Julianne Grace began running in 1971 after her husband encouraged her to give it a try. They started with a half-mile run. She hated it.
“I went to Catholic school with no athletics except for gym class, which wasn’t much,” said Grace, now 84.
Little by little, Grace added mileage and entered her first race, a two-mile run in Southport, Conn., in 1972. She came in first, but she was not familiar with the traditional finish line tape.
“I didn’t realize you were supposed to run through the tape, so I picked it up and ran under it,” she said. “That’s how nonathletic I was.”
By 1975, she had built enough stamina for a 10-kilometer race and heard through her Connecticut running community about the New York Mini, founded in 1972 as the world’s first women-only road race. The race, sponsored by the New York Road Runners, began with 72 amateur runners through Central Park. By Grace’s first year, it had grown to 276 finishers.
“I remember at the start as clearly as if it was yesterday, looking around at the other women and feeling this amazing feeling of empowerment and confidence,” Grace said. “For the first time in my whole life I felt like an athlete.”
Fifty years after its inaugural running, the race is expected to draw 8,000 athletes on Saturday, including nearly a dozen Olympians and five Paralympians. Among them are the Americans Emily Sisson and Sara Hall, and Peres Jepchirchir of Kenya, fresh off a Boston Marathon win in April. The winner will receive $45,000.
Grace will be competing in her 46th New York Mini alongside her daughter Dede Beck, 60, and Beck’s daughters Julianne, 27, Melissa, 22, and Allison, 21. Grace has missed only one New York Mini since she began competing, in 2010 for her 50th wedding anniversary.
Much has changed in women’s running since Grace ran her first half-mile. She recalled one incident early in her running career in which she had an empty beer can thrown at her from a passing car. “We really felt like a spectacle,” she said. “It was not typical to see women running around in shorts. It really wasn’t.”
The New York Mini is not a mini-marathon or any kind of “mini” race — it is named after the miniskirt, made popular around the time of the first competition.
That is not what Grace wore to her first New York Mini: She wore men’s gym shorts and running shoes because women’s athletic attire was not readily available. She still keeps an unworn pair of Tiger Jayhawks — “what all the men wore” and her sneaker of choice back in the 1970s.
“The ’70s, to me, was a decade of awakening for women,” Grace said. “The expectation of women in running and so many other sports has really emerged beautifully.”
Two more generations of women in her family have followed in her footsteps.
Grace, who went on to run three marathons, does not count herself a distance runner anymore but still runs four to six miles up to five times a week. On Saturday, she’ll be walking with her daughter in what will be Dede Beck’s 42nd New York Mini.
“The Mini is such a special race with all these women,” Beck said.
Beck ran in high school and college and was the captain of Duke University’s cross-country team. A lifelong runner, she completed three marathons in under 3 hours and ran the New York Mini while pregnant with all four of her children, including one at eight months.
That all began to change in 2018 when Beck started developing runner’s dystonia, a rare neurological disorder that affects leg muscles. “I was tripping over my right foot a lot — it would catch under my other leg,” she recalled. At first it affected only her downhill running, and then it started to affect her walking. “It felt like I was running on black ice,” she said.
Beck ran her last New York Mini in 2019 and now participates on crutches. On Saturday, along with Grace, Beck’s daughter Allison will be at her side to assist her.
This will be Julianne’s 13th New York Mini race, Melissa’s ninth and Allison’s eighth.
“There were a couple of years there where I had to twist their arms” to participate, Beck said. “I told them, ‘This can count as my Mother’s Day present, my birthday present and my Christmas present.’”
Now, they all come willingly and know that early June means race time. Beck’s disability has given her daughters even more reason to return year after year.
“It’s one of those things where you just don’t realize how much grit a person can have,” Julianne Beck said. “She keeps pushing and she’s going to do it again, and I’m sure she’ll do it again and again no matter what.”
“It’s pretty special,” Beck said. “God willing, my mom will continue to do this until she’s 100, me too, and the girls.”