A Race of Our Own

An inside peak at the biggest phenomena in running: Women’s only races

By Margaret Webb, first published in Canadian Running Magazine, 2013

It is the forecast that race director Cory Freedman dreaded: Predictions of 75 kilometre-per-hour winds, a 25-centimetre dump of rain, potential dangerous flooding around waterways like the Don River, which roils right alongside her race course in Toronto’s Sunnybrook Park. From across Southern Ontario runners are driving through the deluge to participate in Freedman’s usually sold-out Toronto Women’s Run Series. Typical for a woman’s event, many of the 1200 women and girls struggling to the start line of the 5 and 8 k events are relative novices or even racing for the first time. On top of that anxiety, they have no idea what to expect. Will the races be cancelled? Will they actually have to run through this petulant precursor to Hurricane Sandy that will smack into the city two days later? And how does one compete, stay warm, keep safe when Mother Nature is throwing a major hissy fit?

The one thing not stressing the runners is the nature of the race itself — that it is all women. When they arrive and hear the event is on, the tribal sisterhood of runners heaves into full-estrogen, she-wolf bonding frenzy that seems to stop the storm in its tracks. Or at least nothing seems quite as bad while women are hustling about in packs, always in packs, middle-aged gal pals, mothers and daughters and grandmothers, nine-year-old pony-tailed phonemes about to find out how awesomely fast they are. Even sponsored elites cuddle clump together from portapotties to bag check-in to start line as if the first rule of women’s racing is to leave no woman behind.

All around me, they shout out fuzzy feel goods (Girl, you are so going to do this!), tease each other into hysterics (I think we need our third pee! Now!) and hug, oh lord, but do women racers hug. They are inventing an entire language of skin speak at these events, from the oh-my-frig-I-lost-sight-of-you-for-a-minute! wrist grab to the you-are-so-awesome back rub and the we’re-so-fabulous full-body mugging at the start, which is repeated with suffocating intensity at the finish, because, well, it would take a huge piling on of words for women to communicate the glory of what it means to run together.

On this rare occasion, I am racing without my own she pack, yet I’m enthusiastically hailed to the start line by two veterans of the women’s running community, Charlotte Davis and Francis Lamb. Davis wanted to race in the inaugural event five years ago, but it sold out before she could even sign up. She volunteered instead and loved it so much she’s been working the start line every year since. Ditto for Lamb. Their job in the chute is to keep the runners not only safe but feeling special. The race director “is adamant that volunteers greet, encourage, cheer, celebrate and congratulate every single runner,” says Davis. “It makes it a more welcoming and supportive atmosphere than most mixed races and that attracts a lot of women who might not normally race. It’s striking a chord. I can’t deny there’s a movement going on and it’s fairly powerful.”

Indeed, though the Toronto series struggled to attract sponsors when it launched during the recession in 2008, it has had no trouble attracting runners, regularly selling out. Now sponsors are starting to take note of the surging popularity of women’s events. A fledgling national series, Run for Women, will double to six races across Canada this year and landed a title sponsor in TKTK. South of the border, women’s events have exploded with some eight national series (more than 200 events) vying for the fastest growing segment of the running market — according to Running USA, women now account for 55 percent of all participants in road races and nearly 60 percent at the half marathon distance. Yet with women out numbering men in most races, it begs the question: Why the huge demand for women’s events?

Back in the starting chute, the announcer, Debbie Van Kiekebelt, a former Olympian, urges racers to step up to the start line. It may be her toughest call of the day. Davis and Lamb have been waving, encouraging and cajoling women to close the gap and join the elites on the line. The women seem more interested in giving each other send-off hugs. Lamb, a 2:55 marathoner in the 1980s who has watched the women’s running boom explode, laughs. “That would never happen in a mixed race,” she tells me later. “Men would be elbowing and pushing people out of the way. In the mixed runs, the men are in front, men get the attention and the glory. This is about women, for women, and it celebrates the women’s experience.” These races, Lamb has no trouble saying, are “about the love” and likens the supportive atmosphere to a giant hug. “If you could bottle this energy, it would be amazing.”

Comparing a race to a lovefest may seem bizarre until you consider the tribal nature of running, that women — and men — can’t help but bring our prehistoric brains to the start line. And those brains, fired by ancient hormonal circuitry, shaped by primordial evolutionary goals, have developed vastly different reactions to stress according to Dr. Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain.

