Do women-only running races still matter?

The proliferation of women-only races has caused some grumbles in the running community. But women, and men, still need single-gender racing. Photo: Phil Hospod

NEW YORK, June 28, 2011—I had the honor of singing the national anthem at the 40th running of the NYRR New York Mini 10K, which in 1972 was the world’s first women-only road race.

Dedicated to the late Grete Waitz, a nine-time champion of the New York City Marathon and pioneer who helped break gender barriers in running, New York Road Runners welcomed her husband, Jack Waitz, to run in her honor.

Kathrine Switzer, one of the founders of the Mini, was also on hand. Switzer was the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon in 1967, only to find herself physically assaulted by the race director who tried to pull her off the course, yelling, “Get the hell out of my race and give me that race number,” simply because she was a woman.

Right after crossing the finish line at the Mini on June 11, I felt a tap on the back. It was Switzer. She’d crossed the finish around the same time as me and complimented me on my rendition of the anthem. Unable to believe that Kathrine Switzer had come up to me, I started gushing in still out-of-breath pants.

“Oh my gosh, you’re such an inspiration!” I spouted among many other things like how she’s moved me and how so many women, myself included, might not be running if it weren’t for her.

And it’s true. If not for pioneers like Switzer, Waitz, and women-only races like the Mini, women wouldn’t have gone from being just 23 percent of runners in 1989 to 53 percent of runners in 2009.

I wrote about the history of the Mini before the race, and there was one negative comment from a person who only identified himself (yes, I’m assuming it was a male) as “Disenfranchised.”

He wrote: “Ummmmmm, anybody know where I can find a ‘Men’s-only’ road race? I didn’t think so…. Feminism has succeeded in making men second class citizens…”

Was this just one unhappy bloke or did more men feel this way? I did some Googling, and discovered that this is a controversial topic.

First off, men’s only races do exist—like the 23rd Annual Smith’s Challenge 10K that ran on Father’s Day in Lancaster, Penn., and the Charlottesville Men’s Four Miler in Virginia. In the UK, men’s only races have been cropping up more and more. Simon Cowell famously sponsored the One Ball Fun Run to raise money for testicular and prostate cancer research in 2005. Since then, cheekily named men-only events have been popping up all over the British Isles: Keep Your Eye On The Ball, Man on the Run and Boys Beating Cancer among others. The 10K for Men sponsored by Men’s Health Forum Scotland welcomed a record 4,000 runners at this year’s event in Glasgow.

Perhaps in time, men-only racing will continue to grow by popular demand to the level of women-only racing. That is, to just 1 percent of all races. According to The New York Times, there are approximately 200 women-only events out of the more than 18,000 road races held annually in the United States.

I think it’s natural that from time to time men might want to compete just against men and women might want to just compete against women. At all levels of competition—from high school to the Olympics—that is exactly what happens more often than not. After all, we are different in ways both physiological and psychological.

Why shouldn’t recreational runners enjoy the same distinction from time to time? Sure, it’s impractical and unnecessary for most races. But the fastest man will always beat the fastest woman, and more often than not, a sea of men will cross the tape before the first woman. A women-only race lets women share the spotlight.

Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon in 1967, speaks at the 40th running of the NYRR New York Mini 10k, the world’s first women-only road race. Switzer was one of the race’s founders. (Photo: Phil Hospod)

Looking back, most races prior to 1970 were men only—not because women didn’t want to run, but because they weren’t allowed to run. That’s an important distinction. No women in the Boston Marathon. No women’s marathons. No women’s distance running, period. The longest distance available to female Olympic runners was 800 meters, whereas men got to run 1500m, 5000m, 10,000m and the marathon.

Races like the Mini offered women a chance to run longer distances too. Athletes like Switzer, Waitz, Anne Audain, Roberta Gibb and a few other trailblazers were proving that women could tackle longer distance including the marathon. Those were things that still needed proving at the time, due to deep seeded sentiments that women were too delicate for such things.

Other women’s races followed suit as a way to get women into the sport. Subsequent women’s competitions—from Freihofer’s Run for Women in Albany founded in 1979 to the Disney’s Princess Half Marathon founded in 2009—have thrived because of a demand for them. We live in a capitalist and consumer driven society, and there will always be a company to supply the product that meets demand. The success of women-only races seems to suggest that there are plenty of women who want to run them. And according to the Wall Street Journal, more men are running and even winning women’s events too since legally they’re allowed to.

So why all the fuss? I’d hardly say that women have relegated men to second-class citizen status just because there are a handful of road races that cater to women and a smaller handful that cater to men. I’ll keep running the Mini because it gives me the enjoyment of competing with women—much like my childhood days as a swimmer and college days as a rower—and commemorates a historic moment in women’s sports. It’s important to remember how far we’ve come—not just as women, but also as a society.

And hey, Nike is a goddess, after all.

Karla Bruning is an award-winning journalist and running nerd. She has completed four marathons, trains with the New York Harriers and is a member of New York Road Runners. Follow Karla’s “Notes From a Running Nerd” at RunKarlaRun.com, Facebook and Twitter@KBruning.


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Karla Bruning

Karla Bruning is the host of On The Run, a TV and web show from New York Road Runners. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, American Athlete Magazine, RunnersWorld.com, Active.com, The Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Orlando Sentinel, and two dozen other outlets including ESPN2, Universal Sports and ABC in New York. She and her work have also received mentions from The New York Times, Runner's World, Fox Sports, Canadian Running, The Baltimore Sun, and PBS among others. She also covered the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver for The Washington Times.

 

A former Newsweek reporter, Karla has won a Fulbright scholarship for American journalists and reporting grants from the Scripps Howard, Carnegie and Knight Foundations. Karla holds degrees from Amherst College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

 

When not pounding the pavement as a reporter, Karla is pounding the pavement as a runner. She has completed seven marathons, four triathlons, trains with the New York Harriers and is a member of New York Road Runners. She is a writer, editor, and on-camera reporter dedicated to covering the sport of running from a runner’s perspective. Find Karla on RunKarlaRun.com, Twitter@KBruning, Facebook and Google+.

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