was our small bit to celebrate the addition of a women’s event in the marathon at the Olympics.” To encourage more participants, a noncompetitive division was added for anyone who wanted to walk or combine running and walking. A children’s quarter-mile race was also added, open to both boys and girls.
Marilyn and Tom Kushak were the longtime radio sponsors, beginning the second year. “Working with Marilyn and Tom was fun, too,” recalls Cadagin. “They had great ideas, such as adding an instructor from Fit Club to lead us in stretching exercises before the race, playing “Chariots of Fire” over the radio when we started the race and bringing in a variety of door prizes and food and drinks.”
The WDF is significant for a variety of reasons, from fitness to fellowship. For some it is highly competitive. Karen Rogers ran competitively in high school and college; the WDF was one of her first races after college. She won the race at least 10 times. She enjoyed that it was the only race where women ran head to head. Now 55, she is still running and cross-training.
For many WDF is their first race, which leads to participating in other races and longer distances. The 1992 WDF was Donna Brayfield’s first race. She went on to run a dozen marathons and many other shorter races and codirected the WDF. Other women who have competed for years, such as Holly Dahlquist, are proud to see their daughters following in their footsteps. For others, the Women’s Distance Festival is simply an enjoyable walk in Washington Park. But, for everyone who turns out, it is a fun day, celebrating women’s rights to run at any age and any distance.