Readers Roundtable: Are Women-Only Races Good for Women Runners?


Central Park was a sea of powerful, strong women on Saturday at the New York Mini 10k, led by winner Jemima Sumgong (Kenya) and a host of other Olympic-bound elites. Salty Favorites Brianne Nelson and Des Linden took fifth and sixth, and were followed by just shy of 9,000 other women, including Salty contributor Honey.

But why do we need a women-only race? I have to admit that were men to exclude me from a 10k I would be pretty damn annoyed, so what’s the point of excluding men? Is it some kind of consolation prize for not being as fast as a man of equal fitness? Do women-only races serve any purpose other than pointing out that we’re different than what is ‘normal’ for an athlete just by being women?

As for the New York Mini, the race “got its name when race founder Fred Lebow convinced the sponsor to support a six-mile ‘mini’ marathon–named for the miniskirt–rather than a full marathon,” reads the NYRR press release. “It was the world’s first road race exclusively for women, with the inaugural race [1972] having 72 finishers.”

Does that sit wrong with any of you? I mean, the name does hearken back to a time when women in sports weren’t “normal” and were assumed to be less athletic than men. Does the name “Mini” insult us with this reminder? What about when I tell you that the first NYC Marathon, held in 1970, only had one female entrant who DNF’ed, and the second in 1971 (a few months prior to the inaugural NY Mini) only saw four ladies cross the finish line? Did the founding of this women-only race encourage more women to hit the road and race? Just a few years later, women’s participation in the marathon finally reached double digits and exploded from a mere nine female finishers in 1974 to 36 in 1975, 18 of whom were from New York. I wonder how many of them ran the New York Mini and thought, “Maybe I can run a marathon?”

What do you think? Are women-only races good for women, or do they simply perpetuate a culture of dividing femininity from athleticism?

Cinnamon made Salty Running, takes lots of pictures and drinks lots of coffee. By day she's a camera assistant for films and tv in New York, and by night she's on a quest for zen in the 10k. Her writing is a mix of satirical humor, finding wholeness as an average runner, cheering for runners at all paces and more.

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  1. Hmm, that’s interesting! I think women’s-only races are good for newer runners that are intimidated by racing.For me, there’s something empowering about running a race with only other women athletes-sisterhood and camaraderie and all that. There is actually a men’s only race here where I live and it doesn’t bother me!

    1. There is a huge women’s only race here in Rochester on Mothers day. It’s a breast cancer fundraiser and almost all runners wear pink. Honestly it is one of my favorite races and for such a good cause. There is defeinitely something to be said about the sisterhood aspect and camaradiere like you said!!

  2. I ran the New York “Mini” in 1987 when it was sponsored by L’eggs nylons, the ones that came in the egg-shaped container. I proudly ran the 6.2 miles with hundreds, maybe a few thousand, other women. It was my first race in over five years, so I didn’t care that it was women only. It was in Central Park, near my home at the time, on a beautiful, joyful summer day. My husband and my son cheered me along with so many others watching us achieve feats that yes, many didn’t think women could do. So maybe we showed others that we could put in the training hours, we could have an organized event for us, we could celebrate our bodies. Maybe it’s no longer politically correct but for me it was about running, always about running (I trained along the East River, sometimes in snow, sometimes in rain, sometimes in humid weather, but that’s what we did). I was validated that day along with many others. Today, it may be different (although I’d planned to run the women’s only More Half Marathon in April but was injured–although men can also run, only not win prizes for placing). I’m also part of a group that is encouraging women non-runners to walk, to run, to enjoy this incredible sport in a non-threatening environment…so maybe there is still a place for women’s only races.

    1. Oh that’s so sweet Patricia! I remember those little eggs. It IS a really nice race; I’ve run it twice and loved it! But overall I’m not sure how I feel about women-only races. The More half seems really structured around encouraging retail/superficial moneyspending/spa stuff which bugs me, and all the pink crap drives me crazy – we’re women, not walking stereotypes! I would love if women-only races were more celebratory of the ‘broad diversity’ among women runners. (Get it? Heyooo)

  3. The Mini doesn’t bug me too much – it’s a throwback with historic significance. I’m OK with it being kept up as a “special” event.
    (Although, if I’d been old enough to be aware, I would have found it insulting at the time. By all means – create a new race and open your arms to the wimmin runners … a safe space welcoming all comers, female and male; equal opportunity the way we’d want it to be.)

