Friday, February 24, 2012

Marathon Women

If it isn’t obvious from my blog posts, as well as from my facebook updates and tweets, running has kind of taken over my life (or, at least my social media life, because I can’t/won’t talk about work in these fora). Turns out running sometimes takes over my entertainment choices, too, and in between listening to podcasts about running, watching movies and documentaries about running, stalking running blogs, and planning to watch races on tv, I also read about running.

My latest running book was Kathrine Switzer’s Marathon Woman. Switzer was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as a numbered entry (and the second woman ever), after she registered with her initials, in 1967. Switzer was attacked by one of the race directors when they figured out she was a woman, while she was running the marathon. Although I find that it can be very difficult for the authors of autobiographies to strike the right tone in recounting their own lives, but Switzer’s book definitely left me thinking a lot about women and running.


Over the years, I’m sure I’ve heard many of the arguments that were used to oppose women’s running, particularly distance running. Women are too weak to run. Running will make a woman’s uterus fall out. It will cause miscarriage. They’re laughable now, but what Switzer’s book made me realize is that they weren’t myths, but accepted as fact in this country, less than 35 years ago (and probably more recently than that, actually). That’s…recent history.

I suppose its somewhat of a coincidence that I was reading Marathon Woman in the middle of the latest “conversation” about the role of government, birth control, religion, and women’s health. (Then again, when are we NOT having this particular conversation?) As a woman whose law school health insurance did not cover birth control for the purposes of birth control for religious reasons (although I suspect it’s mostly not offered as a cost-saving measure, frankly, but I’m just cynical like that), I support the new regulations. But, the real point is that a lot of the rhetoric about women’s health feels like an attack. I feel like no one ever asks me or other women about our priorities or our opinions on the policies that affect our bodies. It makes me angry.

But running makes me feel defiant. It makes me feel like we have made progress, even in my lifetime (which I realize is increasingly not as short a measure of time as I like to think). Women have only been allowed to run the Boston Marathon since 1972. I’m a year older than the women’s Olympic marathon. But, my generation of women has never been told that we can’t participate in sports – we are the women of Title IX. If we weren’t active, it’s because we didn’t want to be or because we weren’t encouraged to be (which is a whole separate, ongoing, and important problem). It isn’t because someone told us that there was something defective about our physical and physiological make-up that prevented us from being athletes. When I go for a run, I feel like I’m flipping a finger at all the men, and they’re mostly men, who want to tell me what I can and can’t do with my body and imply that I’m not responsible or mature enough to make those decisions for myself.

Switzer’s book made me think about my mom. She was born in 1940 and was 26 when Switzer first ran Boston. She wasn’t physically active, but she wanted me to be and really encouraged my figure skating (which I did from 3rd-12th grade). I’m pretty sure that she would be amazed by and proud of my running, but I really wish I could sit down and talk to her about the changes that she saw in the lives of and opportunities available to women in her lifetime. At the age that I took up running, it wasn’t really even an option that was available to her, even though I think of her as a pioneer in so many ways. I think of her as part of the first major wave of professional women, a group which includes most of my friend’s mothers, as well, and her journey has definitely always inspired me. But, I also wonder what she would have done with the opportunities that are available to me, that were not options for her, including running. Would my mom have been a runner, if her childhood had taken place post-Title IX?

Please don’t think that in celebrating progress that I’m throwing in the towel on equality: I recognize that many of the strides (ha – running pun) made by white, middle/upper-class, professional women, like me and like Switzer, are not shared by millions of other women in this country or around the world. Compared to so many other women, I’m firmly in the 1%. And, I know having access to a gym, gear, money to pay for race entries, and (most importantly) safe places to run makes me extraordinarily privileged. But I will celebrate the fact that in 2011, 41% of marathon finishers were women (1980 – 10%) and 59% of the half-marathon finishers (up 10% over 2005)* and send a silent thank you to the women pioneers, like Switzer, who blazed that trail for us every time I go for a run.

*source: running usa’s 2011 Marathon, Half-Marathon, and State of the Sport Reports (