Women empowering women through running: Women's History Month 2022
March 17, 2022|By Emilia Benton
Women's History Month can mean different things to different people, and it's certainly significant from the perspective of female runners, particularly those who love the concept of women empowering women.
It's hard to believe that it wasn't all that long ago that women were not allowed to compete in organized races. Many recreational runners are familiar with the story of Kathrine Switzer, who famously was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as a registered participant in 1967.
Her participation wasn't initially welcomed, either, as race official Jock Semple physically assaulted Switzer in an attempt to get her off the course. It wasn't until 1972 that women were officially allowed to enter the race.
The evolution of women's running
Women's running has continued to evolve over time after this notorious incident, from many races being created exclusively for women to more people being interested in following professional women's running. People have tuned in to historic moments like Brooks athlete Des Linden being the first American to win the Boston Marathon in 33 years with her 2018 victory in treacherous conditions (which had to have felt redeeming from when she missed the win by two seconds back in 2011) before later setting both an American and world record in the 50K distance, running 2:59:54 in an official solo effort in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Other recent historic moments in women's running history include Brigid Kosgei taking down Paula Radcliffe's longtime world record in the marathon at the 2019 Chicago Marathon, where she won in 2:14:04, and Keira D'Amato overcoming Deena Kastor's long-held American record at the 2022 Houston Marathon, which she won in 2:19:12.
One of my first brushes with women's running history was when I ran the New York Road Runners Mini 10K in New York City's Central Park in 2009, a couple of weeks after graduating from Hofstra University in Long Island. I didn't know anything about this historic race before signing up; I'd simply chosen it as one of my nine races for the year to gain my qualifying entry into the 2010 New York City Marathon, which would be my first go at 42 kilometres.
When I crossed the finish line, I was pleasantly surprised to be handed a medal (a rarity at races shorter than a marathon in those days), along with a pink carnation and hot pink-dyed bagel. I didn't know it at the time, but this race was another great example of women empowering women.
Later that day, I Googled the race and read up on its history, learning that it was created as the world's original women-only road race in 1972 and originally a 10-kilometre race called the Crazylegs Mini Marathon. It eventually got its current name when race founder Fred Lebow convinced the sponsor to support a 10-kilometre "mini" marathon, named in honor of the fashion trend of the miniskirt. The race continues to be one of NYRR's premier events, with a stellar lineup of elite runners making up the pro field each year. I was fortunate enough to return for this race in 2019 and hope to race it again in the future.
Allowing room for every type of body
Another way running has grown to support women in the sport is with the evolution of women's running apparel. It might seem silly or frivolous, but having ill-fitting and less-than-flattering clothing options has surely deterred a lot of women from partaking in the sport.
Even by the early- and mid-2000s, most races still gave out unisex cotton finisher shirts and not technical, fitted shirts you'd actually want to run in, which most large races thankfully provide today. Women actually outnumber men at a lot of co-ed races, so it makes sense for races to want to cater to their needs and provide something they would actually want to wear. Many running brands, including Brooks, have also become more aware that there is no one runner's body, especially when it comes to women. It's great to see a lot of brands offering clothing options for all sizes and shapes of bodies, which is something I work to include in any gear articles I may write.
I also remember it being very challenging to find shorts that even had a small pocket to hold my house key, which I often held in my hand, along with my MetroCard, when participating in NYRR races. Today, in 2022, I'm particularly grateful for my favourite Brooks Method 5-inch tight shorts, which have two deep side pockets that can hold my phone when I need to run with it, as well as plenty of energy gels during a long training run. They're also one of the few tight shorts I've found that aren't too short for my liking and don't ride up when in motion.
They were my go-to in my last marathon training cycle and what I wore when I ran my Boston Marathon qualifying time in this year's Houston Marathon in January. Having plenty of pocket space is important for runners to be able to store other items they may want to keep on hand for safety reasons but may not necessarily want to keep out in plain sight, like their car keys and credit cards.
