Women-Only Races: Awesome or Awful?

Group shot of women runner legs Decades ago, women-only road races made sense. Societal notions on the athletic abilities of women left them banned from participating in most road races up until the 1960s and 1970s. Women-only races emerged as a beacon of the women’s running revolution: if we couldn’t participate in road races, then we would make our own.

That victory has long since been won. Women are no longer tackled when they run the Boston Marathon. Our gender comprises almost 50% of participants in road races, especially the half marathon.

So why do women-only road races, like last weekend’s Tufts 10k for Women, still exist? Are they a celebration of women’s running, an opportunity to introduce women to run, or a sexist remnant of an older era of road racing that promotes stereotypes about women in sports?

The Past

The 1928 Olympics was the first games to allow women to compete in running events. One woman briefly collapsed during the 800 meter race (as we all know, this is a risk you take when running at a gut-busting sprint). The International Olympic Committee (IOC) concluded that running posed too much of a strain on women’s bodies and banned distances of 800 meters and longer from the Olympics. Only in 1960 were women even allowed to run the 800 meter race again.

In 1961, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) banned women from competing in any road races in the United States. A 19-year-old woman, Julia Chase, ran a 6.5 mile race in Massachusetts to protest, but the media disregarded her performance.

It wasn’t until the moment in 1967 when Kathrine Switzer was tackled by the race director of the Boston Marathon that women in running races came under national attention. Switzer was not the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, Bobbi Gibb did so discreetly in the previous year, but Switzer was the first woman to be recognized as a woman while running a marathon road race. Switzer thus became a crusader for women’s road racing during the 1960s and 70s.

In 1972, the AAU permitted women to run road races including marathons, so long as they met any qualifying standards for men and started 10 minutes after the official start of the race. In this same year, the New York Road Runners Club launched the first women-only road race. The Crazylegs New York Mini Marathon covered six miles and featured Playboy Bunnies at the start of the race to attract attention.

The start of the first Crazylegs Mini Marathon
The inaugural Crazylegs Mini Marathon, the first women’s-only competitive road race.

Six years later, Switzer began the Avon International Running Circuit and hosted women’s races across 27 countries. Switzer sought to debunk myths about women and running (including the myth that running would lead to infertility) and create opportunities for women to run. Most of all, Switzer wanted to prove that women could run road races in order to convince the IOC to include a women’s marathon in the Olympics.

At the time of the Avon race series, women needed the opportunities to run, especially if they did not meet qualifying standards of other road races like the Boston Marathon.

The Present

Now in 2010s, women are welcome in every road race. Opportunities abound from the mile to the 100 miler where women and men can run side-by-side, with women competing for prizes and place among other women. Not a single road race in the United States is men-only. But numerous races across the United States do not permit men to run them. Despite the fact that we no longer need women-only races, they still exist and often come packaged with pink marketing gimmicks.

The original goal of women-only road races was to dissolve the stereotypes of women runners: that they were too frail for long distances and that their uteruses would probably fall out. Yet over the years, women-only races have lost sight of this original purpose and, even if unintentionally, began to foster the stereotype that women won’t run for the sake of running itself. Instead, they need the external motivators of bling, men in tuxedos waiting for them at the finish line, and champagne to compete in a running event.

And this, in my mind, is where women-only races have failed us as female runners.

The Trouble with Women-Only Races

This certainly isn’t personal. I am not condemning anyone for running women-only races. Nor am I even arguing that women-only races should not exist. I am merely inviting you to think with me about the way that women-only races are marketed and presented and to ponder what that means for our sport.

What troubles me the most about women-only races is the marketing. With a few exceptions, like the aforementioned Tufts 10k, the New York Mini (formerly the Crazylegs Mini Marathon), the Freihofer’s 5k, among others, most women-only races do not emphasize the sport-side of running, nor is athletic achievement the main motivation. Many women-only races advertise chocolate and champagne at the finish line, a party-like atmosphere, and everything pink. Empowerment, girls’ weekend, girl power, and bubbly are words frequently used in the marketing campaigns for these races, but those words are just pink frosting on the perpetuation of gender stereotypes. 

