Most of My Running Heroes Are Women – Here’s Why (A Man’s Perspective)

         For as long as I’ve been infatuated with running, women have been my primary role models, running buddies, and informal coaches. I credit women with just about everything that has been vital to my running practice, from holding me accountable to 6 a.m. Saturday morning long runs to leading me in post-run stretching routines when I’d rather shower and find some pizza ASAP.

         The first ultra-marathoner I met was a woman: Heidi, an accomplished Baltimore journalist and weekend warrior who indulges in the more whipped-creamy Starbucks drinks, but only after 50K races in the desert. The first person to take me to a yoga class after a run was a woman (my calves send limitless thanks, even years later). The first professional runner I could name (and maybe had a tad of a crush on) was Jenn Shelton.

         I’ve been wanting to write this brief piece for some time, primarily because of what Julia, my brilliant, beautiful, early-morning-gazelle of a fiancée, has encountered in Facebook groups for women runners. A little too often, she says, she reads posts that describe patronizing husbands and boyfriends who don’t take their significant other’s running seriously. In terms of sexist dystopias, I can’t decide whether to invoke early Mad Men or any of The Handmaid’s Tale, so let’s just agree that such attitudes are garbage and no one should put up with them.

         Rhetoric about empowering women is in vogue right now, and truly incredible women, from Malala Yousafzai to Greta Thunberg and Michelle Obama, are spearheading some of this century’s most vital challenges, but that’s not the point. Whether or not saying so is fashionable, I know this to be true: I would not be the runner I am without the inspiration, guidance, and humbling ass kickings in timed events that I receive from running women.

         Let’s get specific.

         I began running in earnest in 2009, as a first year student at Goucher College in the leafy suburbs of Baltimore. Anyone familiar with the Delaware-Maryland-Virginia area will agree with me: as you leave the cities, it gets rural quick. Only 20 minutes from the Inner Harbor and Camden Yards in downtown Baltimore are hundreds of miles of single track dirt trails winding along the banks of lakes and rivers. I was very fortunate to attend a college adjacent to this running Mecca.

         The only problem? Most of my college friends (read: bros) and my roommates especially (read: absolute bros) were not enthusiastic runners. (Lest they read this and want to wallop me over the head with the nearest foam roller or hogtie me with a set of resistance bands, Jon: you’re the running Juliet to my Romeo and you know it; Ahmed: I’ll never forget those philosophizing campus loops with you; Duncan: we’ll always have near-hypothermic misadventures on the NRC trail). The overwhelming majority of my running buddies were women – women who were often faster than me, had better form, and were willing to get up earlier to go father. Whether they know it or not, they pushed and pulled me, and I am better for it.

         Skeptical men out there: listen to the strong, determined women in your own life – you’ll likely be better for it too.

         Some brief anecdotes about these terrific women.

         1.) I don’t remember when I met fellow Goucher-ite Hadley, but my most fond memories of her are from my sophomore and junior years, when she would make me get up and go for a 10 mile trail run regardless of how late I had stayed up the night previous. A Tuesday night where I would stay in the library until well after midnight working on a research paper? Hadley would text to confirm that we were on for 6 a.m. the next morning. And you know what? I would always (okay, okay – almost always) say “yes” and set my alarm for 5:30 a.m. Why? Because no one else in my sphere was holding me accountable for balancing schoolwork with exercise, least of all me. Hadley was a member of the cross-country team and a high-achieving biology major used to studying until late and rising early. Her structure because my structure.

         Left to my own devices, I will stay up far too late working on things, then stay up even later playing video games, and sleep in until the very last minute. This schedule works, but it’s often stressful. Hadley helped me to achieve a better balance, and she did this by unfailingly being on time to our early-morning runs (and by always being chipper!). None of my guy friends were holding me accountable for anything in the morning, especially after bar-hopping or going to a party, but Hadley was never interested in my excuses and always interested in plunging into the woods for a long jaunt and a great conversation. If you’re like me, you often feel groggy for the first mile or two, then increasingly euphoric for the rest of the run. By mile 8, you could care less how early your alarm was.