Similarly, a key evolution in women's running clothing was the advent of the sports bra, which was developed in part by former marathon world record holder, and mother of U.S. Olympian Shalane Flanagan, Cheryl Treworgy in the 1970s (which also was not that long ago). Treworgy was inspired to produce sports bras simply because she was tired of running in her regular underwire bras (just thinking about that makes me cringe in discomfort).
Many running apparel brands, including Brooks, have continued to improve their sports bra offerings over the years, offering more sizing options for different body types. Brooks is also unique in that it's one of the few brands that gives customers the option of buying sports bras in their everyday bra size rather than defaulting to small, medium, large, and so on.
We're not finished yet: Boosting women's representation
Of course, there are still areas where women's running could stand to improve. I know I, for one, have felt like friends, family members, and peers in the running community haven't taken me and my running goals seriously at times, and I have to wonder if it's partly because I'm a woman. And, while my best race times are a lot faster than average, they still don't come close to my male peers chasing equivalent standards.
I also have to wonder if it's partly due to my minority status. As a Latina, I feel lucky that I've never felt out of place as a runner in my local community (there are lots of us here in Houston), but it's a fact that runners of colour are still largely underrepresented in the running community as a whole, and in iconic races like the Boston Marathon.
Although I ran track and cross country in my final years of high school in rural Oregon, my twin sister and I were two of a small handful of minority runners on the team. We were also not actively encouraged to continue with the sport after graduating, though we both did for general health reasons and to maintain fitness. We also only discovered the recreational racing scene on our own and decided to run our first half marathon at another NYRR Central Park race during our senior year of college.
This was in part why I intentionally set out to share my training journey leading up to the Houston Marathon this year — my 11th marathon, where I was chasing my Boston qualifier, which I did end up achieving. I wanted to show fellow Latinos and runners of colour that we not only deserve to be here, but we are worthy of pursuing and achieving these big, lofty goals, too.
People, and especially women, of colour are also largely underrepresented in the coaching scene, which is why it was important to me to choose a woman of colour to coach me in this endeavour, which I did in hiring professional marathoner Nell Rojas. And similarly, women of colour are still largely underrepresented in the professional distance running scene.
It was great to see four women of colour round out the top 10 in the 2020 Olympic Marathon trials with Aliphine Tuliamuk and Sally Kipyego making the Olympic team and Linden and Rojas not far behind them. However, it was not surprising to see that many people who supposedly closely follow the sport were not familiar with most of them, even with Kipyego being a 2012 Olympian. Many people were even quick to dismiss their victories because they are both Kenyan-born American citizens, despite the fact that they've lived and trained in this country for over a decade.
That was disheartening to me, especially being the daughter of an immigrant myself. My hope is that we move forward in this regard, since the U.S. is, by and large, a country of immigrants, and I firmly believe that's something to be celebrated.
It's going to take a whole village of runners within the community to make true steps forward with regard to women empowering women, rather than leaving it on our shoulders as minorities. As the saying goes, "You can't be what you can't see," and a lot needs to be done to boost representation of runners of colour in many facets of the running industry and community.
Making strides toward a more inclusive future
All in all, while there have undoubtedly been many strides made in the running industry and community being more supportive and welcoming of women, there is still much work to be done to make the sport truly inclusive to all women who wish to be a part of it. With increased awareness and more people being willing to do their part to be proactive, I'm confident we will only continue to get closer to reaching true equity in the running world.
Our writer's advice is intended for informational or general educational purposes only. We always encourage you to speak with your physician or healthcare provider before making any adjustments to your running, nutrition, or fitness routines.
I'm a Houston, Texas, native who's run 11 marathons and 30-something half marathons, with 3:30 and 1:39 personal bests. I'm also a freelance health and fitness journalist, a USATF Level 1-certified running coach, and a lover of country music, baking, and world travel.