Do Women Need Their Own Races?

Running media heavyweights debate the merits of all-women racing

The start line of the 2010 NYRR Mini 10K, which this year celebrates its 40th anniversary as the nation's first women-only race.

On June 3, 1972, New York Road Runners staged the world’s first all-women’s road race, the 6-mile Crazylegs Mini Marathon. The event was born into a different athletic world than the one in which women compete today. Title IX—the federal law that bars sexual discrimination from federally funded higher education programs, including athletics—was still three weeks away from being enacted, and it had been only six weeks since women had been allowed to officially compete in the historic Boston Marathon for the first time. It would be another 12 years before the women’s marathon was added to the Olympic Games, and 16 years—16 years!—until a women’s 10,000-meters race was added.

That first year of the Mini, 78 women signed up for the race, and it’s safe to say that all 78 were defying a lot of stereotypes at the time. In 2011, 4,766 women finished the event, down from a high of 6,582 in 1997. As crucial as all-women’s races were when they began, has their time passed? Are they still needed, or even desirable? Going head-to-head on the topic are Amby Burfoot, recently retired longtime executive editor at Runner’s World magazine, and Barbara Huebner, a former sportswriter for The Boston Globe

Amby Burfoot: I’m a strong believer in women-only road races. I feel they represent the best, most successful, least threatening way to continue introducing women to the sport. Here’s an example from my own family: My daughter, Laura, who’s a 31-year-old goddess in all imaginable ways, has never run a road race. She did tennis and swimming in high school, but not much since then. Now she's getting interested in joining her old man in a couple of races before he’s completely fossilized. I’m thrilled, but want her to begin very cautiously. My wife thought it might be fun if the two of them ran the Mini this year. Except for a date conflict, Laura would have agreed. I’m not sure she even knew about women-only races. But when the subject came up, she immediately said: “I LOVE the idea of a race just for women.”

Barbara Huebner: That’s a great story about your daughter. I guess I would ask her, why? In 1972, an all-women’s road race was the gateway to a new world at a time when more than a few people thought that if a woman ran more than 800 meters, her uterus would fall out. It was a brilliant idea, and I tip my cap to Kathrine Switzer and Nina Kuscsik and the other brave and persistent women of the ’70s who worked so hard to get us where we are today. But where we are today is this: According to statistics from Running USA, women now account for 53 percent of race finishers in the United States. Running is one of the few sports in which women receive equal prize money to men. It may be the most equal sport on earth. So why hasn’t the time passed for all-women’s races?

AB: “Why” is always a good question, but it also leads to academic discussion. As far as I can tell, running is very much an emotional outlet for many women. We constantly hear that it’s their personal time, their private time, or their social time if they choose to run with friends, as many do. I agree that road races are open, equal, and fair to women. But that doesn't mean the occasional women-only race can’t be a special celebration that’s even more accessible to women, especially first-timers who may have significant health problems (breast cancer, obesity) that make them shy away from other races. I recently learned that an occasional training partner is one of the country's leading experts in the health economics of obesity. His recent study found that obese women cost the U.S. public health system $3,613 per year vs. $1,152 for obese men. Let’s do everything we can to help these women get moving, even racing.

BH: I can’t help but feel a bit sad that in 2012 women still have to run out the door to find some “personal” time. Running may be a sport of equality, but apparently other aspects of life and society have not caught up. Be that as it may, that’s a fascinating statistic on the cost of obesity in women vs. men and it’s hard to argue against anything that motivates people to get moving and improve their health, or makes them feel supported in undertaking a new endeavor. For some women, merely finishing a 10K is a huge achievement. What gives me pause is that, for many, the bar never seems to get raised after that entry point. How often have I heard finish-line announcers at all-women’s races declaring “Congratulations ladies! If you can do this, you can do anything!”  How about, “Congratulations ladies! Great job! And next year, see if you can finish a minute faster!” Seriously, the joy of pushing yourself physically is one that a lot of women never experience simply because they’re never urged to do so.

AB: I’m all in for excellence in women’s running. Go Shalane! Go Kara! Go Desi! But I’m also more a 99-percenter than a 1-percenter. I’m willing to let the USOC and USATF develop our future Olympians; that’s what those organizations exist to do. Meanwhile, the rest of us should focus more on increasing participation across the board. And that's what women-only races do so well. I don't pretend to understand women—my chromosomes just don't line up the right way—but I’m envious of all the ways women connect with each other, and support each other. Training partners, training groups, and women-only races. You girls rock, and I hope you'll keep on rockin’.

BH: Amby, I don’t understand why it has to be either/or. Can’t we find ways to increase mass participation while also looking at ways to encourage the women who are participating to consider looking at running as something at which they might excel? You don’t have to have Olympic aspirations to appreciate the cleansing exhaustion of a hill workout or a few intervals. There are women who want their running to be a chance to connect with other women or even to relax, an oasis in their hectic day. I’m not against that, not at all. What I’d like to see, though, is for women to be made more aware of the satisfaction that comes with really pushing your physical limits.

AB: I think we’re coming together now. I certainly think it’s important to help women reach as high as they want in our sport, and I think we give them ample opportunities: high schools, colleges, running clubs, training groups, and so on. The women-only race serves best when it represents a big “welcome” mat into the sport—the first step. That’s why I still like and support women-only races. Of course, I also hope some women will enjoy the sport enough that they want to take many more strides forward.

BH: Amby, you started this off, so I get the last word. Runners, walkers and everyone in between: Enjoy the race on Saturday regardless of the reason you’re out there, because every reason is a good one. Then at some point after you cross the finish line and applaud the pioneers of women’s running when they are honored post-race, think about paying tribute to them by getting the most out of yourself as a runner. Many of you have worked together to get this far; now take the next step. What race should we aim for next? Can we go faster? Because, after all, life is all about moving forward, isn’t it? Good luck and have a great day.

The NYRR New York Mini 10K will celebrate its 40th anniversary on Saturday, June 9.