To alleviate anxiety — say of a race — men strive for rank in the social pecking order, for power, respect, even domination, which explains the aggressiveness of some at the start line. Or the thousand-yard stares. Or the quiet, individual focus. It’s fight or flight time.

But women, four times more likely to suffer from anxiety given that our brains are hardwired to intuit danger lurking everywhere, get our stress-relieving oxytocin rush by making social connections, to support and watch out for each other. Women’s genetic inheritance, after all, comes from cave gals who formed female bonding communities to protect each other and their young, in some cases from the sort of caveman behaviour some men unwittingly display during racing. Rather than fight or flight, women runners are learning to marshal up a third and ancient response to stress, a let’s unite and fight. As Brizendine puts it, a hug seals that social pact and releases calming oxytocin, which gives women runners a high even before the race starts — and clearly energy.

When the horn finally blasts, the frontrunners go out hard, not competing against each other so much as with each other. I am swept up in that pull, flying out at a PB pace rather than my planned practice pace for a half marathon the next weekend. I struggle to slow down, remind myself not to blow my target race by going too hard in this one. But as I near the 2.5K turnaround of the out and back course, I feel fantastic, fast yet in control, my brain dosed up on feel-good hormones.

The frontrunners charge back, clearly buoyed by the blast of being in a rare place — the spotlight, leading the race clean. Elites love competing for the chance to win the race outright, not just be first woman finisher. And without men clogging up the course, age groupers can also see their competition and race head on. Swept up in the you-go-girl vibe of the event, I cheer and clap on the frontrunners rounding the turn until I realize, whoa, I am among them. There are maybe only 15 ahead. This is an entirely novel place for me, I assure you. And that first-ever whiff of the front-end excitement of a race gives me yet another adrenalin kick.

Farther back in the field, the race means something different to every woman in it. One told me later that she had only run six times before, ever. Dragged to this by friends, she was thrilled to run her first 5K nonstop. “Now I’m hooked on running,” she beamed, “and racing!” Same story from a 50-something woman who hadn’t raced in years and finally succumbed to pressure from her running gal pals to give this one a try. Loved it. Hooked. Another who had taken up running to lose weight said she would be too self-conscious to ever run in a mixed event. “I don’t want men looking at me,” she laughed. “I mean, I know they’re not and everything, but I just feel more comfortable here.” Others told me they love women’s races because they’re generally smaller and more intimate and definitely more welcoming for all sizes, paces, experience levels, ages (many young girls run with their moms) and ethnicities (some women run in burkas). Another big draw, the races tend to support charities that focus on women and families. And gals love the female-centric touches — clean and abundant portapotties, chocolate stations, sometimes jewelry instead of yet another gaudy hunk of finisher medal, the post-race festivities with women’s music, firemen at the water stations, though the latter is a disappointment today. “It was too cold for them to take their shirts off,” lamented one racer.

With more women’s events emerging, each are developing their own unique character while keeping a celebration of fitness and the running sisterhood at their core. At a very few — too few say some critics — there’s a focus on drawing elites and developing the next generation of talent. Ottawa, for instance, is one of the few to offer prize money to top finishers while this series offers free registration to elites. Other races held at destination hot spots, such as Niagara Falls and the Zooma and Diva half marathon series in the US, have developed a girlfriends’ weekend-away theme with resort getaways, local tours, and parties adding to the hoopla. Yet others haul out gender stereotypes, playing up girly, pink princess themes, encouraging racers to wear tutus and tiaras, inviting firefighters to beefcake up water stations and medal presentations. That super femmy-ization is a trend some women race directors aren’t thrilled about. “We’re women and we like to do things women do and that’s how we design our events,” says Zooma’s Brae Blackley who left corporate law to found the series. “But we don’t want over-the-top girly. We want women to take themselves seriously: onour your training, honour your commitment. So we don’t encourage people to run in costumes or feather boas.”

Priscilla Uppal, a professor, poet in residence at the London Olympics and author of the resulting Summer Sport: Poems, says she will only run in women’s races and can “defend” the girly frills “slightly.” She likens the events to a testing ground, a place women can explore what it means to compete and be an athlete. “There have been a lot of bad stereotypes with being a female athlete. What goes on (at a race) is a lot about breaking down those stereotypes. Women are battling the idea that being an athlete is not sexy or integral to who they are. They might find it difficult to make running a priority in their lives when they have so many other responsibilities. They may feel vulnerable and exposed when they try to get in shape after many years or having kids. Women understand all this. They’re so supportive and encouraging. And the firefighters make them feel that there’s a community of men who support what they’re doing.”