    Separate competitive events for women and men? Yes. We have this now in the way track & field events are conducted, road race awards are given, and, in some cases, with a separate elite women’s start.

    A “gen-pop” race for women only? No. I think it’s both discriminatory and a disservice to women & men.

    Female-oriented events that also welcome men? Meh. I don’t understand the appeal of pink, tiaras, or chocolate; still, folks are welcome to vote with their wallets.

  4. I think keeping this like a relic is a great reminder of where things were just 40 years ago. I say keep it just as is. As for the other women-only races. I just don’t know. I honestly don’t have a strong opinion. I’m personally not inclined to run anything having anything to do with the word “diva” or with “bling” or tiaras or tutus, but I also see the appeal for a chance to race for an outright win, which many of us could do at some tiny local 5k, but that’s not the same as a competitive race.

  5. Although I am personally not inclined to do a women-only race, it doesn’t bother me that they exist. I agree with Olive that these races cut the intimidation factor for newer runners. If there was a ‘dudes-only race” I’d roll my eyes and chuckle, but not feel slighted me as a woman, either.

    1. I think I agree with Pimento. There’s a great women’s only 5K here in town that caters to both a faster crowd and first timers. There’s nothing “girly” about it – but it gives the fast women a chance to win a race outright (and it has good prize money so they get a deep field) and less intimidating for some newer racers.

      Women’s only or not isn’t generally a factor for me personally when I choose races, but I see their value.

    2. I’m in the same boat. I think if you’re into it, good for you. I’m all about getting more people to run in whatever way makes them comfortable. These kinds of races would probably be good for getting some non-runner friends out for a race.

  6. It’s interesting how this topic seems to come up with my friends every year in the weeks leading up to the Mini. Mostly the guys seem to think it’s fine, but lots of women I know continue to express distaste for the concept of its being a “mini marathon,” as if real marathons aren’t for women. Looking into its history I know that wasn’t what Fred had in mind, but does the intent outweigh perception?

  7. I do not mind women-only races. They usually have more girly swag and awards (body lotions, tiaras, spa gift cards, etc. which I love!). I also like racing among men, Running along side them makes me feel strong and it empowers me. Both races are fun in different ways.

  8. I can see both sides. Yes, for new runners it can be a great opportunity to get out there and feel less intimidated – which no one ever should like at a race because everyone out there competing is a rockstar! The problem can be these races turn into a gender stereotyping event with jewelry, tutus and so forth that only reinforces old day thinking (not really even old … only 30-40 years ago) that women can’t compete in real distance events. Next level empowerment comes from getting out there, racing with the guys and beating a bunch of them!

    1. That is such a great point Pesto, that it does reinforce the gender stereotypes! The one women’s only race that I really love and do regularly is a breast cancer fundraiser so everyone wears pink, but that’s because its the BC ribbon color and not because omg women need pink so I appreciate that more.

  9. I think women only races are fine, especially as others have already pointed out, they might be a good entry point for new runners who are intimidated. It’s kind of the same concept of the color runs and diva runs. I personally am not interested in those kind of events, but if it targets a group and gets people (women) out there exercising and doing races, then I’m all for it.

    They have a hugely popular, competitive women’s 4 miler in my hometown, and a few years ago started a men’s 4 miler (which has never gained as much popularity).

    My issue with the gender divide? The new rule that records can only be set in women’s only fields. This severely limits the opportunities for fast women to run fast times.

    1. Many road races put in the work around to send the elite women out first so they don’t have men near them in the race, allowing them to set records if it happens. I think it’s ridiculous they stripped Radcliffe of her world record, downgrading it to be a “world best” because she had male pacers.

  10. I think the history of this race makes it important, so like salty, I say keep it! However, so many women’s races are really just dumbed down (like to the max) marketing opportunities with forced “go girl” sisterhood type stuff…not really my thing.

