Women-Only Races: Brilliant or Holding Women Back?

3 years ago

The Nike Women’s Half Marathon took place in DC. When I was considering racing halves this spring, this race made my list of “maybes” due to the timing, the location being not too far from NYC, and rumors about the course being flat and fast. Music to my ears. When I mentioned to some people that I was thinking about the race, I got mixed reactions – anything from, “Do it! So fun and a great race!” to “Wait… really? I can’t imagine you would even consider that race!”

I will say I was a bit thrown when the inaugural race website for NWM didn’t even include a course map until after registration had closed. The course map and elevation definitely weigh into which races I’m trying to PR at, and I was less than impressed with the lack of course information. After the race, I heard about the “Expotique”… where not only can you pick up your bib, but you can get your hair and makeup done.

I have no words.

Image: William Murphy via Flickr

Now, my knowledge of women’s races is limited to the two that I’ve completed myself, while the rest of my thoughts are due to the marketing of various races. My first women’s race was the SheRox Triathlon in Philadelphia – a well put on race that I have no problems with outside of (orange) flowers on the shirt. The other women’s race I ran was the Mini 10K. As the first women’s only race, it serves to celebrate women in running and remind us of a time when women were thought incapable of running. Of course, it is also called the “Mini” as a salute to the miniskirt, but that’s another story.

Either way, the Mini 10K reminds us that not too long ago, women weren’t thought capable of running. That our uteruses (is that the plural? Uteri?) would fall out of our bodies. When my mom was growing up, girls were cheerleaders or majorettes and went on to become nurses or teachers. How quickly one generation can changes things, as I grew up playing every sport under the sun. I may have ended up a nurse, but not for lack of options.

Which is why I suppose it surprises me when I see women’s races that seem to be taking a step back from all the growth we’ve made over the years. Granted, that fact that it’s accepted that women actually can run/swim/bike/etc without people questioning our fragility is a step in the right direction. However, many of these races geared toward women have a few things that irk me.

And so we begin:

Female stereotypes. The Nike Women’s Marathon is known for having firemen in tuxedos handing out the Tiffany’s finisher necklace. The Run Like a Diva Series features roses, champagne, feather boas, and tiaras, not to mention a pink explosion with an emphasis on the bling you receive. The Disney Princess is all about every little girl’s dream of being a princess. All women like flowers, right? And pink? Did I mention pink? Grabbing a boa in the middle of a race sounds like a sweaty mess, and for the record, I was GI Joe for Halloween in kindergarten. Cinderella can keep her tiara.

Doing it for the looks. There’s actually a race called the “Perfect 10 Miler.” The ad campaign on the opening page of the race website says things like, “My beauty is within and that is why I am a perfect ten.” The Run Like a Diva Series (same as above) once had each first place winner receiving Botox. (Third place got teeth whitening, which, with the amount of coffee I drink, didn’t sound terrible.) There’s a race series called, “She is Beautiful – The Pinkest.” Even women’s running articles are often about weight loss. If you’ve ever seen my race photos, you’ll know I don’t look like a Perfect 10… instead, I look like a hot mess when dropped sub-7’s or any pace at mile 22, and I do not apologize. Nor would I trade those times for some pretty race pictures.

Emphasis on just being out there and the lack of competition. At least the Nike Women’s race (SF version) had a sign giving women the option of going in the badass lane (vs. the sexy lane). Most of the time, signs simply say things like, “You’re great because you’re here!” A race series is called, “Women ROCK!” – we’re awesome for being born female. (And the website is pink on pink on pink with many mentions of “hot men” along the course.) Many races promote themselves as great times for a girls’ weekend, where you can be together and celebrate being women. Why shy away from the emphasis on training and pushing yourself? Can’t women train hard and be competitive, if only with other women? Where’s the line between being supportive and being competitive? Can we be both?

But on that note… of course, there’s the other side to the coin.

It gets women out there. I don’t understand the “I feel uncomfortable exercising around men” or however the mentality goes, but I suppose some people do. Or they like the pink and the skirts and the chocolate. The Disney Princess Half had over 19,000 finishers from all over the place. That’s 19,000 women training, running, and completing the half marathon. Living in an obese country and working in a job where I see the ramifications of chronic diseases, I have a hard time actually putting down something that gets women out there and being healthy. Does it really matter how you’re running if you’re actually running? It’s certainly not hurting anyone.

It puts the women up front. In most large races, I usually race/place in the top 5-6% of all finishers, and somewhere around the top 2-3% of women. This puts me in a pack of men and further buries those women ahead of me into denser packs of men. Even the fastest women I know almost always has men running in front of them, even if they are one of the first women to the line. It is nice to put the women up front for once (and only, without a male chase pack) to experience what it is like to truly run up front. Not that it will ever matter for me, but a woman can only set a world record if men are not on the starting line with them – one of the reasons why many major races send the elite women out before the men.

Now, let me repeat – I struggle with not liking something that gets people active, whether their motivation is chocolate at the finish line or chasing precious seconds on a PR (or both – one can certainly be a strong, confident women chasing her dreams and still like pink). But the seemingly over-the-top “this is what girls/women like” stereotype kind of drives me crazy. It’s not that I mind being surrounded only by women – the Mini 10K is an awesome race with runners of all speeds gutting it out. Being in that first corral and watching the speedsters of the city take off around me is awesome. It’s not pink, there’s not chocolate at the end, and the only men out are the men of the city’s running clubs out to cheer on their teammates.

But on that note – wouldn’t people lose their cool if a male-only race came out? With girls in bikinis handing out beer along the the course? Can you imagine? Are there men out there who would feel better running a race without women in it? I can only imagine what kind of backlash that would receive, even though as women we do it as a form of empowerment to set ourselves apart from the men.

As a woman, maybe I’m lucky that I feel confident in my running and welcome the men running around me. Maybe I take it too far when I say I like “chicking” a guy – being excited to pass someone simply because they’re male. Perhaps I should be grateful that my desire to race comes from inside with the motivation to run faster than I ever have.  I don’t need promises of swag to inspire me to run.

Don’t get me wrong – whatever the motivation is, that’s great as long as people are active – but why is the female race market so pigeonholed into the classic “girly” formula? Is it just the marketing scheme to draw women out of the coed races? A market for this type of race clearly exists, as the number of women’s races keeps growing. As someone who has never been described as girly, I shy away from these races because the perks of the race simply don’t appeal to me. With that in mind, it makes me wonder how to blur the lines between the pink ladies and those who just want to run – or if we even need to.

What are your thoughts on women-only races? Do we need them? Do we care? Would these races be as popular without the pink/flowers/chocolate? Have you run a women-only race? What was your experience?

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