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Running: Breaking the gender barrier at the Turkey Trot

Mary Ann Bolles wasn't fast.

She recalls a race where by the time she got to the finish line, the fella running the event had already closed up shop.

She wasn't particularly fond of the spotlight either.

So when she called the YMCA in 1972 to register for the annual Turkey Trot and was denied entry, it took a little nudge from her daughter to be persistent.

"I had no idea the Turkey Trot was all-male," the 79-year-old Bolles recalled. "I decided to apply and called the Y. They said it was an all-male race. I said all right and hung up. My daughter, who was a teenager at the time, said 'Mom this is 1972! They can't do that.'

"I was a little concerned the group I ran with would be mad at me for trying to run, but all the male runners were very supportive. I called them back and said, 'This is 1972. You can't do this.' Really, I think they realized it was a good public relations opportunity for them."

And so Bolles became the first woman to register and run the Turkey Trot.

On the 45th anniversary of that race, her grandchildren are continuing the tradition.

It's the first time all five of her grandchildren will be running the race, and the first time the group of 20-somethings will all be in Buffalo for Thanksgiving. Elaina (25), Conner (23), Casey (22) and Emily (20) will be toeing the line with their cousin from Boston, Ben Ewing.

"It's the first year in a long time all my grandma's grandkids are going to be in the same place for Thanksgiving," said Elaina Bolles. "We thought it would be a nice tribute to her."

It's a tribute to their grandmother, an unlikely trailblazer for female runners in Western New York. Even her grandchildren haven't heard many of the stories of that 1972 Turkey Trot.

"I think we always knew she was the first woman to run it, but she's very humble," Elaina said. "It's not her personality to talk about it."

But it is in her personality to speak up when needed.

"She's amazing. She's an inspiration," Emily Bolles said. "She goes to the gym six days a week. She volunteers. She's just this powerhouse of a person. It's cool we have someone like that. It's not surprising to hear she was the first woman to run the Turkey Trot. If anyone was going to do it, it's not surprising it was her."

Looking back on the story, her grandchildren can see how Mary Ann Bolles became the barrier breaker.

But at the time, well, Mary Ann just enjoyed running and wanted to do a few races.

Mary Ann said she began running because her husband, Stuart Rubin, was a runner.

"My husband was a runner and he got a book about how to train people to run and he decided to train me," Mary Ann said. "That's how it started. Then we started running at Delaware Park and met all these other runners. Some of them are still are friends. Some of them were all into competition and I decided to do a few races. I remember I wasn't that fast."

But she enjoyed it and wanted to take part in the famed Turkey Trot. The previously all-male race saw the opportunity when Bolles wanted to register, five years after Kathrine Switzer broke the gender barrier at the Boston Marathon. That meant inviting local television crews to the race, highlighting Mary Ann's participation. And the fanfare was a bit more than she bargained for.

"There was a lot of pressure. The TV cameras were rolling and luckily I did finish in a time that was better than I thought," said Mary Ann, who placed 142 out of 169 runners.

"I'm not much of a spotlight person but I am the kind of person who challenges the status quo. In that way, it was in line with who I am. Still, out of all the things I've done in my life, that's the one thing, that Turkey Trot, seems to have given me my five minutes of fame."

She was 34 when she ran that Turkey Trot in 1972 and then became the first woman to run the Lockport 10-mile race.

Her running career was short, ending after that 10-mile race as Mary Ann developed back problems. But that didn't slow her down from being active and exercising.

Now, the Bolles Turkey Trot tradition begins in a new generation with a different look to the field. While Bolles was the only woman in a field of 169 in 1972, women now make up the majority. Last year, there were 6,234 women who crossed the finish line in downtown Buffalo to 6,008 men.

"I ran it last year for the first time," Emily said. "It was fun. I had a setback at work earlier that year and decided I wanted to focus that frustration and energy into something positive. I wasn't particularly athletic and thought what can I do to really push myself? So that's what I did."

"The biggest thing is to have fun," Emily said. "To me it's just this big celebration of Buffalo. It's more of a community event. It's a race to be taken seriously, but there's this celebration of our community getting together on a holiday and supporting each other and doing something together. When I think of the Turkey Trot that's what I think of more than something you should be intimidated by."

Meanwhile, Grandma won't be running. She'll be cooking Thanksgiving dinner.

"But I hope to find a way to get out to see part of it," Mary Ann said. "I'm really excited."

Race Calendar

Wednesday, Nov. 22

  • Astro Cheer Elite Turkey Trot, 5K, 8:30 a.m., Borden Street Building, 26 Center St., Randolph

Thursday, Nov. 23

  • YMCA Turkey Trot, 8K, 9 a.m. Delaware Avenue YMCA, 2564 Delaware Ave.
  • Cold Turkey Run, 4.5 miles, 9 a.m., 43-45 Water St., Fredonia

Friday, Nov. 24

  • Black Friday Mighty Mile XC, 1 mile, Chestnut Ridge Park Casino, 6121 Chestnut Ridge Road, Orchard Park

Saturday, Nov. 25

  • Tacky Sweater Run, 5K, 9 a.m. Palace Theatre, 2 East Ave., Lockport
  • Home for the Holidays, 5K, 9 a.m., Canal District, Medina
  • Amy's 5K, 11 a.m., Lakewood Community Center, 9 West Summit St., Lakewood

Saturday, Dec. 2

  • Holly Jolly 5K, 10 a.m., Orchard Fresh Plaza, 4050 N. Buffalo St., Orchard Park

Sunday, Dec. 3

  • GBTC 5K Cross Country Race, 9 a.m., Delaware Park Golf Course
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