Long before Title IX created opportunities for female athletes that didn’t exist previously, Robin Emery was knocking on the door.

She wanted to run. And so she did, entering road races in Maine where she was often the only woman running and where race organizers reluctantly allowed her to enter. “Nobody thought we could run five miles,” she said. “Nobody thought we could survive to the end.”

Robin Emery approaches the finish line circa 1978, one of her nine victories at Portland’s Patriots Day 5-miler. Bill Curran Jr./Staff File Photo

In 1972, Emery was one of the first two women to run in the Boys and Girls Club Patriots Day 5-miler in Portland, the state’s oldest annual road race. She finished ahead of Diane Fournier, now the track and field coach at Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham.

“Robin was a huge mentor, a huge inspiration, a role model that someone looked up to, not just for her prowess as a runner but her love for Maine, the outdoors, being in her element,” said Joan Benoit Samuelson, the Cape Elizabeth native who won the gold medal in the first Olympic women’s marathon, in 1984. “She led by example.”

Now 72, Emery is still active, running every day, 40 miles a week. On Saturday, she is returning to Portland for the 90th Patriots Day 5-Miler. Emery has won the race nine times – the last in 1986 – but this marks the first time in more than 25 years that she will compete in the event.

Emery remembers the 1972 run clearly, if only because of the reaction she and Fournier received. “That first time, everyone was amazed that Diane and I didn’t die running it,” she said.

This time around? “I just want to be respectable, maybe do OK in my age group,” Emery said. “I love to turn into a new age group. Runners are the only ones who don’t mind turning old. But I really just want to have some fun. And I want to hear the echoes a little bit, too.”

Robin Emery, 72, was one of the first two women to race in Portland’s Patriots Day 5-Miler back in 1972. She has been the top women’s finisher in the race nine times. Taylor Vortherms/Ellsworth American photo

Emery, who lives in Lamoine in Hancock County, will be the official starter for Saturday morning’s 5-miler. She will run in the Patriots Day 5-kilometer, a race added two years ago by race officials – along with moving the event to the Saturday before Patriots Day – to help combat declining entries. The race course was also changed, though it still finishes in front of the Boys and Girls Club on Cumberland Avenue. The event raises scholarship money for members of the Boys and Girls clubs.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the race included more than 1,000 runners. Last year, there were only 99 finishers in the 5-miler and another 67 in the 5K. As of Friday, 159 runners had registered for the two races.

Race director Howie Chadbourne hopes that Emery’s presence will be a draw for other runners. “She is the person who started it for a lot of women around here,” he said.

Emery took up competitive running at a time when women had few, if any, sports opportunities. She started running in 1967, one night choosing to pick up the pace on her 4-mile walk near her family’s home in Lamoine. And she was hooked.

“I was born to run, I think,” she said. “I haven’t missed a day in the last three years. There were probably some days when I shouldn’t run, but I’m still out there. It’s just something I do every day. Like eating, running is part of my day. I don’t feel good if I don’t run.”

In her early days of running, Emery didn’t have the proper attire, especially running shoes. She said she often ran in boat shoes or topsiders and probably suffered numerous stress fractures. She often ran in a buttoned Oxford shirt, Bermuda shorts and wool socks. Sometimes she wore blue jeans when she ran. Occasionally she wore sweat pants, but didn’t like them because they retained water and got heavier the longer she ran.

“There was nothing for women,” she said, in terms of running clothes. “Sometimes we had gym shorts, those were awful. Thank God for tights.”

And yet she ran. And won often. A member of the Maine Running Hall of Fame, it’s estimated that she has won more than 250 road races in Maine. She dominated the Boys and Girls Club Patriots Day 5-miler until she ran into Samuelson, who was just starting her running career at Cape Elizabeth High School.

The two were rivals for a while, and it was Samuelson who became the first female to beat Emery in a road race. That was in 1976, at the Patriots Day race. Samuelson, 18 at the time, ran the race in 28:19, breaking Emery’s course record of 29:10. Emery finished in 30:56. “It was great to see another woman step up,” Emery said. “She of course went on to great things.”

While Emery sometimes skipped the Portland race to run in the Boston Marathon, she loved running the Patriots Day race, running past the baked bean factory and later the bars, where men would stand outside and watch in amazement. “They couldn’t believe a woman was running,” she said.

Running is now more of a social thing for Emery. It keeps her active, gets her outside. “Running brought me a lot of friends I would have never met,” she said. “I ran in some pretty cool places. And it makes you feel different about yourself, gives you a confidence.”

Samuelson is pleased that Emery is being recognized at a race that meant so much to her.

“If I didn’t have a date in Boston, I’d be there,” Samuelson said. “Robin is going to be celebrated in the annals of Maine running history for years to come. She was the crème de la crème in our sport.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

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