On I went, out of the wood, passing the man leading without knowing I was going to do so. Flip-flap, flip-flap, jog-trot, jog-trot, curnchslap-crunchslap, across the middle of a broad field again, rhythmically running in my greyhound effortless fashion, knowing I had won the race though it wasn't half over, won it if I wanted it, could go on for ten or fifteen or twenty miles if I had to and drop dead at the finish of it, which would be the same, in the end, as living an honest life like the governor wanted me to. -Alan Sillitoe, "Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner"

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Runs like a girl

Women only marathons: good or bad?

The only women's-only race I've done is the NYRR Mini-10k. It was... aight. Didn't do much for me. I don't really have an opinion on women's only races - too many of them have girly gimmicks (Disney princesses!) that detract for me. (Although I will do the Nike Women's Marathon someday for the Tiffany necklace.)

But this today isn't about me - it's about the IAAF. Specifically, the rule they passed at their last meeting that women's marathon world records can only be achieved in women's only races. If it's applied retroactively, then Joan Benoit Samuelson currently holds the women's world record for the marathon at 2:24, set in 1984. (As the article says, there are "women's world bests," too.)

The reason for this, as you probably know, is the male pacers. Women racing with/behind faster men might be pushed harder than women who are running against other women. It's the same reason why Nike stood behind their decision that Arien O'Connell was not the winner in the 2008 marathon even though she ran the fastest time. They ran different races, Nike said; by not starting with the elites, the elites didn't have her as competition to push them harder. As a letsrun commenter said, the equivalent to women having male pacers is men having pacers on motorcycles.

I'm going to say something here - and I very well might be wrong and you should completely disagree with me if you want in the comments even though I'll just think to myself "whatever, it's MY blog" - but I have to wonder what the demographic composition of the IAAF Congress is. Mainstream running has a history of being not all that eager to embrace women's running - who amongst us who has seen the photos can forget Kathrine Switzer being pulled off the Boston course?

Not just sexist, but also elitist: we all remember the near-controversy when Meb won the NYCM but was not considered American enough for the naysayers, who saw him only as one of those genetically gifted Africans. Distance running recently has become the sport of affluent white men.

Is it possible that members of the Congress felt threatened by the narrowing gap between men's and women's world records? In 1992, an article in Nature predicted that, given the rate at which women's records were progressing against men's, women would surpass men. Soon. Their work has since been refuted, mostly, but the legacy is there.


  1. WHAT A DUMB ASS RULE. I have NO words.

    I do agree with the 2008 Nike ruling though -- not because of the pacers, but in terms of winners, the winner is ALWAYS the person to break the tape, the first one to cross the finish line. Race winners are never based on "net" time, but in gross time. Age group winners is different, but race winners? Who finished first. (Not to argue about something that's 3 years old, but come on...)

  2. Carla, don't forget that with the Nike race, she started 20 minutes behind the "elite" women. So it wasn't just a gun/chip time issue - if I remember right, Nike said, "didn't seed yourself properly; should have called yourself elite," and she said, "I'm NOT in NYC where I live."

  3. And seriously, how many women's only marathon are there? And how many male only? (Unless they're olympic or some similar sort of event, there are not many at all.) How unfair that men will have 100's of races to pick from and set their records but women will not?

    Ok, apparently I have *some* words. I'm just pissed off. And this comes from someone who will NEVER win a race, much less a marathon. (And for the male perspective, Karl rolled his eyes when I told him the reason and said "this is the stupidest thing I've ever heard")

  4. Tracy, I get the point that she didn't start in the right place, but again, first person to cross the finish line -- it's her mistake not to seed herself properly, I have to agree with Nike. (If I remember it correctly from then, she didn't even know she could run that fast and her time surprised her as well.) Winners are always based on gross time, and if she started 20 minutes later, well, her gross time is 20 min later...

  5. (And as for the pacers, there's something to be said about that -- if you know you're #1, you won't push it, but when you're trying to beat someone in front of you, you might just have a little bit left. Heck, that even happens to us when we're targeting people near the finish line that we want to pass!)

    Sorry to overload your comments!

  6. No worries about the overload. I *completely* disagree about the Nike race, but you're not the only one to make that point, obviously. And re: the pacers... that's kind of exactly what the IAAF is saying. Specifically, think of Paula Radcliffe in 2003 at the London Marathon where she was given male pacers basically to chase the world record. Personally, I'm of the "if you can physically do it, it should count" school - bring on motorcycle pacers for men! Let's do this!