The marketing, race day atmosphere, and post-race events overflow with girly cliches and stereotypes. Every single shade of pink obnoxiously colors the websites and race day swag. Diamond jewelry, champagne, and chocolate are handed out at the finish line by shirtless firefighters (men, presumably), as if women need it to motivate them to run a race. The men at the finish line assumes the notion that women compete, not for their own reasons, but for the approval and attention of men.

The Diva Half Marathon series gives out pink tutus to all of their registrants and boas and tiaras to don mid-course (can you imagine the chafing?). The stereotypes seem almost satirical, until you sadly realize they are not.

When you pause and think about it objectively, many of today’s women-only races seem to reject the equality and principles that Bobbi Gibb, Kathrine Switzer, and many other women runners fought for. The races perpetuate the separation of women from men when it comes to running and they promote the outdated idea that regular road races are too competitive for the female spirit. If you based feminism in running off of these races, you would think that all women only race for chocolate or wine

Maybe there aren’t feather boas or tutus on the course to make me feel glamorous, but I don’t want to feel glamorous during a race. I want to grit it out, give my best for that day, and maybe run a PR. And from working as a coach with other runners and looking around at races, I know I’m not alone in this desire.

Finally, the issue of gender equality must be addressed. Quite frankly, if there were men-only races as there are women-only races, the upset would be remarkable. We can’t expect equality for women and not for men; such an expectation is not equality. 

The Nike Women’s Marathon’s gimmick centers around male firefighters in tuxedos handing out necklaces to finishers. At the Women Rock races, shirtless men hand out post-race gifts to the female finishers. To me, that screams sexism and objectification. Could you imagine a race where women in slinky cocktail dresses handed out watches to men at the finish? Is this actually equality in the sport of running?

All right. Yes, there is another side to this.

Maybe Women-Only Races Aren’t So Bad

So what can be said in favor of women-only races?

Jemima Sumgong wins the 2016 NY Mini
Jemima Sumgong, winner of the 2016 NY Mini, probably wasn’t in it for the finisher flowers.

First, while seasoned runners may not desire a non-competitive atmosphere, women new to running and signing up for their first race may find these events less intimidating. The sport of running still does have strides to make in becoming more welcoming to newer and slower runners.

Second, with our nation’s obesity epidemic, it makes sense to offer events that make running fun. Not everyone desires a competitive atmosphere; many people are attracted to the idea of running for fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, we should encourage running in any way possible!

Finally, women-only races, especially those that tout themselves as competitive races like Tufts, the NY Mini, and Freihofer’s, do offer women an opportunity to compete directly against women. This may be especially appealing for faster women who tend to compete against mostly men or end up running alone at most other races. 

***

Whether there’s a place in the sport for women-only races is not a clear cut issue. Both sides of the argument have merit. I believe the takeaway from this is that we should think critically about how events and the running community foster certain stereotypes about women, and how to promote women’s running without perpetuating those stereotypes or excluding anyone from the sport.

So where do you land on women-only races? Do you love them, avoid them, or have a neutral opinion of them?

I am a running coach, blogger (This Runner's Recipes), distance runner, and outdoor enthusiast. I live in the Seattle metro area with my husband and our dog. I am currently training for the California International Marathon. I write about the science of training and love to debate controversial topics like junk miles and women's only races.

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27 comments

  1. I *might* be ok with the handful of historic women-only races that remain; even as there is no longer a *need* for them, there may be merit in their continuation to ensure the story is not forgotten..

    If there’s value to be had in the opportunity to compete in a single-sex road race (similar to track & field), then there should be races for each gender as part of the same event (similar to track & field). (And, yes, I realize this is a logistical nightmare.)

