Overlooked No More: Miki Gorman, Women’s Marathon Pioneer
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Overlooked No More: Miki Gorman, Women’s Marathon Pioneer

Gorman, who won the New York City Marathon for women in 1977, was the last American female winner until Shalane Flanagan took the title in 2017. She also broke several records in running.

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Miki Gorman running the 1977 New York City Marathon. She was the first woman to finish the race, and it would be another 40 years until another American woman took the title.CreditCreditPaul J. Sutton/DUOMO/PCN

Since 1851, obituaries in The New York Times have been dominated by white men. With Overlooked, we’re adding the stories of remarkable people whose deaths went unreported in The Times.

Miki Gorman was sitting alone at a corner table of a Magic Pan restaurant in Manhattan on Oct. 23, 1976, when her food arrived: not one, but two large crepes stuffed with mushroom and spinach souffle.

A couple sitting nearby gawked at her. Gorman, at 5 feet tall or so, weighed only 90 pounds, and the plates of food covered her table.

“I’m running the New York City Marathon tomorrow!” she told them. “And I’m going to win.”

And so she did, the first woman to cross the finish line the next day. Even more, she won again the following year. No other American woman would take the title for the next four decades.

“We’ve gone so long without winning, I can’t believe it,” Gorman told The Washington Post in 2004, long after her retirement in 1982. “My win was a lifetime ago.”

It wasn’t until 2017 that Shalane Flanagan would end the 40-year drought, crying, cursing and pumping her fist as she broke the finish line tape at 2:26:53. It was no small feat; by that time the New York City Marathon had become the world’s largest race, with more than 50,000 participants. (This year’s marathon is on Sunday.)

Gorman was not around to see Flanagan’s victory; she died on Sept. 19, 2015, at 80, in Bellingham, Wash. The cause was metastasized lung cancer, her daughter, Danielle Nagel, said.

Despite Gorman’s accomplishments, news of her death was not widely reported at the time. No word of it reached The New York Times.

If it had, readers would have learned of record-breaking achievements that landed her in several halls of fame. One feat, in 1978, was a world best for a woman in the half marathon, at 1:15:58. She also won the Boston Marathon in the women’s category in 1974 and 1977, the latter victory coming, remarkably, the same year that she won in New York. She is the only woman known to have won both races twice.

“She ran everything, from track races and really quick stuff all the way to these 100-mile races,” said George Hirsch, chairman of New York Road Runners, a nonprofit running group that organizes the marathon. “There’s no one that I know of to this day who has that kind of a range and excelled in them all.”

Her success followed a life of hardship.

Gorman was born Michiko Suwa on Aug. 9, 1935, to Japanese parents in occupied China, where her father was working for Japan’s imperial army. They later moved to Tokyo; after World War II, she helped care for her younger twin brothers there.

“My father returned from the military looking like a skeleton,” she wrote in a first-person account for The New York Times in 2005. “Well, we all looked like skeletons. We were always hungry.”

Their diet, she wrote, had consisted of soybeans that had been soaked for a couple of days, along with a little rice.

She was 28 in about 1963 when an American Army officer stationed in Japan offered her a job in the United States as a nanny. He brought her to his home in Pennsylvania, where she worked long hours doing household chores for the family.

A few years later she answered an ad from California seeking a secretary who could speak both Japanese and English. She got the job and moved to Los Angeles.

There she earned $300 a month (about $2,400 in today’s money), sending some of her pay home to her mother in Japan.

In the 1960s she met and married Michael Gorman, a stockbroker from Cleveland. Miki Gorman worked as a secretary during her running years and afterward, retiring in 1994. She and her husband separated in 1982.

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Gorman in 1974, the same year she won the Boston Marathon for women. She is the only woman known to have won the New York City and Boston marathons twice.CreditUnited Press International

Not long after their marriage she confided in him that she felt insecure about her looks. “I was embarrassed that I was so small,” she told Runner’s World magazine in 2010.

Her husband suggested that she accompany him to an athletic club, thinking that if she exercised she would be hungrier and would eat more and put on weight. Though she didn’t gain weight, she returned to the club regularly to run along an indoor track.

The club offered a trophy for the member who ran the most miles for a month, and in October 1968 Gorman set her sights on winning. The contest included a 100-mile race that would involve running 1,075 laps on the track. She began training.

“The first year I stopped at 86 miles,” she said. “I cried.”

The following weekend she ran more than 20 miles, surpassing her competitors. “I got a huge trophy,” she told The New York Times in 2010.

She returned the next year and finished all 100 miles, then competed in the race again the next three years.

Gorman started running in cross-country races and found that she could win easily. Once she began passing taller and younger women, she realized that her height and weight were not disadvantages.

“I gained so much confidence from my running,” she said. “I finally realized that being small didn’t have to hold me back.”

Laszlo Tabori, the celebrated Hungarian coach who was then based in Los Angeles (he died in May), took notice of her wins and began training her.

By the time Gorman signed up for the New York City Marathon in 1975 — five years after its inception — she was an unlikely candidate to win. She was already 40, considered old for an elite runner, and had given birth to a daughter, her only child, at the start of the year.

But while most runners train to build up to the 26.2-mile distance, Gorman had been running 100-mile distances. She wound up finishing second among women, behind Kim Merritt.

The next year was the first time the marathon course would traverse all five boroughs of New York City, having until then been confined to loops through Central Park. Some 2,090 runners lined up at the start on Staten Island, by the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. Only 88 of them were women.

Gorman quickly lost sight of Merritt ahead of her. Still, she zipped along the course, dodging obstacles, according to the book “First Ladies of Running” (2016), by Amby Burfoot.

Few roadside barriers protected the route in those days, and at one point a St. Bernard dog bounded right up to her. (“He was almost as tall as I was,” Gorman said.) Then there was the metal grating, now covered, on the Queensboro Bridge. (“My toes felt like they were on fire.”) The wind blowing against the runners was no help, either. (“I tucked behind the bigger runners whenever I could.”)

But then she caught sight of Merritt and bore down on her. As they entered the hills of Central Park, the final stretch of the race, she rolled past Merritt, barely giving her a glance, and kept her pace all the way to the end. Her time was 2:39:11, a course record for women.

A surprise awaited at the finish: The couple from the night before at the Magic Pan restaurant had come to watch the race.

“She was happy to see them,” her daughter said. “And the couple was shocked that this little Japanese woman actually won.”

Just as she said she would.

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November 9, 2018

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