Some old-time runners (mostly men, ahem) look back to the late 1970s or early 1980s as the heyday of American marathon running. While it’s true that average finish times back then were faster, relatively few women were participating, and it’s only now that we are starting to see a real explosion in the quality of women’s distance running.
Last month’s California International Marathon saw an unprecedented 99 women hit the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials qualifying mark of 2 hours and 45 minutes, with a staggering 265 running under 3 hours—a mark good enough to win many smaller marathons around the country. These results show that the current depth of American women’s distance running isn’t limited to big names like Shalane Flanagan and Des Linden, but may well include someone you know.
Next year’s Olympic Trials Marathon in Atlanta, Ga., is set to be the biggest celebration yet of talented female amateurs. The qualifying period is open until next January, but there are already a record 282 women eligible to run (as of January 24, 2019), nearly twice the number of men. The vast majority are not professional athletes, but extraordinary “ordinary” women who integrate high-level training and competition with the rest of their lives.
What accounts for the recent boom in really fast women? Here are some of the keys to their rise.
It’s a Generational Thing
The timing is right for women to hit their stride in the sport. Those who are reaching their prime today grew up after 1984, the year the women’s marathon became an Olympic event. This is a generation that has largely been able to take running marathons for granted, without fear of being pulled from the course for being female or or having one’s uterus fall out from the effort.
Today, women are more likely to race than men, making up 59 percent of the field at any given road race, according to a recent report from Running USA, and their participation exceeds that of men at distances from the 5K to the half marathon. As interest in running grows, so does the desire to take on new challenges; only 11 percent of marathon finishers in 1980 were women, compared to nearly half last year.
The Trickle Down…and Up
The female role models at the top of the marathon game look stronger than ever. Who can forget Shalane Flanagan’s “fuck yeah” battle cry to seal her win at the 2017 TCS New York City Marathon, or Desiree Linden’s relentlessly gritty determination in the face of all the bad weather Boston had to offer last April?
Flanagan and Linden are the type of top female marathoners whose podium spots appear to have been a lifetime in the making. But with more and more women competing, there are also opportunities for unknown runners to make the leap to sponsored pro. Witness Allie Kieffer, a former nanny whose breakout fifth-place, 2:29:39 finish at the TCS New York City Marathon in 2017 (a 15-minute PR) set her on track to become a top contender for a spot on the 2020 Olympic team. Or Sarah Sellers, the nurse who became the surprise runner-up to Linden at Boston last year, nabbing $75,000 in prize money and a sponsorship offer from Altra.
Big Goals—and the Means to Achieve Them
BQs and OTQs: These are some of the “big hairy audacious goals” that, from a psychological perspective, can become more attainable the more we put them out there. Setting realistic goals and having the patience to see them through are equally important.
When it comes to marathons, research indicates that women enjoy some psychological advantages over men. Various studies have shown that women are less likely to overestimate their abilities and tend to pace themselves better over the distance and are less likely to quit in terrible conditions.
Social Media Effects
An unprecedented amount of inspiration is available in the social media feeds of women runners at all levels. If you can get past the all-too-human urge to compare, there’s plenty of motivating information on workouts, nutrition, injuries and all the other ups and downs of the sport.
“As more and more women run fast times, we see each other and think, Why not me?” says Teal Burrell, who has chronicled her journey since 2012 from being a four-hour marathoner to a two-time Olympic Trials qualifier. “I know when I was thinking about trying for the 2020 Trials after having a kid, the fact that there were so many moms at the 2016 Trials (none of which I knew personally, only from Insta!) was really comforting, like, ‘This is not impossible, others are doing it.’”
Women still face social pressure to avoid seeming overly competitive and play nice with others, but in the test of endurance that is the marathon (and the training for it), efforts to work together pay off in the long run.
Being less competitive in group workouts, for example, may help stave off injury and burnout in the lead-up to a big race. And on race day, we’ve seen time and time again the power of support in sisterhood. At the recent California International Marathon, photographer Jody Bailey observed that the women were “racing for two hours and 45 minutes, but they aren’t racing each other; they are racing together. A single organism moving towards a common goal, as a result, [is] more powerful than fighting for success as individuals.”