I noticed the pattern as I was training for my first marathon in 2013. When I lock in to a long run, my pace is ridiculously consistent. My splits on double-digit runs are always between 10:55 and 11:05 per mile. So it is obvious to me if, after I pass another runner, a few seconds later they surge to pass me.
One day, this dance repeated itself until the other runner couldn’t sustain the speed needed to constantly stay ahead. It was literally the tortoise and the hare, where slow and steady (me) won the race. Until I’d experienced this on multiple occasions, I didn’t realize what all these other runners had in common. Every single one of these runners who can’t stand to let me pass them?
For much of 2017, I was on the board of a local running club. When I mentioned that I was becoming involved with a new running organization, 261 Fearless[*], a male board member asked me if I was aware who had founded it.
He clearly didn’t think I knew.
“Kathrine Switzer was the first woman to officially finish the Boston Marathon in 1967,” I said, “But she wasn’t the first woman to finish. That was Roberta Gibb, in 1966.”
He seemed amused. “And what’s the meaning of 261?” he asked.
I knew he was trying to catch me again.
“261 is the bib number Kathrine wore the first time she ran Boston. Her bib is the logo for 261 Fearless. If you look closely, the logo has a rip on the right side where the race director, Jock Semple, tried to rip the bib off Kathrine while she was on the course.”
Because I live in San Francisco, I watched the 2017 New York City Marathon on TV. I was thrilled to see Kathrine Switzer and 261 Fearless profiled as part of the TV broadcast. Running along the course, Kathrine was explaining the mission of the organization—to be a non-competitive and inclusive community for women that uses running as a tool to develop self-esteem and fearlessness—when a male runner cut in front of her to woo-hoo in front of a TV camera.
Every female runner knows what it’s like to be harassed or catcalled on a run. Even though women represent 57% of the running community (as of 2015), we are still thought of by many as casual or back-of-the-pack runners who don’t know what we’re talking about when it comes to the sport. It’s well documented how female runners are portrayed in the news as "joggers", rather than as runners or athletes. But what’s less talked about is the subtle, consistent sexism among runners[†]. That moment is a microcosm of how sexist behavior that marginalizes the contributions of women persists in the running community.
After Shalane Flanagan won the 2017 New York City Marathon, I saw how many male journalists, and male runners—everywhere from Runner’s World, The Morning Shakeout by Mario Fraioli, and even my local running club’s newsletter (written by the new, male co-president)--felt the need to communicate the importance of her victory for women’s running and women’s sports.
Don’t get me wrong. Shalane’s victory is amazing for female runners. She was the first American woman to win since Miki Gorman in 1977. But it’s inspirational for all athletes—because she publicly talked about her struggles and how her training had improved, because she was returning to competition from a stress fracture, because she finished in sixth at the Rio Olympics last year, because the first words she said after finishing were in tribute to the retiring Meb Keflezighi, and because she went back to the finish line at 8:30pm to hand out medals to those runners who completed the marathon well after the time limit. Shalane Flanagan exemplifies what it means to set a goal, work hard for it, and achieve a dream. Her victory is not conditional because she’s a woman. If Meb had won, no one would write or say that his win was for men’s running or men’s sports. It would be a victory for elite American athletes, period.
Just because Shalane is a woman doesn’t make her any less skilled at knowing what splits are, how to train for a marathon, or how to set and achieve PRs. But that’s the impression given by many male experts, sportswriters, and fellow runners[‡]. What this year has taught me is that, although women have run multiple marathons striving for gender equity and equality, we still have so far to go. And the truth is that many men, and media outlets, still lag behind in how we think about our sport.
A male friend said my 20-minute PR at the New York City marathon was “remarkable for a woman”. A coach said in front of our entire running club that I was ready to “run sexy” when I wore new pants. I’ve been to a lot of race expos, but the only events sponsored by weight loss pills are events exclusively for women—including, ironically, the first running race established just for women, the NYC Mini. In 2017, there was a huge effort by Nike and elite athletes to break the world record at the marathon covered by all the major running outlets—but the only record they were trying to break was for men.
In 2011, I was training for my first half-marathon, clocking the miles consistently around Central Park at 11:30-per-mile. One day, I fell in with another woman who was running the Grete’s Gallop (a half marathon run entirely within the park). After a mile, I took off my headphones and gestured for her to take hers off, too.
“Mind if I hang out?”
She smiled and said that she didn’t. I complimented her on the race, and told her that I was going to run 11:30 like clockwork. “If you want to stay with me, you’re welcome to. And if you want me to leave, just say so.” She nodded. We both put our headphones in. I hung out. We ran five miles together, and when it came for her to break away into the finish chute, I told her “You got this” and gave her a high-five.
I don’t know her name. I didn’t memorize her bib number or look up her finish time. But I think of her often—every time a male runner passes me, falls back, and passes me again.
Female runners shouldn’t have to put up with sexism at all when we run, whether that’s from a stranger on the street or from a fellow runner. It shouldn’t be our responsibility to educate men about “women’s” sports. But until that becomes a reality, I’m going to laugh—as loud as I can—when a male runner can’t stand to let me—a “girl”—pass him, even though “beating me” is likely to mess up his long run or his race. I’m going to confront the runners—especially those in leadership within our community—who question my knowledge of the sport, of its legends, of my training, and especially of my own body.
And I’m going to support, every day and on every mile, my fellow women who get out there to run because nothing—not even systemic, persistent discrimination, sexism, and marginalization—will stop us from the sport we love.
I’m going to follow in Shalane’s shoes.
I’m going to follow in Kathrine’s shoes.
I’m going to follow in Roberta Gibb’s shoes, and so many others.
And I hope you will, too.
[*] I’m a 261 Fearless Friend and a certified 261 Fearless Coach
[†] I am a white woman. I only know (and write about) my experiences and those of a few friends (both white women and women of color), but I suspect many runners of color—especially female runners of color—face even more stigma and marginalization.
[‡] I’d like to add a caveat to this: not all male runners have been unsupportive. I have personally benefitted from the generous advice of coach/trainer/author Tom Holland, who has been a huge support both to me and many other athletes of varying abilities. Also, all six male teammates I’ve participated in Ragnars with have never said a word about female runners being different. It may be many men who exhibit this sexist behavior (consciously or not), but it’s certainly not every man.