    I see no place for any event that objectifies men or women.

    And I have no personal interest in the bubbly pink tiara events – which should be open to anyone of any gender who so desires to partake.

    1. I do think that there would be merit to continue that story…but I’m not sure if many of the current races do that, aside from the NYCC Mini. I can’t say for certain though, as I haven’t participated in any of these races. I think a single sex road race with separate races for men and women could be good – like how they did the Olympic Trials!

      1. Tufts, Freihofer’s, NYC Mini are all of the same ilk – all historic women’s races. The former are often used as national championship races for their respective distances too. Those first two are 40 and 38 years old respectively, so almost as old as the NYC Mini.

    2. I am with you on all of the above. I ran the NY Mini once, and the story was very strongly centered on heritage and how far women had to come. Tufts I believe is also a national championship race.

      It really is about how the story is told – in Singapore my favourite women’s race is the Great Eastern half marathon/ 10K/ 5K, whose selling point is ‘being active with family and friends’ (it had a mother-daughter runner photo contest, for example). They don’t shrink it and pink it or otherwise play to or perpetuate gender stereotypes. I don’t think there’s a place for objectifying anyone according to some irrelevant gender stereotype, ever.

      I can think of some contexts where the need for women to be able to get out and be active is still very, very pressing: http://qz.com/757594/meet-the-women-of-saudi-arabias-underground-running-club/

  2. As a non-woman 🙂 I find this interesting … and basically aside from feeling that what I say doesn’t matter (not being a woman and all), I do have a thought: until such a time when we can truly say that sexism is a rare and isolated thing, harassment is social poison, that my female runner friends don’t need to prepare and think about their runs, walks, parking locations, and on and on very differently than me … I am all for women having women-centric races.

    I look forward to the day when I am in a group of my female running friends and one brings up women-only races of the past and another looks funny and asks ‘why would there be separate races’? I hope it is in my lifetime.

    1. I too hope those become a thing of the past – running is already a sport where people of different ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, and religions can come together, as it should be with genders.

  3. On one hand, while I have zero interest in participating in the over-the-top pink tiara races, I can appreciate that some women find them really fun. Although, I would argue that men should be allowed too. The more “classic” women-only races, though, I think, as Liz said, have some historical significance. I would definitely love to participate in those races, but they cater more to my interests and personality.

    On a separate note, I wonder how hard the races police the women-only thing. I know that races like Tufts don’t have any male age-groups. Would an official push a man who registered as a woman off the course? What about transwomen? What about transmen?

    1. I do wonder about how they police it for men. I read in an article a while ago (and I can’t find it now, unfortunately) about one race that had a large finishing chute for women and then a chip timing mat for me. But at least I haven’t seen anything about men being pushed off the course!

        1. I ran Nike women’s marathon in San Francisco back in 2006 or 2007 (I don’t think there is a full marathon there anymore.) I did it with team and training and I’m pretty sure we had a couple of guys that did it. There were only a few, but they were allowed to participate. I’ve done 2 women only marathons, but it was simply because I wanted to do a marathon in those locations. I didn’t really pay attention to the fact that it was all women’s.

  4. I see what you’re trying to say…but I really don’t think women-only races should be seen as an attack on women (or men). Just because there are firefighters at the finish line, doesn’t mean the women in the race are only racing for that reason, or that anyone assumes that is their only motivation. I think this would be a fun thing to try with a group of girlfriends! Would prob be refreshing to run a race that isn’t super competitive and cut throat and to not be a bundle of nerves beforehand.

    1. They aren’t necessarily an attack – I just think we need to be careful in the messages that marketing sends (with everything) and how those messages align with the audience. Normal road races are open to being non-competitive and fun as well – there are themed runs for both genders, laidback local races (my personal favorite because they support local business/running groups), or large fun races like Rock and Roll.

