When Jan Yerkes-Roop toed the starting line of the first Broad Street Run in 1980, she didn’t see many other runners. Certainly not as many as she would see this year, with an estimated 40,000 entrants ready to run on Sunday, and especially not as many women.
Women dominate running now. They account for 52 percent of the nation’s runners and 57 percent of its race finishers. The Broad Street Run is no exception. Last year, 19,384 women finished the race, compared to 15,785 men.
Yerkes-Roop was participating in an entirely different Broad Street Run. She competed with 1,454 men and only 121 women. She was the first woman to finish. Twenty-three years old at the time, Yerkes-Roop faced taunts from men — but also received big-time support from a police officer — while managing to excel, finishing in 1:03:45, beating (and surprising) most of those men.
“There wasn’t even any running for women when I started running,” she says.
She’s basically right. When Yerkes-Roop started running in the mid-1970s as a student at Central Bucks East High School, she did so early in the mornings, running solo laps on a cinder track because CB East didn’t have a women’s cross country team at the time and track was just getting started. The coach told her she was crazy.
When she ran 10 miles for the first time, as a student at Lock Haven University in 1978, she wore old canvas tennis shoes. Nobody would make casual running shoes for women for a few more years.
“I honestly didn’t know what I was doing,” Yerkes-Roop says. “I just liked to go out and run.”
She was good, though. Yerkes-Roop ran her first marathon in Harrisburg, qualifying for the 1980 Boston Marathon. There, she ran a 3:13 in the race that featured the infamous cheater Rosie Ruiz, who snuck into the middle of the race and won.
“I would go to races and you always get a comment from a guy like, ‘You’re the first woman who ever beat me,’” Yerkes-Roop says. “They weren’t mean about it. It was pretty cool, like they were happy for me.”
She was running in the Lower Bucks Running Club at the time. A friend suggested she try the Broad Street Run, a new race that, as it does today, started from Broad Street and Somerville by Central High School and ended 10 miles later.
Cliff Robbins, now the cross country coach at Council Rock North High School, coached Yerkes-Roop for two years and ran with her for several years. He remembers the way she would get excited for local races. She had run the Boston Marathon by 1980 and would go on to run in many other big races across the country but something about small events in the suburbs, New Jersey or Philadelphia brought out her best.
“We could be in Morrisville with a Labor Day run with 250 people and she would be nervous as hell and psyched as hell,” Robbins says. “You would think you were at an Olympic Trial. Philly and Broad Street, she was like, ‘This is my race. No one’s going to beat me.'”
Yerkes-Roop doesn’t remember seeing any women around her while she ran that day. She was in a group of men, some who were less than pleased to have her around. She recalls some of them being rude and taunting her during the race.
Yerkes-Roop would later get intentionally tripped by a man in a Florida race in the 80s, but she didn’t worry about any physical repercussions here. Still, she got help. She remembers a police officer who was running in the race at her pace offering to keep some of the other men quiet.
“He stayed with me the whole time and said, ‘I will make sure that you are OK,’” Yerkes-Roop says. “I don’t think I had any reason to fear for any physical problem, but they didn’t like the fact that there was a female running.”
Robbins says the road race scene at the time was still developing. Fast men generally trained with other fast men. They wouldn’t expect to see someone like Yerkes-Roop compete with them in a race.
“I think it was a new phenomena for some men to have someone just cruise on by them,” Robbins says. “There are some guys who can just never hold their tongue.”
Yerkes-Roop finished in 1:03:45, thanked the police officer for his kindness and began what would become a decorated running career. With two years of college eligibility still remaining, Yerkes-Roop was offered a full scholarship to Villanova and ran there in 1982 and 1983. She qualified for the Olympic Trials in the marathon in 1984 and 1988 but didn’t get the chance to run in them because of injuries. Her Philadelphia Marathon time of 2:34:28 in 1982 has yet to be topped by another woman.
Since 1980, she’s run Broad Street three more times, finishing first for women again in 1990, running as part of a team a few years later and winning the master’s division for women after she turned 40 in 1997.
The women’s running boom began in earnest in 1984, after Joan Benoit Samuelson won the first women’s Olympic Marathon. A little more than 10 years later, Oprah Winfrey ran a marathon in Washington D.C., signaling that everybody could run if they wanted to. From there, the number of women runners has kept growing and growing. The Broad Street Run has been a majority women’s race almost every year since 2003.
Race organizers invited Yerkes-Roop, who lives in Warminster, to participate three years ago, but illness prevented her from running. She has no plans to run Broad Street this year or anytime soon. Though she’s thrilled with how the race has progressed over the years, for women and everyone, Yerkes-Roop would prefer the simplicity of a smaller race and not the headache of traveling to the same starting line as 40,000 others.
“For me at this point to deal with all the people,” she says, “it’s not worth it.”