Marilyn Bevans’ running career began fancifully, a young girl chasing butterflies at summer camp. She grew wings of her own, or so it seemed, blossoming into a world-class distance runner at the dawn of the marathon craze.
Bevans, of northwest Baltimore, either won or finished second among women in five of the first seven Maryland Marathons, starting in 1973. She triumphed in 1977, setting a course record (2 hours, 51 minutes and 18 seconds) and again in 1979. Hailed as America’s first celebrated black female marathoner, she was the first woman of her race to break the three-hour mark for a 26.2 mile event, placing fourth in the 1975 Boston Marathon (2:57).
On Saturday morning, Bevans, 68, will be poised at the starting line again, bullhorn in hand, as the honorary starter for the Baltimore Running Festival.
“It’s a new experience for me and it should be kind of fun,” she said. Bevans still runs every other day, about 15 miles a week, though at a more deliberate pace.
“I kind of just trot along,” she said. “It keeps me calm and peaceful, and helps me listen to my body. I’m still learning things about running. If you think you know everything, you might as well be one of the walking dead.”
A charter member of the National Black Distance Runners Hall of Fame (2013), Bevans is “an outstanding role model who had been overlooked for decades,” said Tony Reed, director of the 7,000-member National Black Marathoners Association. No more. Commemorative medals bearing her likeness will be given to the first 300 NBMA members who finish Saturday’s marathon.
“We need to pay tribute to these athletes while they are still alive,” Reed said.
A graduate of Eastern High and Morgan State, neither of which had women’s track, Bevans broke new ground on the earth on which she then ran. Alone. A reed-thin girl training for races not yet born. To oblige her parents, she took ballet, played piano and attended a debutante ball, “none of which I was really thrilled about,” she said.
At Morgan State, she played field hockey because “at least I could run up and down the field.” It was in graduate school, at Springfield College (Mass.) in 1972, where Bevans found her calling.
“I was watching their cross-country team practice when the coach asked, ‘Want to run with us? We’re going to do three miles.’ I nodded. I never got so far behind that one of the guys wasn’t close by.”
That year, she attended the Boston Marathon as a spectator and declared, “I want to do that.” Master’s degree in hand, she returned to Baltimore, taught physical education at Herring Run Junior High and trained with the Baltimore Road Runners, a determined bunch whose long-distance jaunts must have drawn curious stares.
“Here I was, a little black girl running with these older white men, from Memorial Stadium to Loch Raven Dam, where we stopped to drink spring water from a pipe in the ground,” Bevans said. “They were the closest I came to ever having a coach.”
Gradually, her endurance grew. Ten miles at a clip, then 15, then 20. When the Maryland (now Baltimore) Marathon debuted in 1973, Bevans signed on.
“I was nervous; I just wanted to finish,” she said. “But I’d done my homework. I had my mileage in.”
She finished second among women, in 3:31:45, about 21 seconds off the pace. Bevans was hooked.
“I got the bug after that,” she said.
She trained around Lake Montebello, mostly, running 10 miles after school, braving inclement weather and rude passersby. Once, in winter, the sweat on her arm turned to ice. Another time, as she jogged down 33rd Street, a motorcyclist hurled a firecracker, barely missing Bevans.
“I must have jumped 20 feet,” she said. But she kept going.
In 1975, she repeated the Maryland race and placed second again, shaving 34 seconds off her time. By then, folks also recognized Bevans by the transistor radio she clutched in her hand.
“One year, I had it tuned to the race itself,” she said. “A bunch of us were still running around Loch Raven when they announced the men’s winner, so I spread the word.”
One runner’s response:
“Oh, shut up. Who cares?”
Bevans’ third try was the charm. Then 28, she won the Maryland Marathon in 1977, a year in which she also took second at Boston, making her one of the top 10 women marathoners in the world.
“I never thought too much about [rankings],” said Bevans, who was second in the Maryland race in 1978 and the women’s champ again in 1979, her last chase on the course. Adult asthma, or something like it, shut her down.
“That ended my running years,” she said. “I got slower and slower; fatigue wiped me out. What it was remains a mystery, but it took its toll.”
Nowadays, she serves as cross country and track coach at Perry Hall High. Bevans also works as a massage therapist, a job that has taken her to several Baltimore Running Festivals.
“I worked in the massage tent there once or twice, which was cool,” she said. “I call myself a healthy bartender. I listen to your tales and you leave with a smile on your face — and your wits still about you.”