Inside The Women’s Running Explosion

More than ever, women are feeling the sense of empowerment and accomplishment that comes with crossing a finish line. Photo: Donn Jones Photography, Women's Running Half Marathon Series

“Anybody can do it.”

Jan Casciari, who also ran the Nike Women’s Half Marathon with her daughter, agrees. “Anybody can do it,” says the 55-year-old from San Diego. “Just put on a pair of shoes, walk out your door and run.”

Take a look at any race today and it is clear anyone can be a runner, but when Oprah ran the Marine Corps Marathon in 1994 she opened up the door for millions of women to call themselves runners.

“Prior to the second running boom runners were skinny ectomorphs,” Lamppa says. “That’s not the case any more. We are all runners. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow, or what body type you have. When someone like Oprah does a marathon you can’t say you don’t have the body type of a runner because neither does Oprah. She is a cultural icon and exposed our sport to millions and millions of people, mainly women. That was 18 years ago but it still resonates today.”

However, just 30 year ago, this was not the case. Prior to 1972, the year Title IX legislation passed, providing women the right to participate in school sports, athletic opportunities for women and girls were few and far between.

“I was in high school before Title IX legislation passed,” said Samuelson, the only woman to run a sub-3-hour marathon in five different decades. “So running [for the school team] wasn’t even an option for me. When I first started to run I was embarrassed to be seen. I would stop when cars passed and pretend I was picking flowers.”

When schools began implementing Title IX legislation and offering girls the opportunity to play on sports teams, including track and cross country, “it really transformed the landscape,” Switzer says.

Girls and young women were spreading their athletic wings and beginning to experience the sense of empowerment inherent in sports and running.

“Running builds confidence and self esteem that many women have never had,” according to Switzer, who introduced more than 1 million women to running through the Avon Global Women’s Running Circuit with more than 200 events in 21 countries between 1978 and 1986. “It gives women the sense of feeling that ‘I can do anything.’ And there are more women running than men now because of that.”

Running has always been a way to ward off stress, lose weight and get fit, but now more than ever Americans, and women in particular, are hitting the roads for their health.

“There are more resources than ever promoting health and fitness,” says Juli Benson, the Air Force Academy men’s and women’s cross country head coach. “Even if you just watch the nightly news, more often than not, there is a segment on health care. With all the available research and resources, I think [the importance of living and healthy life] is a little more in your face now.”

But good health isn’t enough to be driving running’s second coming. People run and do races because it’s fun and social. In a time when most Americans live in overdrive, running provides women a respite to their day, a time when it’s OK to relax and have fun with their girlfriends.

“It’s a social thing,” says Nike Women’s Marathon participant Mona Matheus, 51, of San Diego. “In our community we run early, early in the morning before work, and it’s mostly women running out there because that’s the only way you can do it all. If you want to exercise, be a mom and have a career, you’ve got to be done running in time to make lunches and get to work.”

Crossing the finish line, I smile and throw my hands up for the cameras, happy to add another notch to my half-marathon belt. I wait for my best friend to cross the finish line, and when she does, firefighters give us our Tiffany necklaces and we pause for a picture. Our smiles of joy, accomplishment and camaraderie are bigger than when we began, and I remember all over again why I and so many other women love this sport.

This piece first appeared in the January 2013 issue of Competitor magazine.

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