Women in Endurance Sports (Part Two)

A 69-year-old woman will crank out 4.75 miles in next week’s Thanksgiving-day race in Manchester, Conn. Big deal, right? Well, actually, it is.

That’s because Dr. Julia Chase-Brand returns to the race 50 years after the first time she ran it, when she and two sisters-in-arms (-legs?) took on the course as serious competitors. In 1962, women runners weren’t allowed to participate in road races, and this was a big one, second only to the Boston Marathon in terms of public attention. When the future doc crossed the finish line, her determination and athleticism helped to change the rules.

Nowadays, of course, women runners are all over the sport, including the middle and long distances, and the ultras. You don’t have to be a pioneer; you just have to pay the fee and show up. Last year, the number of gals who finished road races surpassed the number of guys for the first time ever in the United States: the field was 53% female in 2010.

True, women runners have yet to catch men in speed, at least when we’re pitting the best against the best in marathons and shorter races. The fastest marathon time was clocked this year at 2:03:38 by Patrick Mackau, nearly 12 minutes quicker than Paula Radcliffe’s long-standing women’s record of 2:15:25. (Note that I agree with her that the IAAF’s decision to disqualify her time was “unfair“; it was total bullshit, and I’m heartened to hear that they reversed the decision. She had a male pacer? Whatever. Look at whose legs did the work in this video of Paula Radcliffe’s finish:)

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United Kingdom’s Paula Radcliffe sets a world record at the 2003 London Marathon.

It’s unlikely that things will reverse in the marathon itself, however, that women will narrow the gap and eventually overtake men at this distance. Is it possible that one stellar woman could charge ahead and break through? Never say never, especially when it comes to what women can do. But is it likely? Not really, because of gender differences in musculature and fat stores.

So what. That’s only one measure of excellence in running, and I’m interested in something else: endurance. At distances greater than the marathon, the women go toe to toe with the men. In the early years of the Badwater Ultramarathon, I was regularly on the phone trying to recruit even one woman to come out and give the 146-mile course a go, but now we’ve got quite a few to give the men a run for their money. Plenty of women kick serious butt. Some compete against the best men and win outright: titans of the sport like Sandy Kiddy, Ann Trason and, more recently, Lizzy Hawker.

These famous women runners are role models, for sure. You can also find lots to admire in women who are achieving less newsworthy goals, though. Right now, I’m thinking about my friend, Sister Mary Beth, a nun who runs ultra distances in her habit, mainly as a conversation starter so she can engage people in talking about the charity for which she raises money and awareness, the Religious Teachers Filippini. Lots of women whose names will never be known far and wide set an example in their own families and communities, showing their kids and friends what it means to be a person who takes care of herself, to lace up for reasons other than records, to get out there and go any distance because it’s a challenge and because it keeps her grounded, strong, disciplined.

My mother has taught me core lessons in life by her example, not least of which was and still is her demonstration of what commitment and hard work can do. She was focused on fitness long before exercise was fashionable, and she has never been distracted by the latest fads. In all of her 87 years, she has never looked for the silver bullet to make strength and endurance “easier.” She knows the truth: there’s no shortcut. You just have to do the work.

So right now, I’m publicly giving thanks for the women who’ve schooled me in endurance. Who’ve shown me the value of competition complemented by compassion, who’ve supported and challenged me, who’ve inspired me in moments of aspiration and desperation, who’ve kicked my ass and kissed my forehead and made it all more fun, more meaningful, and more interesting.

My hat’s off to you, and you have my utmost respect. Not that you need me to tell you, ladies, but you rock.

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