Still, Uppal, who regularly places top three in her age group, laughs that she’s running too fast to notice the firefighters. She’s more intrigued by the nature of the competition — that the race provides a safe space for women to unleash their competitive drive and also learn how to compete with each other. “Competition isn’t male or female, but women who display competitive characteristics have been looked down on, for being ruthless or single minded or not compassionate. Competing isn’t about putting each other down. It’s about pushing each other to achieve goals, and that spills over into all areas of life.”

In this race, the top three gut it out right to the finish, seconds separating them. In mixed races, this last dash can be the toughest for women. So many elites have stories of being locked in foot races with overzealous guys who use every nasty race tactic to claim bragging rights of beating the first female finisher — cutting her off then slowing down in front of her, crowding her, clipping her heels, even bursting ahead at the last second to take the ribbon put out for the first female finisher, as happened to pro triathlete Suzanne Zelazo when she won the women’s Toronto Goodlife Half in 2009.

In this one, Sasha Gollish takes the ribbon clean, to ecstatic congratulations from race announcer Van Kiekebelt. The Pan Am games gold medalist in 1971 has been calling these races since the inaugural one and gushes about how much she loves it. “There’s just such sheer joy and excitement. It’s like a collaborative team effort. It’s us girls against the world. When I was competing, women didn’t have this incredible camaraderie that they have today, that has developed from women running together, and it shows in these women’s races.”

As runners cross the finish line, Van Kiekebelt calls out the first names of each, though I confess I don’t hear mine. I am too much in shock — by a massive PB, at age 50!, and a first-place in my age group. Rather than draining me, the effort fills me with confidence, and I will PB my next race – that target half the next week – by five minutes.

But in this moment, along with other finishers, I rush to the finish line to cheer in the rest of the field. Despite the rain and cold, we can’t pull ourselves away from the drama:  the ecstatic joy, the massive smiles of so many first-time racers crossing the line. Race director Cory Freedman, bundled up in a parka, can’t get enough of seeing the happy faces and the raucous support women give each other. “People cheered them on, they had a good time, they want to keep running,” she says. “That’s pretty cool. This is living the dream.”

Margaret Webb blogs about running at www.margaretwebb.com

Sidebar One: Flashback to the Future

An international women’s racing circuit developing future Olympic stars and attracting world-wide media attention: That might sound like a far-fetched dream for women’s running, but it’s actually history.

The guest of honour at this year’s Niagara Falls Women’s Half Marathon and the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon in 1967, Kathrine Switzer, was instrumental in launching the Avon International Running Circuit in the late 1970s. Realizing that growing the sport was fundamental to getting the women’s marathon accepted into the 1984 Olympics, she worked feverishly with Avon to launch a race series on four continents. It was a spectacular success, garnering network TV coverage of marathons, developing future Olympians and drawing tens of thousands of women to the sport. “It was an example of corporate sponsorship creating a social revolution,” says Switzer who wrote about her proudest accomplishment in her memoir Marathon Woman. “So many who became Olympians were products of that program. There was such talent out there, and they didn’t know it.”

But most of the races collapsed or morphed into other events when Avon withdrew its sponsorship in the mid 1990s, as a result of a downturn in the economy, Switzer contends, rather than any lack of interest or promotional returns. The women’s running pioneer had a chance to revisit what might have been when she opened one of the few races that endured: the Avon Women’s 10K in Berlin. Some 18,500 women stepped up to that start line last spring.

Such massive women’s races are common in Europe. In Dublin, the women’s 10K attracts 40,000, Vienna 30,000, Paris 20,000. “Imagine if Avon had stuck with the race series through the women’s running boom,” says Switzer. “Avon would own women’s running now.”

Ironically, attracting title sponsors and media attention remains challenging for women’s races. While Switzer is thrilled by the women’s running boom — “It’s truly for every one now and we can relax and have fun” — she is concerned about the development of the next generation of elite talent and believes race series, sponsors and media all have a role to play. “Women have more endurance, stamina, balance and flexibility. It doesn’t make us better than men. It makes us different athletes. Men have been running the marathon for 2,500 years, women for only 30. We’re just beginning to explore women’s capability in the sport.”

OMA Outdoors Sat 187