         Ours was the church of the long run, and Hadley ensured that I showed up to be saved.

         2.) I owe just as much to another college running buddy, Laura, with whom I shared a very different, but no less wonderful, relationship to running. While Hadley and I planned in advance, set alarms, and determined specific routes and distances, Laura and I fed off each other’s spontaneity.

Saturday, 3 p.m.:

Heyo, want to run?

Yup, let’s do it.

Thursday, 10 p.m.:

🏃‍?

👍.

Monday, 1 a.m.

Starry jog?

Love it. See you in 10.

         If we had time, we hit the lakeside trails a few miles away. However, more often, we simply jogged the wooded loops around campus, mere steps from our dorms. It didn’t matter when or where. What mattered was that we affirmed each other’s impromptu desire to move, move, move. Those are special and valuable relationships.

Monday, 10 a.m.

Can’t make it.

No worries – catch you next time.

Tuesday, 12:15 a.m.

Midnight jog around campus?

Hell yeah.

         I vividly recall handing in a very high-stakes Anthropology project together at 1 or 2 a.m. and going for a celebratory run in the rain, despite being deliriously fatigued. Whether 2, 5, or 8 miles, our runs were always exactly what was needed, and I remain grateful for that mutually agreed upon flexibility and earnestness. Sometimes we chatted and sometimes we ran together in silence, working through issues in our respective heads.

         Ours was the running equivalent of the coffee break or the walk to clear the head, and Laura ensured that I took the opportunity to be refreshed.

         3.) Finally, I’m grateful for the camaraderie and encouragement of Alex, one of my go-to running partners and fellow Ph.D. candidate at Fordham University. Just as I relied on Hadley’s organization and endurance at Goucher, so too am I inspired by Alex’s wholehearted dedication to distance running. While I have a few other running buddies in the department (Sean and Jonathan: can’t wait to hit the pavement again), Alex is the only one to a.) push me well beyond my comfort zone and b.) put up with my occasionally chaotic tendency to prioritize exploration over routines and metrics.

         Despite living adjacent to Central Park in NYC for almost three years (sunrise or sunset jogs around the Jackie Onassis Reservoir is a running-must for anyone headed to Manhattan), I didn’t run the infamous loop at “Harlem Hill” until Alex persuaded me to. It’s the only significant elevation gain in Manhattan and it’s easy for the complacent (read: me) to avoid. To run Harlem Hill is to shun miles and miles of gorgeous, flat waterfront in favor of a steep, winding climb in the dark woods.

         Professional, regimented, and patient (things I am often not), Alex leads me in pre- and post-run stretches, shares with me her gel and water recommendations and consumption schedule on long runs, and relays her recovery smoothie recipes (I’m confirming the recipe with Alex and then I’ll be sure to pass it along to Juju to post ASAP). In return, I persuade her to go for meandering, exploratory runs over the George Washington Bridge and through the scenic backwaters of New Jersey (not, in fact, an oxymoron).

         A highlight of our pre-COVID running days was completing the North Face Endurance Challenge at Bear Mountain together in 2019. This is where Alex’s penchant for preparation really shows. I was thrilled to complete the grueling trail marathon, defined by constant ups and downs across the rocky crags overlooking the Hudson River, in less than six hours. I stumbled out of the woods and headed straight for the beer tent, where I discovered that Alex had beaten me by a full hour. I don’t recall what her time or place was, but I do recall her on the podium accepting a medal and a bottle of wine from Dean Karnazes himself. I know, right? Super awesome. I’ve never podium-ed myself, but I know from Alex’s example that to place first, second, or third isn’t the realm of superheroes. Grad students, journalists, nurses, and millions of other working people do it all the time through determined training and force of will.

         This much is clear: Alex is a superior runner because she is more organized in her training, including stretching and diet. I look up to her because of this. To me, she exemplifies professionalism and I am humbled to—quite literally—plod along in her footsteps.

Perhaps it’s a coincidence, perhaps it’s not: women are my running heroes.

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