By Heather Johnson
A little more than 40 years ago, the prestigious Boston Marathon barred women from running. A little more than 30 years ago, women couldn’t compete in the Olympics in any distance longer than 1500 meters.
To paraphrase those women’s lib–oriented Virginia Slims ads, “We’ve come a long way, baby.”
For the past two years, women comprised 57% of running event finishers. The margin hasn’t been this wide since 2000, when men eclipsed women at 58%.1
“In a way, we may have won the battle,” says University of South Carolina exercise science professor Dr. Russ Pate, who also chairs the U.S. National Physical Activity Plan Alliance. “[The] sport clearly set off to make itself more attractive to women, and we succeeded.”
To be fair, men still have a large presence. With the exception of 2014, when numbers dipped slightly, the number of male participants has increased each year. But women participate more.
With nearly 20 million Americans showing up for road races, our sport is thriving. The not-for-profit organization Outdoor Foundation reported running as the most popular activity for outdoor recreation in 2012.2
However, if participation trends continue to rise disproportionately, we’ll face an ironic turn of the table. It’s time to refocus, as a robust running community depends on equal participation. And at a time when nearly 70% of adult Americans are either overweight or obese,3 it’s critical that more people, regardless of gender, participate in physical activity.
Title IX: The Game-Changer
To consider how to balance the ratio (keep in mind that according to the U.S. Census Bureau, women comprise about 51% of the population4), we must look at the first and second running booms.
Ryan Lamppa, researcher, media consultant, and Bring Back the Mile founder, cites Title IX, the legislation passed in 1972 that prohibited sex discrimination in any federally funded education program or activity, as the linchpin for women’s running.
“Title IX allowed women and girls to participate in sports at the high school and collegiate level,” says Lamppa. “It made it okay for women to sweat. Without Title IX we would not have these record participation numbers for women nor the number of running events in this country.”
Title IX made it okay for women to sweat, but not many of them did. During the 1970s running boom, women comprised less than 20% of finishers. In 1990, that figure had only climbed to 25%. 1 But Title IX did create a ripple effect that continued into the second running boom, which exploded in the mid-1990s.
Move Over Bill Rodgers, Here Comes Oprah Large training programs such as Team in Training (founded in 1988), national events such as Race for the Cure (1983) and the Rock ’n’ Roll Series (1998), and the Internet, which made training plans more accessible, have ushered in a wave of new runners, both male and female. But it was media superstar Oprah Winfrey’s 1994 Marine Corps Marathon that really inspired women to head out the door. In early 1995, Runner’s World put her on the cover with the headline, “Oprah Did It, So Can You.” Many women took that to heart.
“Oprah helped break down the stereotype that running isn’t for big-boned people,” says Lamppa. “Oprah will never have an ectomorphic body, but she’s a runner, too. So she debunked that excuse, and thank you, Oprah, because that mindset change was very important, as it showed and inspired millions of people, men and women, that we all are runners regardless of body type.”
This new crop of “I can do it too” runners tended to focus on participation, camaraderie, and completion rather than fierce competition. Events catered to women’s needs with fun, family-friendly environments, music, and a festive finish line atmosphere. Women, generally social crea- tures who want to round up friends or family for a lively weekend outing, took to these events like bees to honey.
“Events [that] centered more on health and fitness, community, and fundraising got more women involved,” says Lamppa. “They told their friends, and participation truly snowballed. Later, sharing on social media got even more women into sports.”
To further encourage women’s participation, companies and organizations launched women’s-only events, leading to skyrocketing numbers. The Nike Women’s Half Marathon in San Francisco (to be in 20 cities worldwide in 2015) attracted more than 25,000 runners last year. Disney’s Princess and Tinker Bell Half Marathons welcomed about 24,000 and 16,000 runners, respectively.
Gary Westlund, a fitness instructor, coach, and race director for the Charities Challenge Series in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, sees women’s races as a positive force in that area. “These events have helped women recognize that they have an equal place on the starting line, on the podium, and in recognition. If it took women’s-only races, running clubs, and programs to get to that point, it’s working.”
Shifting the Balance
Large-scale women’s events have done wonders for participation numbers, but they only cater to one gender. Directors of coed events must remember that men, despite that cool exterior, need encouragement, acknowledgment, and peer support too.
“The most important thing that we can provide at our events is hospitality,” says Westlund. “Men and women both want to be recognized. If we bring that Cheers TV show atmosphere to our running events, we’ll see