Finishing Kick: Being the First Woman

By January 28, 2006Running Times Magazine

Guys, we aren’t racing. Really.

By Rachel Toor

As featured in the Jan/Feb 2006 issue of Running Times Magazine

It seemed a surprising statement, especially coming from a person who was so, well, macho. What could possess my friend—let’s call him Butch—to say, at the beginning of a half marathon, that his goal was just to be the first woman? Was this hyper-competitive man trying to get in touch with his feminine side? Was he divulging a secret of confused gender identity? Was he making a funny?

“You want to be the first woman?” I had to ask.

Butch looked at me like I was crazy. “What are you, crazy?” he said, bouncing up and down on his toes, waking up his wiry, long-muscled legs. “I never said that. I want to beat the first woman.”

Ah. That made sense. Except, of course, that it didn’t.

Once I heard him correctly, I realized that Butch was expressing a fairly common, if unsettling, sentiment. I immediately thought of watching the New York City Marathon on television in 1998, when eventual winner Franca Fiacconi ran too much of the race with some random guy clipping her heels. Maybe he wanted to be able to say that he had run with the leader of the women’s race. Maybe he wanted to leech some moments of TV fame. Maybe he was just grateful to have someone to run with, because, as we know, New York can be a lonely place. Whatever his intention, you could see all the way from your own living room that the guy was driving Fiacconi nuts. Finally she turned to him, said things in Italian best left untranslated, and made a gesture that was universally understood.

Men and women may well be running in the same race, but the truth is, we are not racing against each other. Indeed, in the most important events—world championships, Olympic Games—the races are, of course, not coed. Some of the big marathons are now allowing an earlier elite women’s start, making it easier for the fleetest of distaff foot to race unencumbered by male hangers-on and distracters. It also helps to keep the women’s race clear of charges of pacing from helpful men.

When I first started racing, about a decade ago, I was a solid middle-of-the-packer. Toward the end of long races men I passed would encourage me, calling out “Nice work,” or “Looking good.” I was grateful for their generosity of spirit.When I first started racing, about a decade ago, I was a solid middle-of-the-packer. Toward the end of long races men I passed would encourage me, calling out “Nice work,” or “Looking good.” I was grateful for their generosity of spirit.

When I got more serious and began running harder—and longer—things changed. While the women I passed were still gracious, the men waxed less supportive the closer I got to the front of the field. Perhaps it was because we were all running harder, because it hurts more at the end when you’re pushing. Not many of us want to talk then. But perhaps something else was going on.

At the finish of more races than I can recall, I’ve been approached by men I never noticed who either thank me for pulling them along, or who confess that they’d tried their damnedest to beat me but couldn’t. I wondered at first if there was something odd and memorable about me. Did they say this to other men? Sometimes, maybe. But the fact is, as a woman, I stood out—a moving target.

A few of my male friends keep closer tabs on my race results than I do. After races I often hear, “Next time, I’m going to get you.”

My response is always the same: “But I’m not racing against you.”

Even were I to win a race outright, I would still get the trophy for first woman, not first person. Women winning races is becoming increasingly common in the longer distances. This fall, at the Great Eastern Endurance Run, a 100K in the Virginia mountains that was part of the prestigious Montrail Cup, the top three runners overall each had two X chromosomes. Annette Bednosky beat the first man, Dink Taylor (no slouch in ultrarunning circles) by more than an hour and a half. But Annette’s trophy still had boobs.

In every race, there are at least two competitions going on; within those are the less visible battles for masters or age-group awards. (It’s not so easy to tell the difference between a 39-year-old woman and a 40-year-old.) But that doesn’t stop some guys from sprinting to beat me to the finish.

Saturday mornings I used to run with a bunch of faster guys who would knock themselves out in training, fueled by testosterone and trash-talk. They would kindly wait for me as I slogged along to keep up. I neither could nor wanted to compete on my weekend long runs. I saved my hard running for races.

At a 50K, I saw one of my training partners just ahead at an aid station. Oh goody, I thought, we can run together and have a chance to catch up (ultras are like that). But as soon as he saw me, he took off like a deer during hunting season. I kept up my pace and watched as he began running with another woman. They kept turning around and looking at me, trailing them by no more than 100 yards.

When I passed my buddy, he was hanging onto a tree, catching his breath. We said a quick hello, and I kept going. When I caught up to the woman he’d been running with, we chatted for a while and I told her my name.

“I know, I know,” she said. “I’ve heard all about you.” I asked if my friend had been giving her pointers on how to race against me. “Hell, no,” she said. “All he could talk about was not letting you beat him. He said if you caught him on a downhill, it would be all over. He really didn’t want you to beat him.”

“Good job,” she said, as I went by.

“You too,” I said and pushed on toward the finish.

I wanted to be the first woman.