Run Like a …Girl?

For the three of you reading this who don’t personally know me and haven’t heard my insufferable whining over the past 12 weeks: I dedicated the summer of 2010 to rigours of marathon training.

Come October 17th, I will line up alongside 19,999 other certifiable lunatics and run 42 kilometers around the fair city of San Francisco, in an effort to … well, just not die, really.

To the victors go the spoils.

Beyond the elements that typically get me across a finish line, such as a genuine love for running and sweet, merciful endorphins, this marathon will close with a necklace.

From Tiffany’s.

Presented by a fireman.

In a tuxedo.

I have sagely elected to run the Nike Women’s Marathon.

The race is perhaps the best-known iteration of a new trend in running that targets women, and women only. It is notorious for its tough-but-stunning course and jubilant vibe, and has proven so popular that women-only races are popping up all over North America. While men are not prohibited from running these races, they are not exactly welcomed with open arms.

A recent article in The Globe and Mail (“Dude, you can run but you’d better not win”, September 22, 2010) explores the experiences of a handful of men who have run the Nike Women’s Half Marathon and the Disney Princess Half Marathon. They recall being glared at by other runners, heckled by the crowd, and ignored by announcers when crossing the finish line.

They also recount feelings of awkwardness and embarrassment, especially when receiving their finishing medals from the aforementioned firemen.

Um, dudes? The name of the race has the word “Princess” in it.

Though of course it’s not as simple as semantics.

Not the author. Photo courtesy of www.runlikeadiva.com

In many ways, women-only environments for exploring health and fitness are extremely important. Karen Butler, long time Vancouver runner and co-owner of Forerunners, explains the intimidation factor: “Some of the women who run these races are running a 4 hour half marathon [an average finish is generally around 2 hours and 15 minutes], and it’s unlikely that they would ever enter a more competitive, co-ed race. These events are lots of fun, low-pressure, and encourage female comradarie.”

Indeed, in a world where men continue to dominate most athletic fields, and where women are sexualized by the media in practically every environment imaginable, it makes sense to offer a haven from judgment that encourages activity. Be it in a gym or at a road race, everyone has a right to feel comfortable and supported while being active.

Including men.

I won’t deny that the idea of a Tiffany’s necklace as opposed to a clunky finishing medal is appealing, and I love regaling anyone who will listen with the details of my race. I find it funny because it’s such an overblown and ultra simplified version of what women like.

Unfortunately, some of these races are heading in a direction that both alienates men and trivializes women’s participation in the sport.

In the same Globe and Mail article, Robert Pozo, organizer of the Run Like a Diva race series, offers his insight into women-only races: “You take out the testosterone and these races are kinder, cleaner, gentler and sweeter.”

Wait, what?

When it comes to apparel, tutus are light-weight and ideal for water resistance, but often lead to chafing. Photo courtesy of mydisneymarathon.com/princess.

I have trained in co-ed clinics and run co-ed races for years, and have witnessed nothing to indicate that the removal of “testosterone” would make for a more supportive environment. The individuals I’m lucky enough to train with have impressed me time and again with their caring and kindness. Indeed, my (gender-balanced!) running group is one of my very favorite communities in Vancouver.

I also train with a lot of women who are fierce about their sport, and rightly so. I’m not sure I’ve mentioned this, but long-distance running is hard work. Like, really hard work. Whether you’re running 42 kilometers in 5 hours or two-and-a-half, you’re still running 42 kilometers. So pardon me for having little interest in being clean and gentle while doing so.

Jerry Ziak, an inspiring 2:17 marathoner who just happens to be my coach, puts it best: “To say that women’s races are ‘kinder, cleaner, gentler, and sweeter’ seems like we are still trying to put women into a box that puts limits on what is allowed or appropriate. What is a women supposed to think if she reads this before going in one of these races, that she’s not allowed to grimace, sweat, spit or compete in a way that goes against their ‘sweet’ natures?”

"Shine like a Diva with the most unique race medal: It's got bling, it spins, and it even has a spot for your picture, too!" Photo and text courtesy of www.runlikeadiva.com

Run Like a Diva is hosting its inaugural Diva Run in four short days, and the blindingly pink website touts it as a Celebration of Womanhood. Event highlights include tiara and feather boa stops throughout (who needs all of those superfluous water stations?!), an ageless category (“for those keeping the secret”), and roses, tiaras and champagne (“to make you feel pretty and strong”).

Pozo explains, “We’re making this race so girly that men won’t want any part of it.”

Well, Mr. Pozo, in the spirit of building strong, supportive, gender-neutral running communities: I’m with the men on this one.