  5. At least in the women’s only race the shirt will fit me and will make me feel like I’m meant to be there. Once again I’m running a half marathon that offers only a unisex shirt which will fit me poorly, get shoved in the back of a drawer, and make me feel like I’m an after thought for the race like I still don’t really belong.

    1. I’m sorry to hear that races give you the feeling that you don’t belong – the running community should be supportive and inclusive. I have run some races with gender sized shirts (hooray for the Portland Marathon!), but the shirt is only part of the matter. Hopefully the people organizing the race and on the course are giving you a sense that you belong, and if not I apologize for the presence of people like that in our sport.

  6. I find myself rolling my eyes at these races (the pink themed ones, not so much the NY Mini and its ilk), but really no more than I roll my eyes at color runs, wine runs, etc. Although they’re not for me, I do think they have their place for people who might not otherwise be motivated to exercise or who are not that interested in competition. Anything that gets people moving is good in my book, even if it’s not something that I personally would want to participate in. I do think that most of these races, with the exception of the ones that have been around a long time and have historically focused on women’s competition, should probably just be open to anyone who wants to enter for the sake of being inclusive. I have a feeling that the crowd would be pretty self-selecting anyway.

    1. I was thinking the same thing about the self-selecting crowd thing. But then I thought of ladies earnestly getting their tiara and boa running on only to have a group of bros being all loud and obnoxious and running it for laughs. I think that could disrupt the “safety” aspect that some women, I imagine, look to these races for. Of course, that could be managed with a well-enforced code of conduct, but still.

    2. I do see that as a merit (as I mention in the post) – anything that introduces people to running is good! But I want to see that opportunity extended to both men and women alike – and even if these races do allow men, their marketing does not encourage men to sign up and be part of a fun, intro to running type race.

  7. I’ve only done one women’s only race — the Indy Women’s Half Marathon — and I’ve done it twice. I’d say this one is split down the middle — there’s a sizable cash purse that pays top 10, but the finisher’s medal is a glittery butterfly. I think it shines a nice spotlight on the women, because usually female winners are somewhat obscured by male finishers in the field, and it eliminates subconscious comparisons. (Oh, that woman won but she was still behind all those other guys.)

    I’ve also found there’s a great sense of camaraderie at the race, even though it’s pretty competitive for those cash prizes. I haven’t encountered any women in the elite pack who acted, well, elitist. Everyone was friendly and happy, and there were lots of high fives and congrats. There are tutus and pink shirts and lots of groups running together … but hey, you do you. As long as I don’t have to wear a tutu, we’re good.

    1. My training partners did the inaugural Indy Women’s Half and had a blast. I want to say it was a long course or something, but … whatever. I would site that one as a good split down the middle between a competitive and a foof-fest women’s race.

  8. I think there are definite positives of women’s only races. BUT I hate that there is a need for them to be honest.

    It’s frustrating that female front runners need to run women’s only races to get the respect that they deserve like their male counterparts.How many times in co-ed races is there only a lead bike or vehicle for the leading males? How many times do races “forget” finish tapes for female winners? How many times are the successes of the women athletes overshadowed by disproportionate press coverage for mens races. For mid packers, back packers and beginners, how sad it is that society has made them scared or uncomfortable to try something new with the men involved? Why is it that women feel that they can only be empowered when women are around?

    SO yes, women’s only races offer better environment for women and newbies. It offers women more opportunities to shine and have better treatment.The sheer number of women racing does show how far we have come in this sport like others mentioned. But to me, it also shows how far we still have to go. Will we ever have more than just a few races where men AND women have lead bikes, where no finish tape is forgotten, where press coverage showcases the amazing athleticism of both genders. A place where women and men feel comfortable to step outside their comfort zone and try something new regardless of the gender on the line next to them.

