Inside The Women’s Running Explosion

Women outnumber men at half marathons across the country. Photo: Donn Jones Photography, Women's Running Half Marathon Series

An all-male sport at the inception of the first running boom, recreational running is now dominated by women. 

While we know it looms large, only the tower tips of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge are visible through the thick fog as we run up through the Marina to the hills of the Presidio. When we hit the first big hill we all slow our pace, but the energy and determination of the 25,000 women surrounding me never waivers. I run next to two women running to celebrate the life of a friend who recently died of cancer at the age of 25. Three girls wearing matching, bright pink tutus stop together to chat and wait for the port-a-potty. And both sides of the hill are filled with friends, husbands, parents and other supporters there to cheer all of us up and over San Francisco’s infamously hilly terrain.

It’s when I hit the bra exchange just after mile six, where runners can exchange their bra for a new Nike sports bra, that I realize what I am doing—I’m not just running another half- marathon. I’m in the middle of the second running boom; and this time women are leading the charge.

The original running boom sprouted in the U.S. in the early 1970s after Frank Shorter ran to Olympic marathon victory, inspiring more than 25 million dads, brothers, men and boys to lace up their Nikes and pull up their tube socks. Steve Prefontaine and Bill Rodgers became household names, running shoe and apparel manufacturers grew exponentially and road races began popping up all over the U.S. The marathon, and other road running distances, were becoming an attainable feat for nearly everyone. That is, as long as you were a man.

Women weren’t just outnumbered at races back then, they simply weren’t allowed.

“Women of that era were raised believing that if you were going to do anything arduous or athletic, you would lose your femininity, never have kids and your uterus would fall out,” explains Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon wearing an official bib. “There was this myth that a female athlete was going to turn into a guy, that we were fragile and needed to be looked after and it was somehow inappropriate [to run].”

Switzer had no idea what kind of race she was in for when she toed the line at Boston in the spring of 1967. As she headed into the fourth mile of the race, race director Jock Semple jumped off the press truck and tried to grab Switzer after hearing a woman had “infiltrated” his race.

“He jumped off the bus and came after me from behind,” Switzer recalls. “He screamed at me ‘get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers.’ The guys were yelling, the people on the press truck were screaming and Semple grabbed the bib on my back. As my boyfriend hit him hard with a cross body block, I heard my coach yell, ‘run like hell,’ so I did.”

Looking at the runners all around me, it’s clear the tables have turned. Out of the nearly 25,000 runners at the ninth annual San Francisco Nike Women’s Marathon and Half- Marathon on Oct. 14, fewer than 700 of them are men. This race is for the girls. As I walked through the “expotique” (a refreshing blend of race expo and high-end fashion boutique) to pick up my race bib, I noticed the tent wasn’t filled with the typical road race vendors and testosterone. To my right women were sitting in salon chairs getting their hair styled, and, in the center of the gigantic tent covering San Francisco’s Union Square, there were several changing rooms with fashion styl- ists outfitting runners for both on and off the course.

But how did this happen? How did road racing in the U.S. transition from a male-dominated sport to one where nearly just as many women are winning Olympic medals than men? Why are more than half the runners toeing the line at 5Ks and half-marathons across the country women?

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