    There’s a women’s run here in Berlin that costs 40 euros to enter and advertises with the motto “shopping, relaxing and running with your girlfriends!” Every year they have a different pink race shirt with a stupid, condescendingly cutesy slogan/label on it. One year it was “enegiebündelchen” – which is a word you might use for a small child or extremely active jack Russell terrier meaning “little bundle of energy”. I get ragey just thinking about it. Anyway, that kind of women’s run is bullshit. Ugh.

  11. While most of the races I run are not women’s only, it doesn’t bother me that they exist.

    For example, I ran the Nike 15K Women’s Race in Toronto last year with my Mom and sister. The women’s only element was part of the appeal, especially for new/not overly competitive runners.

    I’m also running a women’s 5K race (Emilie’s Run) this Saturday in memory of Émilie Mondor, the first Canadian woman to run sub-15:00 in the 5K and a member of Team Canada at the 2004 Olympics. She died in a car accident in the fall of 2006, on her way home from practice. In this case, I really appreciate the women’s running / in memory aspect of this race.

  12. 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 overshaddowed 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 oppritunities 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 overshaddowed by the other without needed an entirely separate race in order to have that equality.

  13. I have many feelings about women’s only racing – I wrote a post about it a few years ago. I like the Mini 10K because it is a throwback to a time when women weren’t thought to be capable of running. When they could be a cheerleader or twirl a baton, but running? That’s too much for women. It’s a reminder of where we came from, although I do think it’s funny the name stemmed from the miniskirt. I don’t enjoy that the Mini embraces all things pink – for a race that it supposed to promote what women can do, thinking that all women like pink just irks me. (They even had pink bagels this year – huh?)

    I don’t necessarily have a problem with women’s races, and in the face of an obese country, anything that gets people out and running is hard to put down. At the same time, I don’t have a problem running with men, and I’m not sure why it makes some women more comfortable to running with only women. The branding of women’s only races bothers me – not all women love pink, chocolate (okay, I do love chocolate), wine, Tiffany’s, etc. etc. What if a men’s race had women in bikinis handing out beer? Can you imagine? Some races seem to take the competition out of it, which I think is a step back for women – don’t race, just have fun! A race is RACE in my opinion, and downgrading it to doing something just to get a necklace and tiara just doesn’t sit well with me.

    On the other hand, I like that women’s only races give women a time to shine instead of being buried in a pack of men. I’m not that fastest woman ever, but in some marathons I placed in the top 2-3% of women, but I was surrounded by men. The fast men get the feeling of really being out in front, so a women’s only race gives those women in front that glory they deserve. Being the first runner people see instead of just the first woman. Actually being the first person to break the tape. It won’t ever be me, but I think those women deserve the recognition their male counterparts often get.

  14. I like the historic value of the Mini. And generally speaking, I don’t have an issue with women’s only races. Like the Color Run, it can be an entry into running for some people.

    What I do truly hate is the marketing machine behind many of these. I’m a freaking woman, not a princess or a diva. One semi-local women’s only half used to offer a station about a half mile from the finish with mirrors, combs and lipsticks, so you could be “finish photo ready” (they may still, but I stopped even considering them as a race after that.)

    I think there are a few women-only races that manage to strike the balance of being empowering and celebrating female athletes without being a pink explosion.

  15. I’m mostly a runner but I do one bike race every year — the women/trans/femme Babes in Bikeland alleycat race in Minneapolis. Cycling, like running, has been (and still is) a male-dominated sport. It’s pretty amazing to ride through the city with over 600 like-minded women — some incredibly strong riders in it to win it, some out for their first race, groups wearing awesome costumes, moms and daughters and couples and friends. For one evening in late summer, every intersection is full of women on bikes having a great time. It’s a safe, supportive, affirming, incredibly positive atmosphere.

    I don’t know whether running needs that kind of event. Heck, I’m not immersed enough in the cycling culture to know whether cycling “needs” it. But it’s fun, and different, and special, and people come and do it who would never participate in other races or rides. If it gets people out on the city streets, using their strength and power to do it, if it creates joy and empowerment and community… well, it’s good in my book.

    Here’s my recap of this year’s Babes in Bikeland:

  16. Encouraging movement/activity is never wrong. If it takes a women only event to get people moving who cares people are getting active and out the door. Yay!

    I feel this way about science also, if a handful of pink safety glasses will encourage girl to participate in science, nothing wrong with that.