Female runners are a force to be reckoned with.
Women make up 59% of all race registrants, according to recent numbers from Running USA. Women compete while five months pregnant and run marathons 13 weeks after delivering their third child. Women set new course records on a brutal 268-mile route and beat everyone — yes, everyone — at a local 26.2.
But what makes every female runner truly remarkable is the fact that she runs at all.
To run while female can feel like an act of protest. It wasn’t long ago women weren’t allowed to run in the Olympics or in long-distance road races. Talk to any woman today, and she’ll tell you she still doesn’t feel like she “can” run in certain places — certain parks or trails, at certain times of day, without certain safety guards like a buddy or can of pepper spray or live tracking on MapMyRun.
The female runner is a force to be reckoned with not just because of her accomplishments, but also because of what she’s overcome.
TOEING THE START: A QUICK HISTORY OF WOMEN’S RUNNING
The world of women’s racing we know today did not exist 50 years ago, and women’s distance running went unrecognized throughout most of the 20th century.
Though the modern Olympics were founded in 1896, it wasn’t until 1928 that women were allowed to compete in the athletic events. As women competitors crossed the finish line of the 800-meter race, word spread quickly that a few had collapsed in exhaustion (these reports have since been disputed). In response, the International Olympic Committee decided women were too weak to run such long distances and banned them from competing in any race past 200 meters. This ban lasted for the next 32 years.
Things weren’t fairing much better in the world of amateur road racing. The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) also barred women from competing in long-distance races, citing health concerns. Though there had long been whispers of women banditing road races, including the marathon distance, female runners could not officially register and compete.
In the late 1960s, this battle played out on a national stage. After her race entry to the 1966 Boston Marathon was denied because of her sex, 23-year-old Bobbi Gibb hid in the bushes by the starting line and ran the race illegally, finishing ahead of 2/3 of the male competitors.
Kathrine Switzer followed in her footsteps a year later, registering under a gender-neutral name and becoming the first official female competitor. In what is now an infamous story, a race official tried to grab Switzer near the start to rip off her number. Her boyfriend intervened, and Switzer was able to finish the race successfully.
By the next decade, the barriers began to crumble. Title IX passed in 1972 and protected women from sex-based discrimination in educational programs and other federally funded activities. That same year, the AAU lifted its ban on women’s distance running. And finally, in 1980, the American College of Sports Medicine officially found zero scientific evidence that women could not compete in long-distance running.
LEADING THE PACK
As the profile of women’s racing grew, star athletes began to emerge as beacons of what female runners could accomplish — and what they would have to endure.
American Olympic sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner, or Flo-Jo as she was commonly known, is widely considered the fastest woman of all time. However, in the 1988 Olympic season, significant press coverage was given to her appearance, specifically her lengthy, painted nails, long hair and stylish running suits. Unsurprisingly, her appearance did not affect her running performance. She went on to set two world records in the 100- and 200-meter sprints, both of which still stand 30 years later.
British marathoner Paula Radcliffe holds the title for the women’s fastest marathon, claiming numerous victories in London, New York and Chicago. Though Radcliffe ran her fastest marathon in London in 2003 with a time of 2:15:25, it’s no longer the official world record. In a controversial 2011 move, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) ruled records set in women’s road racing only count if the field was women-only; the IAAF argued male pacesetters led to an unfair advantage. The new ruling stripped many female competitors of their initial world records, including Radcliffe, who now technically holds the record at 2:17:42 — her third best time in her racing career.
Researchers have since begun to investigate whether women might actually be better suited than men to run long distances. Reasoning includes everything from superior pacing abilities and a naturally higher body fat percentage to sociological theories — women have greater barriers to overcome which requires a higher level of effort which only results in greater achievement.
American women marathoners are certainly seeing new levels of achievement in the present day. Shalane Flanagan became the first American woman in 40 years to win the NYC Marathon in 2017. Shortly after, Desiree Linden became the first American woman in 33 years to win Boston, a feat made even more notable when news spread that she slowed to wait for Flanagan after a bathroom break. It was a moment of profound teamwork, causing many female runners to reflect on the strength of standing together.
Researchers aren’t the only ones interested in the growth of women’s running; brands are starting to catch on, too, producing women-centric running gear to better serve the needs of the female runner. Under Armour recently unveiled the gender-specific UA HOVR Infinite and will be releasing the shoe in a new colorway this month to celebrate International Women’s Month.
LOOKING TOWARD THE FINISH
Though women runners have seen substantial gains, they continue to face challenges, specifically in regard to safety.
The murder of Mollie Tibbetts, a 20-year-old University of Iowa student, made national headlines this past summer after she was killed while out for an evening jog. Just months later, 35-year-old Wendy Karina Martinez was stabbed to death while running in a busy D.C. neighborhood.
Both attacks shook the running community to its core and led to viral hashtag campaigns paying tribute to each of the women. The attacks also ignited a larger conversation where women expressed their frustration at the exhausting and often ludicrous onus to constantly modify their own behavior — don’t run in the morning or in the evening or at the same time every day or on the same route or with music or without a friend — instead of addressing male-perpetrated violence against women.
In a widely-circulated article from the prior year, Runner’s World conducted a large survey reflecting deep disparities in the male and female running experience. According to the survey, 43% of women experience harassment while running, compared to just 4% of men. That number increased to 58% when the woman was under the age of 30.
And yet, women still run.
Despite strict laws banning our participation in the Olympics and in amateur road races, despite the lingering belief our mental stamina and physical capabilities are limited, despite constant safety concerns that have us proactively scanning our surroundings every step of an early morning jog, women still run.
Our commitment to the sport is a ready-made metaphor for running itself. We endure. We outlast. We look to the finish and keep pushing until we break the tape.
Though the journey has not been easy, one thing is now clear: The female runner is here to stay, and her time in the spotlight has just begun.