Last year, we started a new tradition: Kicking off the new year by announcing our Women’s Running Power Women of the Year. The women featured in that group were the game changers, rule breakers, and trailblazers within our community; they were the ones to watch, to cheer for, and to be inspired by in this upcoming year.
This year we’re back and thrilled to announce a new group of honorees. In this year’s list you’ll find some familiar faces, along with a number of new additions. That’s because while last year’s list focused on elite runners who we felt were ones to watch in the lead up to the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics, this year we recognized the need to broaden the range of impact. Because it’s not just pros who are changing the game, it’s women within every corner of our community.
There are top athletes, of course, as well as powerful advocates who are speaking out about everything from SafeSport to racial inequality. We included business leaders and innovators, as well as some of the most impactful voices of the women’s running world.
These 25 power women are reshaping the running industry for the better—and we can’t wait to watch the impact they make in the upcoming year.Section divider
Curiosity, resiliency, and spirituality have propelled Sara Hall to unexpected marathon success in her late thirties. She intends to explore her potential as long as she still loves to run. Photo: Brad Kaminski
Sara Hall: Running with Her Whole Heart
As she swung around the 1.3-mile loop in front of Buckingham Palace for the ninth time, Sara Hall tossed her watch over to her husband, Ryan. Stuck in no-woman’s land at the 2020 London Marathon, the lead pack a minute ahead and a chase pack 45 seconds behind, she had no desire to look at her splits anymore.
Ryan, who is also Hall’s coach, was confused. “Usually when people throw their watches, they’re really frustrated because they’re running slower than they want to,” he says. “So then I’m, like, in the dumps, as a coach and as her husband. She put so much work in and it’s cold and windy and she’s all by herself.”
The elite-only race, held on October 4, was not an ideal scenario for Hall, who typically thrives in the company of competitors and whose performances are buoyed by boisterous crowds. COVID-19 safety protocols restricted spectators on the course; the race was so quiet she could hear the sound of her own footsteps. Just 18 invited athletes crossed the finish line—far from the 40,000 runners who normally race.
On another of the 20 laps she would cover that day, Hall made eye contact with Ryan. “I can tell when she’s feeling good and when she’s not,” says Ryan. “But this was a look of, ‘What do you want me to do?’ I didn’t even know what to tell her. I just said, ‘You’re doing great.’ But inside I’m thinking, ‘This is not good. Maybe I should tell her to drop out.’”
Although the field was small, it still included the fastest women in the world—the world-record holder (2:14:04), Brigid Kosgei of Kenya, was leading the charge, along with Ruth Chepng’etich, the reigning world marathon champion, also from Kenya. Hall, 11 years older than both of these athletes at 37, came in with a personal best of 2:22:16, which she set by placing fifth at the 2019 Berlin Marathon.
What Ryan didn’t know during the race was that although his wife wasn’t thrilled about her spot in the pack, she was excited about how she felt. Soon she’d make her way up the ranks, picking off competitors one by one. From ninth place to fifth place to fourth…then she found herself in the top three with just one more lap to go—an impressive place at any edition of the London Marathon, which is notorious for assembling the most difficult collections of competitors.
With about 200 meters left, Ryan thought Chepng’etich might be losing steam. He yelled, “You’re eight seconds back!” though he didn’t honestly believe his wife had enough ground left to catch her.
He was mistaken.
“When I moved into third, I got a big surge of joy and excitement to be on the podium,” Hall says. “It was instinctual. I’ve had a lot of races finish that way, even my very first race in seventh grade. That’s how it played out. My body knows what to do once I get to that point of the race.”
Hall went for it, her legs finding a ferocious kick that propelled her past Chepng’etich in the final meters of the 26.2-mile race. It was a career-best performance: second place, behind Kosgei, at a World Marathon Major, in 2:22:01. It was the first time in 14 years that an American had landed in the top three in London since Deena Kastor won in 2006 and set the American record (2:19:36). Hall was now the sixth-fastest U.S. woman at the distance ever.
“I’ve been doing this 15-plus years and it’s way longer than I thought I was going to be doing it,” she says. “But I still just love the process and feel so motivated to keep seeing my potential come out. You don’t know, sometimes, the depth of that until it’s really tested. And I think in 2020, it was really tested.”
Finding Her Place
Hall, who lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, came into the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in February as a favorite to make the Olympic team. By her account, she had trained harder than ever before, consistently hitting 130 miles per week with hard efforts every other day, preparing for a moment she had dreamed about forever. But when race day came, Hall didn’t have it. She dropped out with four miles to go, defeated by the brutally hilly course in Atlanta on a relentlessly windy day.
