A lot can change in 40 years.

Take society's attitudes toward women. Forty years ago this week, while hippies were dropping out, anti-war protests were spreading and my parents were certain the world was ending, the media still couldn't report on a woman who accomplished something, especially in sports, without feeling obligated to comment on her hair or her looks.

So when Jacki Marsh, who then was known by her maiden name of Dixon, won the first-ever long-distance footrace held exclusively for women, even the official press release from event organizers referred to her as a "17-year-old, 5-foot-7 brunette."

Another newspaper added "pretty" to that description.

Richard Finn, who handles publicity for the modern version of this race, which still is going strong in New York City and has lengthened from 6 miles to 6.2, an official 10K, notes other ironies. The race was a milestone for the recognition of women's athletic possibilities and as a way to begin erasing stereotypes. And yet organizers named it the "mini marathon" as a play on the miniskirt, which was popular at the time.

And among the 78 runners that day were five or six Playboy bunnies, brought along for the sake of publicity. "Here we are making this milestone celebrating the strength of women," Finn said. "Yet we still had to come up … you hate to use the word 'sexist' … but we had to come up with bunnies in the race."

Jacki Marsh was from Las Gatos, Calif., where she had taken to running many miles each day, often before school.

Today, she lives in West Jordan, where she has learned a thing or two about the race of life.

She remembers the bunnies for one important reason. "I didn't know the competition at all," she said. "I didn't know who these people were."

The bunnies were not really runners, but she thought they were. They started in a dead sprint. Marsh wanted to win, so she sprinted, too.

It wasn't an ideal race strategy. The bunnies dropped off quickly, and Marsh didn't have much left for the final stretch. But that didn't matter because she had a 200-yard cushion between herself and the nearest competitor when she crossed the finish line.

For those who know the rest of the story, there is a lesson in that race. Too many of us waste energy keeping pace with what amount to publicity stunts that have no lasting value, when we ought to be keeping our eyes on what matters. The bunnies won't be in New York this week to commemorate the anniversary of that day; but Marsh will.

She kept running, even after marriage and the birth of a child. But then she signed up for a marathon in California in November of 1982, and she decided to run even though she had caught the flu the week before. She never recovered.

It took two years for doctors to diagnose why she kept feeling so bad. But when they learned that the flu had triggered a form of cardiomyopathy, a heart muscle disease, they gave her two things. One was a pacemaker. The other was a diagnosis of only two years to live.

She spent a long time, as she put it, "just sitting on the sofa." But then one day she decided, "I would rather die sooner than continue living this way."

She became physically active again, and she decided to focus on the things that really matter. Two years came and went a long time ago.

When her son, who joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, moved to West Jordan with his wife and daughter, she decided to move, too.

"I came here to be with my granddaughter," she said. "When you have a disease like that, you start to realize time is not guaranteed.

"If you're going to do something, you had better do it now. Once you've been told you've got two years to live, it changes the way you look at things."

You could say she is in a sprint of a different sort today, with an uncertain finish line and a grasp on what matters.

We're all signed up for a similar race. The question is whether we have learned as much through the years to keep us focused on the distance, not the wrong pacesetters.

Jay Evensen is associate editor of the Deseret News editorial page. Email him at [email protected]. For more content, visit his website, www.jayevensen.com.