PROFILE--Nina Kuscsik is still going strong at 79

In 1972, Kuscsik achieved the Boston-
New York City (above) "double."
(10-18) Nina Kuscsik, a noted pioneer of women’s running, won the 1972 New York City Marathon in 3:08, just seven months after being the first official female to win the Boston Marathon. She ran the inaugural NYC Marathon in 1970 but dropped out at mile 15 with gastro issues. She started again in 1971 and placed second to Beth Bonner, both women breaking three hours (Bonner in 2:55:22 and Kuscsik in 2:56:04). She went on to win the New York City Marathon in '72 and '73, and to compete in more than 80 marathons in her lifetime. Here Kuscsik, now 79, recalls some of the highlights of her long running career. 

Why and when did you start running? Growing up in Brooklyn with three siblings, we were always outside playing in the street. I was a tomboy and loved to roller skate and ride my bike. When I was 15 Roger Bannister ran his historic sub-4-minute mile and I wanted to see
how fast that was so I rode my bike to a local track, climbed over the three-tired cyclone fence and ran as fast as I could. I admired his speed but didn’t think much about running at the time. I took up distance bike racing, and played YMCA basketball in high school and college but hurt my shoulder and had to stop. Then I took up speed skating, which I loved. In 1955 our team made it to the National Championships. One of my team members had just run the Yonkers Marathon and I remember being very impressed by that. But I still didn’t take up running.

After high school I went to Brooklyn College Nursing School. Sometimes after school I biked to the roller skating rink and did speed skating workouts. Then after becoming a nurse, I worked in a Manhattan Hospital. Some days I rode my bike to work from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and changed to my nursing uniform when I arrived. Depending on my shift I would ride it home the next day. I saved .15 cents on the subway by riding my bike. When I married and became a mother in the 1960s, I decided I had to grow up and be a woman, which back then meant no sports. But I hated it. I hated being a spectator at games and not a player. One day I passed a store with a book by Bill Bowerman in the window called Jogging. I read it and then went out for a mile run and did it in 7:05.
Kuscsik has run long and high, here
 at the top of the Empire State

Why were sports so important to you? I loved sports and looked forward to doing something active every day. While other teenagers were hanging out, I couldn’t do that. It seemed like a waste of time. I liked the discipline of knowing every day that I could account for something. I needed that sense of accomplishment.

What was your training like in the 70s when you ran your best times? I was probably running 40-50 miles a week back then. I had three little kids and relied on my mom to babysit. She was a lifesaver. When she couldn’t come to watch the kids, I would run around the block while they were napping and check in on them as I passed the house. That was probably my early speed training – and I’d probably be arrested for doing that now!

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What has changed in the years since? Well, when I first started to run races with the New York Road Runners Club (as it was called back then) in the 60s, the races were held at Macombs Dam Park where we ran on the edge of the Major Deegan Expressway. The award ceremony was held in the men’s locker room. The women lined up against the wall outside and had to wait to hear their name called and then rush in to get the trophy. 

I also think running in general has gotten more friendly and social, which is a good thing. When I was competing you ran to win. Now, it makes me happy to know that runners are out there who just want to accomplish a huge goal in their lives.

Why did you get involved as a female activist to change the rules governing women’s running? I had already run three unofficial marathons when I signed up for an A.A.U.-sponsored two-mile race in Van Cortlandt Park and was turned away because it was only for men. The thing that made me mad: It didn't say that on the entry blank! I was a member of A.A.U. and argued with the race director to no avail. It made me so angry. Plus, in my speed skating and bike racing, women were always accepted so this really took me by surprise. I set out to change the rules and started attending A.A.U. meetings, studying the rules and challenging archaic ones such as women were not allowed to run more than five miles, and had to be accompanied by a chaperone on overnight trips. It wasn’t right.
Sit down, stand up, run marathon. The 1972 NYC Marathon in Central Park.
Kuscsik, second from right.

At the start of the 1972 NYC Marathon, I was one of the sit-down strikers. That day has lived on in infamy due to the photo that appeared the next day. We were protesting an AAU rule rule that women had to start 10 minutes before or after the men. Fred Lebow was in on it and agreed to the boycott, because he knew it would bring publicity to his new marathon. Six of us staged the boycott but when we started to run, four dropped out before the first mile so it came down to me and Pat Barrett in the actual race.

Our boycott ultimately led to the rules being stricken from the rule books. And that led to myself and others continuing the fight for women’s inclusion in the Olympic Marathon. We had facts and data to back up our fight, but it took till 1984 to get women included in the Olympic Marathon. I was fortunate enough to be at the Los Angeles stadium when Joan Benoit arrived, and it is a day I will never forget. I felt so proud to be a part of the journey to get there. Working for women’s rights in running has been very fulfilling.

You don’t run anymore due to knee surgery but you still bike and stay active. Was it difficult to give up running? All of my injuries and surgeries have been non-running related which makes me laugh after all the running I did.  I had shoulder surgery on both of  my shoulders from repetitive dislocations. These started when I played YMCA basketball, which I loved. In 2012 I had a full knee replacement mostly due to a skiing accident. I miss running but I still stay active every day. I bike with my club 30-40 miles, or by myself on different days for 20 miles. I go to the gym for exercise classes and do one day of Zumba. If I don’t bike, I’ll walk 3-6 miles. I guess I put in seven-eight hours of exercise a week.

When I was first working at Mount Sinai back in the 70s, I would run through Central Park on my breaks. I started bringing the medical students and interns with me to teach them the benefits of exercise, which not many people understood back then. Exercise has always made sense to me. The body was meant to move and be used.

How do you feel about your place in history? When I am asked to reflect on the fact that women today take for granted what I and others fought so hard for, I don’t see it that way. It makes me proud to see the number of women running and that I had something to do with that. I feel honored to have facilitated that.

But what is also rewarding to me beyond my place in running history is what I have personally received from my running life. I’ve met so many wonderful and inspiring people and many are my dear friends. The sport has given me so much in life.

Rumor has it you are turning 80 in January. How does that feel? Gosh, I don’t feel like 80. My body feels fine and I don’t feel old. I have plenty of energy to go to the gym, take long walks, ride my bike, clean my house, and work in my vegetable garden. I grow kale and tomatoes and peppers and parsley. I feel very lucky.