    Side note: I love that some races such as CIM offer mens and women’s finish chutes/lines next to each other. It allows each gender to have their moment of glory without being overshadowed by the other without needed an entirely separate race in order to have that equality.
    (disclaimer— this is an exact copy of my own comment on our RRT about this topic back in June)^^^

    Adding, to go with this specific post though is that you really made me think about how that marketing comes across to other people. I’d always been slightly annoyed with the over the top “girly” aspect of these kinds of races, but only in the sense that it didn’t appeal to me personally. You made me realize though, that I was forgetting to even think about how others see this marketing and how it only encourages female stereotyping. Great read Fenugreek!

  9. I’ve run one female-centric race here in Chicago (then, the Fleet Feet Women’s 5k/Half, now sponsored by Nike and the “Mag Mile 5k/Half”.. Lauren Fleshman has been the ringleader the last 1-2yrs, I think). I will admit that I got a free bib last minute, so I’m not sure I would have purchased one, and I had no idea what to expect. It was surprisingly cool to be surrounded by SO.MANY. WOMEN. I raced in just a sports bra for the first time and didn’t feel weird about it. Male supporters and families were lined up and cheering for everyone in a really supportive way. I think the shirts were pink, orange, red and were a neutral design/logo, if I remember correctly. There was no wine or chocolate or anything fluffy. It was a race for women who wanted to run (fast or slow – both were celebrated), and it very much felt like a legit race experience versus a separate lady thing. There just happened to be no men. (although I believe men were technically allowed to enter, they just weren’t advertising that fact.) The swag we got was a nice, branded headband (which, superficially, seems girly, but in reality it’s super practical.. like a dude getting a branded jockstrap).

    I will say that I think we have to be careful saying that fluffy races set us back in the perception of male runners. I tend to agree — it’s not my jam — but letting someone else’s perception of my experience alter how I approach it isn’t my jam, either. The race experience is going to be different for everyone (male or female), and same with motivation. Some women *are* just running for the chocolate. I’d hesitate to say that’s wrong or bad; instead, I would make my preferences known with my wallet. I think a lot of race directors and companies are globbing on to the idea of women as a new demographic — predatory feminist marketing is real, ya’ll — and I think those races will dissolve just as quickly where people feel like they aren’t getting their value, or where they aren’t ok with some of the things being thrust on “women” as runners. I think as women, you’re right. We need to demand better of our races and ourselves. (Ogling and objectifying shirtless men is gross and needs to go.) Costumes are similar, and I hate the idea that women’s races are derided for encouraging them while co-ed races aren’t. Singling out the women’s races for their costumes or frivolity holds those races to an unfair standard to which co-ed races aren’t held, and only enforces the gender component. I got dusted by a man dressed as the Eiffel Tower at my first Chicago marathon, but I never once thought “that man’s not serious because of what he’s wearing,” or that I was somehow less serious for being beaten by him. Similarly, I read an article recently about a woman who regularly places in half/full marathons while wearing a tutu, and she does so simply because it makes her smile while she kicks some ass.

    1. I think you summed up my feelings perfectly, except I would have never forgiven myself if I didn’t beat the guy in the cow costume at Boston 🙂 But in all seriousness ?

  10. Although I have never participated in a women-only race and don’t see myself ever doing so, shirtless firefighters on the course are A-ok with me! 😉

  11. I ran the NY Mini for the first time this summer. The palpable “girl power” atmosphere before and during the race was amazing…and then they gave us pink bagels at the finish line. Whomp whomp.

  12. I’ve only done one women’s race – we got a necklace rather than a medal. It was a 10k with lots of supportive husbands and boyfriends on the sideline. What did miff me were the number of ‘supportive’ shouts of ‘you can do it….you can finish.’ I’m completed a marathon a few weeks earlier! Also, the race was started by a man and all the lead announcers were men – it slightly confused me! Having said that, there were women there who I doubt would have joined general races so if it’s what’s needed to get some women into running, great. And also, I fully support the sorts of events that are about reclaiming public space and making that safe for women to run in. So I very much have a mixed view about it.