BJ Blanchard: ‘Kid Dipsea’ grows up

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“I have 150,000 miles on these legs – that’s six times around the world,” says Mary Etta Boitano Blanchard of Sonoma. This is not hard to believe as Blanchard has been running races since she was 4 years old. In fact, she ran 50 marathons before she was 12.

A San Francisco girl from the Castro, Mary Etta Boitano was encouraged to run by her father, John, and mother, Mary Lucille, in 1967. They ran as a family with eight children, up and down the hills of San Francisco in the 1960s. They ran trails in Golden Gate Park, Aquatic Park, Lake Merced, the Legion of Honor, Twin Peaks, San Bruno Hill, meeting runners everywhere they went.

When little Mary wasn’t allowed to run in the Bay to Breakers because she was a girl, the family turned to the Dipsea Trail race in Marin with a different approach. Mary’s father asked for three racing bib numbers registered as “M. Boitano” – one for little Mary Etta, one for son, Michael, and one for his wife Mary Lucille. Both Marys snuck into the race wearing caps on their heads and looking like boys. Mary explains, “Nobody knew. My brother had chopped off my blonde locks, and I wore a little cap. I did look like a little boy.” Tiny Mary Boitano won the Dipsea Trail Women’s Race in 1968 when she was 5 years old, and went on to win the Dipsea overall in 1973 when she was 10. No woman had ever won the race. It was a first.

At that time, there were no running shoes for women, and none for children- women wore small-size men’s running shoes or ran in tennis shoes. So Mary’s mother imported a rather expensive early pair of tiny Adidas running shoes from Germany. In those miniature German running shoes, Mary Etta won the women’s division of the Dipsea Trail Race coming in 441st out of the 800 runners. She was 5.

The Dipsea Race, 7.4 miles of treacherous trail from Mill Valley across Mt. Tam to Stinson Beach, is the oldest trail race in America. Coming out of Mill Valley, runners must mount 671 steps at almost a 30-degree incline. Then they run through Windy Gap and plunge down Suicide Hill. At the bottom they run through mighty Muir Woods, start up Dynamite Hill, Hogsback, and a lovely but slippery rain forest, later entering Steep Ravine using strength to stay upright and not fall off the hillsides. At the bottom, just when runners think they are done with hills, they are hit with another called Insult Hill. Finally, the trail plunges through wildflower meadows down to the Shoreline Highway to the finish.

This is the challenge that tiny Mary Boitano won at age 10.

The notoriety from this achievement earned Mary a slot on the “What’s My Line” TV show. As a 6-year-old, she could barely write her name on the board in cursive when John Daly asked her to, “sign in, please.”

When celebrities Nanette Fabray, Soupy Sales, Alan Alda and Arlene Francis couldn’t guess what her “line” was, the pintsized Mary proudly announced “I’m a marathon runner”.

On Saturday, Mary Boitano Blanchard, now a Sonoma resident (and of no relation to this writer), will participate in the centenary of Dipsea Women’s Hike. The first Women’s Dipsea race in April 1918 had to be called a “hike” as it was thought that a race might damage the women’s reproductive organs. The women in the inaugural race wore hats, long skirts and laced-up high top boots.

Celebrating this Centenary of the Dipsea for Women on Saturday, Mary plans to walk the stairs with her 95-year-old mother – a sprinter in her time – but will proceed over the mountain alone to Stinson where she will be a part of a luncheon panel of celebrated female Dipsea runners.

The 108th annual Dipsea will be run on Sunday, June 10, starting in Mill Valley at 8:30 a.m. Mary, who pops Jolly Rancher candies for energy during the race, will be there running with her sons, John Blanchard, 25, and RJ Blanchard, 24, and expects to beat both their times. Husband Rich Blanchard and mother Mary Lucille will be joining with the entire Blanchard-Boitano clan cheering all three of them on.

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