By Sarah Kuper
On any given day Over the Mountain, dozens of runners tackle steep hills and brave the heat or cold to stay fit and have fun.
But Melinda Underwood, first female president of the Birmingham Track Club, in 1982, said it wasn’t always that way – especially with regard to women.
“Back then, women weren’t doing much of anything like that. No one would just go out and run a mile.”
Underwood began running while playing racquetball at UAB in the late seventies. She watched how other athletes trained and something clicked.
“One day I watched another girl just running around the track and I thought that might be something I could do. Then I watched her run from the track out on to the street and I thought, ‘What is she doing?’”
Now, distance and destination running is not such a foreign concept. According to Underwood, there is quite a running culture in Birmingham, mostly thanks to the Birmingham Track Club.
The club was loosely organized in 1975 but became incorporated as a non-profit in 1979. The group’s founder, physician Arthur Black, formed the group out of a concern for the health and well-being of Birmingham’s residents.
Underwood said the track club initially was very much a boys club.
“We would see the guys together running and talking about their track club. Some girls started going to their meetings but it was clear they didn’t really want us there – they just wanted to laugh and drink,” she said.
Feeling unwelcome, Underwood and a few friends started their own group called the Lady Striders.
The Lady Striders taught clinics on running techniques and shared practical tips about things like buying the right shoes and staying hydrated.
As more and more women became interested in running, the BTC became more accepting of the Lady Striders, who were still attending the men’s meetings however unwelcome they felt.
Adam Robertson, president of the BTC in 1981, began to fear the Lady Striders would disassociate completely with the group, jeopardizing the potential for the club’s success in the future.
As a result, he selected Underwood as his vice president and then urged her to run for president of the club in 1982.
Underwood said it seemed the men didn’t have a problem with her serving as vice president, but she came to find that having a female president of the club was a different story.
“It was really rough. I thought things were getting better but we came to find out that they stuffed the ballot box. I didn’t win. I cried a bit; it was discouraging.”
But once the rigged election was discovered, the club had a revote and Underwood became the first female president of the track club.
Still, Underwood said she had some convincing to do even after she took office.
“The first few months were hard but then I think they realized I really wanted to do good. All the girls started being more involved and helped organize a lot.”
Since Underwood’s time in office, there have been six female presidents of the club. As the first, Underwood ushered in a new era and gave women the opportunity to be part of a larger running culture.
Now the BTC is a force in the Birmingham community with its signature events such as the Vulcan Run 10k and other charity races and fun runs.
While Underwood, 65, still volunteers and keeps track of the BTC’s growth and influence, she has forgone running for activities like swimming. But, she encourages young women interested in running to join the club.
“It’s very important for young runners to be involved. There are so many opportunities now for women and not just for running. But I think BTC really introduced running to the area.”
Underwood lives in Homewood with her husband, Jeff Underwood, president and CEO of Lakeshore Foundation. In addition to her work with the BTC, Underwood has been active in the Homewood school system and served on the Beautification Board.