Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Thu, 22 Mar 2012 05:46:16 -0400

Feminizing of Running

RUNNING COMMENTARY 929

(I’m marking this newsletter’s 30th anniversary by revisiting one piece weekly from each year of the publication. This week’s is from September 1997. It also appears on Facebook on the “Joe Henderson’s Writings” page.)

Looking out on the Second Running Boom, I see the face of my daughter shining back at me. Sarah runs, and so do thousands like her.

Sarah is typical of her generation. She didn’t run much as a kid, once trying a mile and announcing, “It’s too far to run.” When asked if she competed in high school, she replied, “No, I don’t like to sweat.”

In college she saw other young women running and got the idea that sweat has its advantages. Her own running started then, and now she’s part of the largest new growth area in the sport: the young women.

They’re a welcome addition to a sport that had long been largely male, and was increasingly middle-aged and older. Where would the replacements come from, I wondered, when the oldest of us started hitting the ultimate finish line?

Now I know. I see the new recruiting class in all my travels.

One recent Sunday I counted the runners whose courses crossed mine in run-crazed Eugene. Exactly half were women, and most of them were young.

By itself this count proves nothing. But together with other evidence it shows that a longtime imbalance in the sport is correcting itself. Women are taking an equal place alongside men.

This is as it should be. The sex with half the population should supply half the runners.

Women have never before known numerical equality in running because they started so far behind. Men have run long-distance races for more than a century.

Only in 1967 did Kathrine Switzer nab the first women’s number from the Boston Marathon, and not until 1972 did officials first bless women’s road racing. Which means the women had a lot of catching up to do, and their numbers have grown faster than men’s.

Women didn’t play a big role in the first boom of the 1970s; there were too few of them then. But they have much to do with the encore boom of the 1990s.

They now make up nearly half the Road Runners Club of America membership. They supply half the field – or more – at some races, and fill a growing number of women-only events.

These women contribute heavily to organized running programs, where they’re more likely than men to team up for training. I’ve seen female majorities in the marathon groups of Jeff Galloway and Team in Training, as well as those of the Portland Marathon Clinic, L.A. Leggers and the Chicago Area Runners Association (CARA).

David Patt, who directs CARA, quoted figures for his groups. “Our marathon training program is close to 60 percent female,” said Patt. “Our beginning running program is about 80 percent female.”

He also commented on a sub-trend in women’s running: “We find that in many races the women outnumber the men in the younger age groups.”

Patt’s theory on why this is true, at least in his area: “In many instances these are young women taking their first jobs in the city. They’re committed to fitness, looking for a social connection and looking for protection in numbers.”

So they join training groups and enter races together. The young men still haven’t joined these women in great numbers. But where the fit, active women go, the same type of men are likely to follow. Together they insure the future health of the sport.


UPDATE: Since this column first ran, I’ve seen the most dramatic evidence of this continuing trend my university running classes. Females always outnumber males there.

One new-runners’ class drew 19 young women and one man. Lucky him.

In fairness to the guys, they do show running interest but more on the competitive side. They make up about half of my 5K/10K racing class.


[I’ve published nine books on Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com for reading on e-reader devices, smart phones, tablets and personal computers. All are minimally priced at $2.99 each. Those same books are available, with added illustrations, as printable and shareable PDFs from Lulu.com – also for $2.99 apiece. The titles: Long Slow Distance, Long Run Solution, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Starting Lines, Going Far, Home Runs and Joe’s Journal, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe. The Run Right Now Training Log is PDF only, from Lulu.com.]

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