Inside The Women’s Running Explosion

"Everyone here inspires me," says 1984 Olympic Marathon gold medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson, shown here finishing with her daughter Abby. Photo: Nike, Susan Goldman Photography

“Everyone has their own story.”

In 2011 nearly 14 million people ran a road race in the U.S., and according to Ryan Lamppa, research statistician at Running USA, more than 7.6 million of those runners, or 54 percent, were women. That’s up from just 25 percent in 1990 and an essentially nonexistent women’s long distance running field 40 years ago.

“It’s quite possible that women could make up 60 percent of finishers in the future,” he predicts. “There is no doubt women will continue to drive the growth of the sport.”

Recognizing women as the driving force in running, The Nike Women’s Marathon and other women’s-specific races, such as the Disney Princess races, She Runs and the Women’s Running series are taking place in most major U.S. cities. The draw for most women? A non-intimidating and welcoming opportunity to run with their girlfriends and reach a goal—while having fun.

Not just creating an opportunity for women to run, these women-only races offer the ultimate girls’ weekend. From a Tiffany necklace handed out by firemen in tuxedos at the finish line of the Nike Women’s races to a single stem rose and a pink boa for all runners at the Diva Half-Marathon Series, these races provide a supportive atmosphere and enough glitter and gumption, pink and passion to encourage even the race averse to give it a try.

“We wanted to create a women’s race that would celebrate the power of women’s running,” says Jacie Prieto, Nike’s media representative. “We’re excited to see all these girls discovering their love and passion for running.”

Although Nike says even though everything about the race is for the girls, men are more than welcome to participate.

“We certainly don’t want to discourage any men from running the race because a lot of them do it in honor of their mother, sister or wife battling cancer,” Prieto says. “We welcome everyone who is looking to enjoy the race experience.” However, not every women’s race feels the same way. At the Disney World Princess Half-Marathon in 2011, officials politely shunned winner Ken Brooks around the finish line tape because the race series is all about encouraging the efforts and accomplishments of women. When he finished more than eight minutes ahead of the fastest woman, Brooks joked that spectators were so silent he could hear crickets. Much like the turnout at Nike Women’s races, only 683 of the 17,000 Disney Princess half-marathon finishers were men.

Every woman in the room is all smiles, picking up her bib and checking out the expotique. The energy of the thousands ready to line up the next day and put all of their training to the test is undeniable. But when four of the biggest names in women’s running—Allyson Felix, Kara Goucher, Shalane Flanagan and Joan Benoit Samuelson—come out on the stage the tent truly comes alive.

The gold medalist in the first women’s Olympic Marathon in 1984, Samuelson has been a tireless pioneer for women’s long distance running. The Nike Women’s Marathon credits her as the inspiration behind the race, though Samuelson, who continues to set national age-group records into her 50s, humbly shrugged off the compliment when we sat down together after the race.

“Everyone here inspires me,” says Samuelson, who ran the race alongside Goucher, Flanagan and her daughter, Abby. “The inspiration has come full circle. Everyone has their own story.”

Beginning as a man’s sport that sidelined women because of the “scientific” evidence that it was physically unhealthy for women to run, running as a sport today is dominated by women of all ages, races, body types and running abilities. The stigma that you have to be a man, young and have a runner’s body type is no longer an excuse not to run. Everyone can.

“And that’s what is really cool about our sport,” Samuelson gloats. “It welcomes everyone: Game on.”

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