A sixth attempt at qualifying for the Olympics ended in heartbreak.
“Having that dream die, then going straight into a pandemic and not getting to do any other races where I could use that fitness, it really caused me to reflect on why I’m doing this,” Hall says.
Hall kept training. For what? She didn’t know, but it’s the grind that’s really kept her in the game for this long, so she didn’t have any intention of stopping.
About four months into the COVID-19 disaster, the chance to compete in London presented itself and Hall took it immediately. She’s described the result as “redemptive,” a way to heal from the disappointment of the Trials.
“It was a big, personal breakthrough for me to be able to get the most out of myself on that kind of day in London,” she says. “It’s exciting for the future, I think, to feel like I’m growing as an athlete and being able to run well in different scenarios.”
Most professional distance runners consider their late 30s the “twilight” of their careers. A time for winding down, taking a few last chances, and calling it good. Hall’s trajectory, however, seems to defy the norm—almost as if she is just getting started.
She was actually introduced to running as a teen, growing up in Santa Rosa, California, splitting her time and interest between track and soccer. Eventually her love of cross-country won out. Hall enjoyed challenging herself, trying to find her limits whether during practice or running home from practice, when she’d throw in some bonus hill sprints along the way.
“I really loved that my parents and coaches always gave me a lot of freedom to push myself,” she says. “That really helped me grow a love of running. I was the one initiating it.”
After winning the prestigious Foot Locker National Cross Country Championships in 2000, Hall went on to compete at Stanford University, where her team won the 2003 NCAA cross-country title and she was a three-time NCAA runner-up in the 5,000 meters and indoor 3,000 meters. It was also at Stanford where she met Ryan, who went on to become a two-time Olympic marathoner with a career best time of 2:04:58 (the only American to break 2:05).
As her husband’s career skyrocketed during those early post-collegiate years, Hall often found herself in a supporting role. Though she continued her own training and competing, she struggled to find her place in the sport. Then, 10 years in, she took a crack at her first 26.2-mile race at the Los Angeles Marathon. It didn’t go well. Succumbing to cramps on a hot day, she placed 22nd in 2:48:02.
“It’s funny because as bad as my first marathon was, it really didn’t faze me because I really loved training for it,” Hall says. “That race was actually a good example of what it’s taken for me to improve in the sport—it’s not the cardiovascular fitness but the muscular strength to be able to handle the pounding of the race.”
Just two weeks after that marathon, Hall was off to the world cross-country championships in China, where she led the U.S. team to fifth place. Then she went on to the 2015 Chicago Marathon, where she finished in 2:31:14—qualifying for the 2016 Olympic Trials.
“That’s been the trend,” she says. “I think just after experiencing a lot of disappointment in the sport and struggle, it makes you really appreciate the times when things are clicking.”
Embracing New Roles
It was also in 2015 that the couple expanded their family, bringing home their four daughters—Hana, Mia, Jasmine, and Lily—from an orphanage in Ethiopia. It was a big leap for two pro athletes who were used to a lifestyle that afforded spontaneous travel and plenty of recovery time from grueling workouts. But Hall was ready to quit running if parenthood demanded it.
“I thought there was a good chance I wouldn’t be able to keep going based on talking to a lot of other families that had adopted older kids from Ethiopia, because they had really hard adjustments—like, life-altering,” Hall says. “So I was going into it braced for that, but willing to stop competing if I had to.”
It turned out, the transition wasn’t as rough for the girls as it could have been—and Ryan was the one who was ready to exit the pro running scene. Shortly before the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials, he announced his retirement.
As his career ended, Hall’s began taking off, leaving fans wondering if motherhood had anything to do with her success. Hall, however, believes she’s improving despite becoming a parent, not because of it, though she acknowledges that it adds a layer of meaning to her career.
“I see a correlation where my kids feel empowered to go after their dreams,” she says. “Before kids, I struggled with not always seeing the positive impact of my running on others. It feels really self-centered. The upside now is that I don’t have as much of a conflict with that. I see the positive effects in real time.”
Although the initial difficulties of bringing four children into a new home are over, the typical rigors of raising tweens and teens remain.
“Being a world-caliber athlete, you’re competing against people who are living completely focused lifestyles. And I know what it’s like to live that way,” Hall says. “I definitely get overwhelmed at times.”
The non-negotiables for Hall are her sleep, which she tracks with an app (“If I haven’t gotten enough, I text Ryan that I’m going back to sleep.”); daily physical activity for the girls when their sports aren’t in season (“Walking doesn’t count.”); and eating dinner together as a family each night (“If there’s no homework we’ll play games after dinner—it’s family time.”).
