Track Stats - Violet Piercy

Did Violet Piercy run a valid 3:40:22 marathon in 1926?

Contributions by John Brant, Andy Milroy, Kevin Kelly, Peter Lovesey, Alex Wilson.   Published in “Track Stats” May 2009.

The list of noteworthy performances for the women’s marathon which appears in the 2007 edition of the handbook, “Progression of IAAF World Records”, begins with a time of 3:40:22 credited to Violet Piercy, of Great Britain, in 1926 and there is no further entry until the 3:37:07 by Mary Lepper, of the USA, in 1963. Miss Piercy’s time is described as having been achieved in a “solo time trial”; Miss Lepper’s is noted as having been set on an “uncertified” course. There the matter of the origins of women attempting the marathon has rested until a recent renewed debate sparked off by an inquiry to Ian Tempest, secretary of the NUTS Historical Group, by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

The response from NUTS members was prolific and authoritative, as one would rather expect, even if we are still no further forward in establishing for certain the validity of Miss Piercy’s pioneering effort. What we do know is that it was achieved in odd circumstances, as were other of her distance-running enterprises, and that she was evidently a skilled seeker after self-publicity. As Andy Milroy suggests, “If she were alive and flourishing today she would be an ideal candidate for ‘I’m A Celebrity – Get Me Out Of Here !’ ” Even her true identity remains a mystery as the birthdates and birthplaces of five different women named Violet Piercy – any one of whom could have been the runner – have been found.

Andy Milroy puts forward the name of Violet Annie Piercy, born in Gravesend, Kent, in September 1907. Peter Lovesey has found three other contenders: Violet Florence Piercy, born in Holborn, London, in the April-to-June quarter of 1899, baptised on 14 May 1899 at Finsbury St Barnabas, who died in Cambridge in 1947; Violet Piercy, born in Dalston, London, in 1901, who was living in Edmonton in 1911 and died in St Pancras in 1972; and Frederica Violet Piercy, born in the April-to-June quarter of 1904 in Wandsworth. Regarding an earlier suggestion of Violet S.L. Piercy, born in Croydon in 1890, he says that she may have been too old to be still attempting records in 1938, as is mentioned in one newspaper report. Interestingly, he says, not one of the newspaper articles about the runner mention her age.

One of the first to respond to the request for more information was Alex Wilson, who wrote, “I have my doubts about the credibility of Violet Piercy’s 3:40:22 performance. She did not, as claimed, run the Polytechnic Marathon course from Windsor Castle to the White City or Stamford Bridge (which was where the race finished at the time). Rather, she took an unofficial route from Windsor to Battersea Town Hall. It was effectively a time-trial over an unvalidated course and as such does not satisfy the criteria for ratification”. Miss Piercy was a member of the Mitcham club, and Kevin Kelly adds, “Having spoken to old Mitcham AC members I really do doubt all the Violet Piercy claims”.

In defence of Miss Piercy, John Brant describes a spectacular feat of hers: “Violet ran another marathon on 18 May 1933 from Windsor to London in 4 hours 25 minutes being that day handicapped by a thigh strain and run in pouring rain. She ran the first mile in seven minutes and the first 10 miles in 80 minutes, but heavy rain at 13 miles and an icy wind slowed her down. She was followed all the way by three newspaper reporters and a camera on a car. She finished the race smiling on the stage of the Golders Green Hippodrome”. Andy Milroy adds the comment, “The publicity surrounding Violet Piercy’s performance, whether valid or not, perhaps seems to have encouraged some early female marathon running, although not in the UK”.

Certainly, there was some publicity for Miss Piercy in the USA and John Brant draws attention to an 18-year-old named Gazella Weinreich, who took part in the AAU 50 kilometres road walk championship in Baltimore on 22 May 1933 – note that this was only four days after Violet Piercy’s 4:25 marathon – and finished in 7 hours 22 minutes, slightly more than two hours behind the winner, Philip Jachelski. The newspaper report of the race also noted of Miss Weinreich that “two years ago she attempted to enter a marathon, but she was refused by officials”. Among other exploits she had apparently completed a 2,000-hour dance marathon, and when asked whether women could ever compete with men in marathons she replied, “Sure they could if they would just pull themselves together”. Further data on the 1931 marathon, which was held on a course from Laurel to Baltimore, has been uncovered by Andy Milroy. It was a telegram from the AAU secretary, Dan Ferris, which banned Miss Weinreich from the race, but in later years it was stated that she ran anyway, starting some way behind the men.