On the Blog: The Gritty Woman

A Prelude to Some Grit…

       When I put together the Women’s Month Article Questionnaire, I didn’t anticipate close to 40 responses from female-identified athletes all over the world. From elite marathoners to a Team USA triple jumper to local XC athletes, the women who contributed truly represent the top tier of competitive distance runners and track and field athletes. The voices featured below range in age from 22 to 51, and draw from a diverse socioeconomic, cultural, linguistic, and racial demographic. Without hesitation, these courageous athletes responded to the following four questions, thus providing the fodder for this month’s Club Northwest blog post.

  1. What are barriers you think you and other women face when entering into, participating in, and/or establishing a running community, both co-ed and women-centric? Why do you think these exist?
  2. What have been your experiences with the notion that “being competitive isn’t ladylike,” or some variation thereof?
  3. What aspects of your identity and life experiences do you think influence your participation in the sport and related communities? How do they influence your participation?
  4. How do you see women’s participation in running and track and field evolving? What factors do you think are at play in this evolution?

Life as a Gritty Woman...

       I have often pondered why competitive female-identified runners are met with a level of scorn and controversy alien to their male counterparts? There is the obvious deeply-rooted patriarchy that defines so much of society and its systems. Then, of course, there is the pervasive misogyny perpetuated consciously and subconsciously regardless of gender identity. The sport of running is no stranger to nauseatingly poignant manifestations of both. For centuries, women were thought too dainty and fragile to do much running. Entering Olympic competition for short distances in 1928, women were banned from road races in 1961, a baseless claim challenged by Kathrine Switzer’s memorable 1967 Boston Marathon performance. Women gained significant “tracktion” in the 80s when the American College of Sports Medicine *surprisingly* found zero evidence that women lacked the requisite strength to compete at the collegiate and Olympic levels.  

       Why, then, do competitive female-identified runners and track and field athletes continue to face barriers in accessing their sport? One explanation may be grounded in preconceived and conflicting notions of the feminine identity and the female athlete. Elite distance runner Anna Weber theorizes, “women who are competitive/elite are either fetishized or outcast; [whereas] recreational runners must fit into cute little boxes, such as ‘losing baby weight,’ ‘getting fit,’ etc.” When women challenge these stifling narratives, they sometimes find themselves labeled a Tomboy, manly, too aggressive, arrogant, or, as pole-vaulter Kristina Owsinski has experienced, “a bitch for being goal-oriented and having a very competitive drive.” Karina, an accomplished trail and ultra runner, describes how failing to fit into a cute little box affected her in high school and as an adult. “Nobody would date me,” she recollects. “Another male last year told me that I ‘shouldn’t be beating men.’”  As Rachel Leftwich aptly summates, “Women are expected to qualify and minimize their talent, their goals, their grit,” to maintain a soft femininity appealing to the male gaze and in line with societal norms.

       Not surprisingly, then, many female athletes still identify skewed notions of the ideal body image as a crushing blow to self-confidence and self-worth as a person and athlete.  From battling eating disorders to setting restrictions on their participation in sport until they lose X number of pounds, women in the running community continue to feel the pressure to look a certain way, which is further compounded by media’s tendency to highlight an athlete's appearance, a coach’s insistence to achieve a certain build while society presses for another. “I’ve been pulled in many directions by many people, even those closest to me, that I’m either too muscular and look manly or that I’m, not fit enough to be competitive. There’s never any middle ground always expectations from both sides” (Owsinski).

       However, it isn’t just society’s propensity to reject women who display traditionally male traits that holds some female athletes back from realizing and enjoying their full potential as a distance runner or track and field athlete. As anyone who has ever trained seriously for any event or distance can attest, preparing requires time and dedication. Yet, patriarchy still tells women that their place is in the household, despite acknowledging the working woman. The idea that women can now have it all often translates into the expectation that women must do it all. Consequently, women find it difficult to prioritize their needs and training amidst seemingly endless responsibilities, especially when much in society tells them that prioritizing themselves is selfish. Reflecting on this sentiment, Kelly Carleson points to a troubling paradox: “self-care and free time is highly marketed to women, but in reality we are criticized[...]for taking care of our needs.” Whether real or self-imposed, many women describe experiencing feelings of guilt when they embark on a training plan or chase athletic pursuits--guilt about leaving children with sitters or family to go on a run, guilt about unfulfilled relationship roles, guilt about not prioritizing family and household first, and the unsettling guilt that comes from the thought that they are merely being selfish. 

       In contrast, some competitive women runners and track and field athletes describe predominantly empowering interactions navigating their sports. For many, these experiences and attitudes were fostered throughout their childhoods. Growing up a “country kid,” Jen Mathe recalls running around in the wilderness as a daily activity and participation in school sports a requirement for her small school to have a functioning athletics department. As such, when she hit college, athletics was so deeply ingrained in her identity that the contrary, and therefore the criticism, simply didn’t register. Also exposed to ample outdoor adventures from a young age, “Wild” remembers her dad driving her and her sister to the track in Eugene. He “made us hop the fence and run around once to ‘feel’ the spirit of Prefontaine in us.” Consistently, women cite support from family at an early age coupled with a formidable connection between running and their identity. “I see myself as a runner,” Andrea, a long-time Seattle runner, affirms. Others eschewed the conventional soft version of femininity, and plowed head first into their sport with a vehement “f*** you” to anyone who and anything that stood in their way. By putting aside what she was taught a girl should be like, “Mother Runner” finds she has been able to live a very fulfilling life as a gritty woman. “Whenever I was told being competitive wasn’t lady-like, I always took it as a compliment that I was doing something right.”

