(photo credit: Ruth Orkin)
I always loved this picture of Switzer winning the ’74 NYC Marathon. It was still such a rare thing for a woman to run a marathon that Kathrine Switzer won in 3:07:29. In fact, it was such an oddity for women to run at all, that Switzer had to wear a tennis dress, partly because there were no running clothes for women and partly because she felt obligated to look pretty in an athletic event dominated and ruled by men.
Best of all, though, are the expressions on the faces of those watching Switzer win. The men, for the most part, look impressed, amused, or curious. They’re clapping, shouting encouragement. In sharp contrast are the expressions of the two women on the right. At best, they look jealous. At worst, they look downright hostile, even disgusted. In her book Marathon Woman, Switzer uses that picture to illustrate her experience as an emerging distance runner in the relative No Woman’s Land of the 60s and early 70s. Basically, men supported her, women did not.
Considering that the most famous picture of Kathrine Switzer is the one of Jock Semple in a pit bull rage, trying to body slam her out of the Boston Marathon because, damn it, it’s a manly man event for men only, the above picture is kind of surprising. Or not. Thirty-six years later, women often still do not support one another in running (or any number of things) in the same way that men support, admire, and even obsess over one another’s running. Why? I suppose there are any number of interesting, historical, social, boring as whaleshit, psychological, emotional reasons, but I’m not up for writing a dissertation at this very moment.
I will say, however, that many women are still nervous about taking their running too seriously or appearing too knowledgable about it. It might look bad. They might grow a beard or lose ovaries. And everbody can just calm down right now, because I said “many,” not “all.” I know plenty of competitive women who are so serious about their running that I’m Daisy Lah de Dah Here I Go for a Little Jog! in comparison. But I know far more women who shy away from being competitive, repeat the inane mantra: “I have one speed—slow!”, who invariably assume that only men can give solid running advice or coach, and who consider running, as a sport and not a weight-loss device, to be a man’s realm.
From what I can remember, this lack of confidence and camaraderie among women was one of the reasons Switzer started the Avon Running events for women only. Of course, the larger reason, in 1978, was to encourage women to run, to make them feel included in something that had historically been a Men Only pasttime. After all, it would still be another 6 years (six!) before the IOC would sighingly admit that maybe women were, in fact, strong enough to compete in the Olympic Marathon. And , so, it’s only been within our lifetimes (unless you’re under 26, in which case, bite me) that women have been taken even moderately seriously in the sport of running.
But now it’s 2010. Millions of women run. Last year, more women than men ran half marathons in the U.S. Obviously, women don’t feel unwelcome. So, the question has been asked, why are there still women-only races? What’s the point?
I’d like to think that the point is the still-ongoing development of support and camaraderie among female athletes. Or even as a stepping-stone to encouraging women to actually think of themselves as athletes, as strong and in charge of their bodies. This is still a rarity. And it’s one of the reasons there’s a Girls on the Run program, and not a Boys on the Run.
I also think that some women definitely appreciate the occasional break from running races with men. It makes it a totally different kind of event. In my billion years of racing, I’ve experienced everything from guys giving me unwanted non-stop advice for miles, commenting on my footfall and stride and shorts, cutting me off, spitting on me, announcing “Oh No! I’m getting chicked!” and giving themselves a coronary to beat me at the finish line. That being said, that is the exception. Mostly, men have been overwhelmingly supportive. But, you know, it would still be nice to run a race or two a year without men. Sorry.
It’s been suggested that having women-only races is “divisive.” I’m not sure how. I can’t think of a lot of sports where men and women compete together anyway. Road racing is kind of an anomaly. A good one. But a couple of women’s races a year (for the above-mentioned reasons) is not going to lead to any kind of major Division ‘O the Genders.
On the other hand, a lot of these Women Only races depress me. Here’s why:
Too much pink and giggling and full makeup and Everyone’s a Winner! and crumpets and peach-infused tea at the finish line and goodie bags with lace doilies. (Okay, I made that last one up.)
I mean, come on! Really? Many of the promoters of these events have gone entirely out of their way to avoid presenting any of the participants as even remotely competitive or (gasp!) serious. I’m not saying that the race flyers need to display a panorama of exhausted women with runny noses and death grimaces careening to the finish line, but a picture or two of women actually doing something wacky like RACING AT A RACE might be nice. I’m sure I’m not alone (among women or men) in wanting to see female runners portrayed as something closer to athletes than to laughy daffy sorority sisters.