(This is 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)
MARCH 1996 (retitled without the question mark in the magazine). Women once protested, picketed and petitioned their way into “men’s” road races. They found widespread support for their cause, with much of it coming from the male runners who welcomed these women.
Twenty-five years later, women have events all their own. A few men now want to enter these races, and they charge “sex discrimination” when they’re turned away as unwelcome party-crashers. These men draw little sympathy for their cause, either from women or men.
So why are women-only races okay if men-only events aren’t? A tough question.
This issue reared up most prominently in Minneapolis last fall, where a male runner’s lawsuit led to cancellation of a women’s 10K race with an 18-year history. Similar incidents with less serious consequences have occurred recently in other U.S. cities.
These crusades for equality are misplaced. They fail to recognize that road running is at once a traditionally democratic sport and inherently unequal.
Running opened to women before Title IX forced other sports to do so. When the first pioneers arrived in our sport in the 1960s, they had nowhere else to run but with the men. There were too few women then to support races of their own.
Women-only racing began with the New York Mini-Marathon, Bonne Bell and Avon series of the early 1970s. No one complained then about “special rights.” Men applauded the women’s sport for growing up enough to stand alone sometimes.
The growth led eventually to separate Women’s Olympic Trials, Races for the Cure and RRCA Women’s Distance Festivals. But the women still haven’t caught up completely with men. In numbers and speed, maybe they never will.
Women are still outnumbered in any open road races, typically accounting for one-quarter to one-third of the total field. And given the inequities of gender genetics, a woman almost never finishes first overall.
These two factors can make the women’s division of a mixed race seem less important than the men’s. In theory, the sexes don’t compete directly with each other, but the competition remains unequal. Top men race only against each other, while the best women see mostly men around them. More glory typically goes to the man out front than to the lead woman lost in the crowd.
Women can’t always run apart, and probably wouldn’t want to if they could. But they deserve some of what men have always had: chances to run among themselves, to race only with equals and to cross the finish line first.
Road racing has a proud history of openness. Our sport doesn’t discriminate by age, race, class, creed, speed, size or sex. Everyone has the opportunity to race somewhere – but no one gets to race everywhere.
Sometimes the vast melting pot of running becomes overwhelming in its size and diversity. We occasionally need to split off from the mass, into smaller and more specialized groupings.
This subdividing is also in the best tradition of the sport. We’ve created many new options for selected runners while leaving most opportunities available to all. We have races like Boston and the Olympic Trials that are limited to the fast, we have races limited to kids and to masters, we have races limited to corporate and relay teams.
Women-only races serve the same purpose by making up for the sport’s inherent inequities – past, present and perhaps future. Races of their own give the women something extra while depriving the men of nothing they couldn’t find somewhere else that same weekend. This is affirmative action at its best.
2018 Update. Last week I talked on stage with one of the first women of distance running, Joan Benoit Samuelson. One of her post-Olympics promises was to bring more people into running, regardless of gender. This has happened, especially with women.
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]