  7. Dude, that would be awesome! Motorcycle pacers for the win! Heck, screw the motorcycles, bring on the jets!

  8. Seriously...I have no words for this (I already tweeted you about that a couple of days ago, but still feel the same). Well...I have some nasty words for this... Does Male Chauvinist Pigs count? ;)

    It actually makes me feel sad. After all these years of fighting for something that shouldn't even be something that should need a fight(that is - women competing in races), they now pull this nasty trick. Truly sad.

    Plus...I think they're effing a-holes for doing this. Sorry... ;)

  9. I get the whole idea that the WR has to be "unaided." But it just still reeks of sexism - like, "Waaah, no one can run faster than a man can, so a woman shouldn't get that help!" Thing is, pacers are allowed at so many races and further have been encouraged at so many, and pacers don't run the full distance usually - explicitly so they can run faster. So what's the difference there between a male pacer only running 10m of a marathon to pace the men and then switching off with another male pacer, or a male pacer pacing a woman?

  10. May I suggest that the proponents of this new rule are not some overweight cigar smoking male pigs in a back room somewhere, but a segment of the elite female running population who feel like their records are more meaningful when set in women only races?

    That said, I do think that in order to be completely consistent, they should also ban rabbits from both men's and women's races. I don't think this has been done.

  11. No, you may not, Mike. Okay, fine, yes, you have a good point. Still, to those women I say: run faster. (But I see your point and I'm only saying that because I'm feeling snippy this morning.)

    That said, I *absolutely agree* about banning rabbits.

    I never saw them as overweight and cigar smoking - I was picturing more bitter former subelites/age groupers trying to quash other's successes. But again: I'm really not feeling very generous this morning!

    So help me, if this means more princesses! and sparkles! and pink! races... I was annoyed enough after running the NYRR mini when they gave us a baby doll tee with flowers on it and some perfumey crap as our schwag.

  12. This makes me so angry! So men's records have to be in men-only races, right? Because they have to run faster so they don't get "chicked." This is BS. Are they going to ban cheering crowds because they "push" runners to run faster???

    Where can we file our complaints?

  13. Beth, I *love* your point about crowds. Maybe all marathons should basically be a steeplechase, so that no one can build up too much momentum? :)

  14. This topic blew up on my facebook wall... To give credit, I've been given some excellent arguments against pacers, but I still am not convinced that there is a legitimate gender difference. If a man can use a faster pacer for X miles of a race, why is this an issue for women??? In the end, it's the individual runner's legs (and lungs) that carried him/her/it across the finish line.

  15. What the hell are people thinking making this dumb ass rule. I have so many issues with this that I don't even know where to start. Many has been stated in the comments already. The biggest one that chaps my ass is that they KNOW there are VERY few all women's races. These women should be able to have the freedom to chose THIER race and not be limited! Any runner at that level will go for the course they believe is going to give them the best performance and men have a huge bounty to chose from, but for women? Nope. Chose either 1, 2 or 3 and all three courses SUCK, but that is all the choices you get. Totally unfair. Unless the playing field is EVEN for race opportunites for both men and women this rule is bullshit.

    As for the rabbits. Regardless of having a pacer or a freaking angry monkey chasing your ass you obviously have the chops to break a WR. Beth made an excellent point in her comment. It is the person physical ability that got them there.

    This rule is a great big middle finger to women runners and shame on the women who came up with it (per Mike's comment) . WR are meant to be broken. There is plenty of room in the sandbox, ladies.

    Sorry for the rant, but damn this is so stupid!

  16. I think that is complete BULL. I mean, I understand their point of using someone else as a pacer, but if a woman can't run a 6:00 minute mile, it doesn't matter who's in front of her "pacing" her, she wont be able to run a 6:00 minute mile. Also, don't all of the women have the opportunity to pace off that same fast man then?

  17. I can see their point, especially since most elite women do run with male pacers (for part of the race) and men don't have anything like that. However, I think the execution is off. Why not just mandate that women cannot run with male pacers to set the record, and that marathons must have the elite women start x minutes (20-30 should be enough, I'd think) ahead of the elite men? That would be easy enough for most major marathons to implement, and the honor of having the record set on their course would certainly be enough motivation.

  18. Ugh. It shouldn't matter what gender you are. Just run the hell out of it and see what happens on the clock.

    Question though... I seem to be reading a lot about "vacation runs" and "running camps" lately. Any thoughts on these kinds of things (two examples below)?