This summer as I watched the women’s marathon and other running events at the London Olympic games, I thought a lot about how far the sport I am passionate about has come, even in my lifetime.
It wasn’t that long ago that this was a boys’ game. At the 1960 Rome Olympics, the longest that women were allowed to race was 800 metres! It wasn’t until 1984 – nearly a quarter century later - that the women’s marathon became an accepted Olympic endeavour.
Now, another 28 years on, we are seeing more women than ever before take to the roads and set their own pace. Running USA recently revealed women now make up more than 53% of the finishers in all timed running events. There are more women than men participating in every distance except the marathon. In the UK, the number of women jumping into ultra-marathons is outstripping the number of men joining the sport by 3:1.
What is it that is driving women to participate in running events in record numbers? I believe that events like ours, the 5K, 8K 10K and half marathons of the Toronto Women’s Running Series, are partly responsible for inspiring more women to set a goal, take on a training program, cajole some friends and come on out to test themselves against their own pace.
We definitely know through our own ongoing research as well as some from other industry sources that women love to run with other women. Certainly, there is a slice of high-level elite athletes who simply love to run, have the confidence and will put in the time and effort to excel at it no matter whether they run against other women or in mixed gender events. But for newbie runners and women who have taken the sport up later in life as a leisure pursuit instead of a competitive activity, there is something about the camaraderie that an all-female atmosphere can offer that gets them to come aboard and to stick with it.
Women are social creatures. We like to shop together, read books together, talk about our kids and pets together, connect online together. We tend to enjoy the success of the whole as much as we revel in our own individual achievements.
We are natural communicators and for many women, the most memorable part of the experience of racing is not simply crossing the finish line, but who you crossed the finish line with and how you got there together.
Beyond the camaraderie, well just like Cyndi Lauper said, girls just wanna have fun!Female-centric events frequently offer perks and relevant aspects that would just not fly at a mixed event like well-cut feminine t-shirts, jewellery instead of finisher medals, fit and fine looking firefighters offering water, hugs and photo ops, and plentiful porta-potties. Wmen want to run – but they want to know their needs and wants will be fulfilled too.
As with any emerging trend, controversy can go hand in hand with enthusiasm. I’ve heard concerns raised that we fought hard to be included as equals in major races (remember Katherine Switzer’s bold move toward inclusion in the 1967 Boston Marathon?)and now somehow we are diluting that victory by reverting to an all-female race. I’ve also heard that an all-male race would not be tolerated or supported the way we support our female events.
To this I say ‘hooey’! There is a race out there for everyone and that’s a good thing. We need more diversity in race events not less. For some women, the thrill is in running competitively with the boys. For others, they’d never set foot on a course in that atmosphere. So why would we want to limit any opportunity for that would motivate women to get involved in this exciting, glorious and ultimately health-supportive activity?
Let’s celebrate the X Factor in running and simply focus on what the sport is all about – setting your own pace and enjoying the race.