       When asked to reflect on the evolution of women’s participation in running and track and field, especially as a competitor, the athletes pointed to much that is being done right. Specifically, the reach of and access to social media has heightened the visibility of the elite female athletes thus normalizing the concept of woman as top tier competitor. Shalane Flanagan and Allyson Felix are becoming household names, and the representation of diversity among athletes and events has “helped more and more women become involved and feel like there is a space for them” (Erin). Owsinski attributes the increase in young women trying pole-vaulting, for example, to this added visibility.

       Social media has also made visible a relatively new addition to the spectrum of running events: ultra running. The increase of women ultra runners coupled with representation in social media further dismantles the idea that females are fragile. “The notion that the female body isn’t made to handle distance,” asserts 50k runner Rabid Racoon, “is beginning to shatter, particularly with some of the recent Fastest-Known-Times and 100-miler success stories in the female community.” Of course, this idea was absurd on its face. “To think that a woman, who carries a child through nine months of physical transformation, most of it uncomfortable to tortuous, and then gives birth (which is WAY harder than running a marathon by the way) can’t run distances is obviously ridiculous” (Mother Runner).

       Social media has also been instrumental in exposing the inequities that continue to plague women’s sports and perpetuate barriers to participation, namely the focus of media coverage and pay. Women point to this inequity as the paramount barrier to athletes pursuing careers in elite distance running and track and field. From gendered differences in race purses to corporate sponsorship, women still have less to gain in comparison to men. Fionna Fallon of Rose City Track Club notes the room for improvement is like that found in many sports in the US and elsewhere. “They [women],” she continues, “gain less monetary benefits and publicity.” Moreover, the publicity women athletes do receive continues to trend in the direction of appearance, clothing, and other superficial qualities not necessarily having to do with their athletic prowess. “Give them [women] as much media coverage as men,” advocates Rachel Leftwich, “and ask them the same questions about training and techniques, not diets and hair care products. Give them space to be unique, imperfect humans, not forcing them to fit a mold and down play how damn hard they work to get where they are.”

       As women carve out space for themselves as competitive distance running and track and field athletes, their subsets still encounter the same disenfranchisement experienced at the societal level. Queer, nonbinary, intersex athletes and athletes of color endure discrimination and underrepresentation. As an example, Sarah Neilson, points to her personal experiences as a queer runner and the experiences of Caster Semenya, Dutee Chand, and intersex athletes in general. Sarah finds that the athletic spaces she moves in don’t overlap a ton with queer spaces, but doesn’t identify this as conflicting. She does, however, find the IAAF’s stance on intersex and trans athletes horrifying and indicative of the misogyny and transmisogyny that is everywhere. Furthermore, while it is a fact that more than half the participants in many distance races identify as women, the running community is still overwhelmingly white. Nonprofit organizations, such as Black Girls Run and Girls on the Run, which provides programming to a racially diverse demographic, have made it part of their mission to address this disparity and increase opportunities for and representation of women of color in the sport of running.

       Yet, with better visibility comes the (inevitable?) commodification of the fierce female athlete. She is now something to be plastered on a billboard, a trend, a product for other women to consume.   As a result, efforts to carve out spaces for women to feel empowered through running, despite being positive overall, may be less altruistic than a company suggests and, as Weber suspects, “largely driven by sportswear companies wishing to appeal to a wider audience,” and, ultimately, sell goods. Consequently, some community groups rooted in brands inadvertently drive a socioeconomic wedge in the ability for all women to participate by applying real or perceived pressure to buy their products or register for expensive races. Echoing the experiences of other women, Wild describes meetups held at stores that sell expensive running gear. She has found that, maybe because of the context, “women-focused groups attract a quite privileged segment of society that talks a lot about the brands they're wearing. I think even if women from diverse interests and backgrounds show up, the conversation still becomes about the clothing or brands[...]I haven’t become very involved in any women’s running groups for that reason.” Thus, in a rather circular fashion, women, including those hungry for rigorous competition, are offered not a community platform to pursue athletic prowess but a commodified, sometimes unrelatable, pay-to-play pseudo space.

       If I were to surmise conclusions regarding what competitive women distance runners and track and field athletes want from and in a running community, it wouldn’t be promos for expensive gear, insider information as to what shampoo Shalane uses, nor yet another space where they are made to feel shame, even by other women, for their grit and ambitions. It’s hard enough, without the barrage of “Buy! Buy! Buy!” for a woman who runs at or aspires to run at an elite or sub elite level to find a group of woman who can run at her caliber. “I know they’re out there,” Tori Franklin, the current USA champion in the triple jump, continues, “It’s just a matter of getting them all in one space.” And what does this space look like, according to respondents? It would be a space that feels safe, authentic, empowering. A space where women can “feel the psychological safety to show up as yourself and just run trails talking about poop or love interests or the Dream Act or a socialist revolution or whatever” (Wilder). A space where women will not be scared of exploring what it feels like to run fast...and then even faster. A space that, by virtue of its very existence, dismantles the barriers female athletes identify as stifling. A space where they can live their truths as gritty women.

The Gritty Women...

Laura Goodfellow, Rachel Leftwich, Eliza Swedberg, Jen Mathe, Nicole, Kelly Carleson, Julie Nelson, Sarah Nielson, Carrie Luft, Lyndy Davis, Kristina Owlsinski, Elisa Laverty, Erin, Heather, Tori Franklin, Jennifer Heidman, Fionna Fallon, Kerri, Anna Weber, Andrea Sauter, Caroline Gordon, Ashley Nichols, Katrina, Meghan Lyle, and 11 women who preferred to remain anonymous. Thank you, my gritty muses, for your contributions to this article and to our sport.

-Julia "Jules" Reade