Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Fri, 17 Jan 2003 09:31:30 -0500

Feminizing of Running


(rerun from January 1998 RW)

Looking out on the Second Running Boom, I see the face of my daughter shining back at me. Sarah runs, and so do thousands like her.

Sarah is typical of her generation. She didn't run much as a kid, once trying a mile and announcing, "It's too far to run." When asked if she competed in high school, she replied, "No, I don't like to sweat."

In college she saw other young women running and got the idea that sweat has its advantages. Her own running started then, and now she's part of the largest new growth area in the sport: the young women.

They're a welcome addition to a sport that had long been largely male, and was increasingly middle-aged and older. Where would the replacements come from, I wondered, when the oldest of us starting hitting the ultimate finish line?

Now I know. I see the new recruiting class in all my travels.

One recent Sunday I counted the runners whose courses crossed mine in run-crazed Eugene. Exactly half were women, and most were young.

By itself this count proves nothing. But together with other evidence it shows that a longtime imbalance in the sport is correcting itself. Women are taking an equal place alongside men, and the young beside the old.

This is as it should be. The sex with half the population should supply half the runners.

But women have never before known numerical equality in running because they started so far behind. Men have run long-distance races for more than a century.

Only in 1967 did Kathrine Switzer finagle the first women's number from the Boston Marathon, and not until 1972 did officials first bless women's road racing. Which means the women had a lot of catching up to do, and their numbers have grown faster than men's.

Women didn't play a big role in the first boom of the 1970s; there were too few of them then. But they have much to do with the encore.

They now make up nearly half the Road Runners Club of America membership. They supply half the field -- or more -- at some races, and fill a growing number of women-only events.

These women contribute heavily to organized running programs, where they're more likely than men to team up for training. I've seen female majorities in the marathon groups of Jeff Galloway and Team in Training, as well as those of the Portland Marathon Clinic, L.A. Leggers and the Chicago Area Runners Association (CARA).

David Patt, who directs CARA, quoted figures for his groups. "Our marathon training program is close to 60 percent female," said Patt. "Our beginning running program is about 80 percent female."

He also commented on a sub-trend in women's running: "We find that in many races the women outnumber the men in the younger age groups."

Patt's theory on why this is true, at least in his area: "In many instances these are young women taking their first jobs in the city. They're committed to fitness, looking for a social connection and looking for protection in numbers."

So they join training groups and enter races together. The young men still haven't joined these women in great numbers. But where the fit, active women go, the same type of men are likely to follow. Together they insure the future health of the sport.

UPDATE. In the five years since this column first ran in Runner's World, the "feminizing" has continued. I see the most dramatic evidence in one of my university running classes.

The count in the new-runners' group this term is 19 young women. But only one young man has followed them here.

In fairness to the guys, they do show running interest but more on the competitive side. They make up about half of my 5K/10K racing class.

My daughter Sarah continues to run at age 29. Better yet, she also works as a journalist. She'll be married in March -- to an athlete.


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