The pace is hectic, but fulfilling. Hall protects her time to make it all work, often declining social invitations or other business opportunities to focus on her family, training, and recovery.
“I’ve learned that rest can be an internal state. You can be doing a lot of things outwardly and physically, but you can internally be at rest if you just keep your peace,” she says. “Even when I’m in the rigamarole of picking up kids and dropping them off, after a really hard workout, I give grace to myself. I’ll take an hour to unplug and listen to a meditation…I picture myself as a human battery. You have to recharge yourself.”
Never Too Comfortable
Her oldest daughter, Hana, now attends Grand Canyon State University, where she competes for the cross-country and track teams. While the younger three girls are going to school online during the pandemic, the family decided to temporarily relocate to Crested Butte, Colorado, for “super altitude camp.” The town is at 9,000 feet, which is 2,000 feet higher than Flagstaff—and traveling there was a way to satisfy the family’s adventure bug.
Does the higher altitude give Hall a performance boost? Maybe. Or maybe not. But for Hall, it doesn’t really matter what the physiological effects are if she feels like it’s making any kind of positive difference. It’s an example of how she and Ryan work well together as athlete and coach, she says.
“He’s a risk-taker like I am, but also there’s a mutual trust that I know my body and that I have a good sense of what I can handle, even if it’s a really different approach,” Hall says. “He’s been willing to let me do some stuff that probably other coaches wouldn’t, just because it’s less traditional.”
Do they always get it right? They acknowledge that they don’t, but also attribute the relationship to why Hall has seen so much improvement.
“Where we run into trouble sometimes is I don’t treat him as professionally as I would a coach. I’m 100 percent comfortable with him, so I’m just going to snap at him. And it can spiral from there,” she says. “Most of the time it’s really good, though. I’m really hard on myself, so I need someone who’s really empathetic. In that way, we’re a good fit.”
Hall also likes to push for some experimental marathon training—high volume, high intensity, few easy days. After London, she only took a few days of recovery before diving into training for the Marathon Project, another elite-only race on December 20, 2020. She posted a practice workout from the race course where she had run the last 12.2 miles at 5:17 pace, which if she holds on race day would translate to a record-setting 2:18:25 marathon.
Ryan’s challenge is to hold the reins and make sure his wife (and other athletes he coaches) don’t repeat the mistakes he made in his career, like total burnout. He believes that Hall still has room to grow in the marathon—neither of them rule out an American record attempt (Kastor’s 2:19:36) or another try for the Olympics in 2024, when Hall will be 40. Before that she plans to race the 10,000 meters at the 2021 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials in June, where the top three finishers who have the Olympic qualifying standard (31:25) will go to the rescheduled 2021 Tokyo Games.
“Sara trains harder than I’ve observed other people training. She gets away with that because she’s also very intuitive with her body,” he says. “That’s the beauty of coaching someone like her. She takes really good care of herself in terms of her nutrition, her sleep, all those million little things that are a pain in the butt. That’s why she’s still running so well, even in her late thirties.”
Strengthened by Faith
Physical preparation only gets athletes so far. Over the years, Hall’s been dealt a number of blows that might take less optimistic athletes out of the sport forever. Part of her ability to keep perspective is her evolving Christian faith, she says.
“I think sometimes I am leery to share just because you can get put in a box as a Christian as, ‘You’re some evangelical religious right person,’” she says. “It was through really investing in my spiritual life that I found a lot more joy, and then I was able to really actually love where I was at in my life. It was a real turnaround. I think we focus so much on the physical when we ask, ‘How are you still improving at 37?’ But it’s actually body, soul, mind, and spirit.”
Her growth and peace comes from prayer, meditation, reading the Bible and other spiritual books, and listening to music. She also relies on her church community for support.
“For some people it’s walking in nature or something else. There’s a lot of noise everywhere and a lot of distractions,” Hall says. “It’s getting in the quiet space to hear, for me it’s God’s voice, but in your life it might be different.”
And when the time comes to step away from professional competition, Hall already knows what she’s been called to do: Start an international-caliber school that is free for poor children outside of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. She envisions an institution that includes character and leadership development, ultimately producing citizens who can lift their communities out of poverty. She and Ryan already support education, clean water, and health initiatives in the region through the Hall Steps Foundation.
“In 2009 I was ready to move over there, but Ryan was at the height of his career, so that wasn’t an option,” she says. “It’s still my dream. I feel like that’s the only thing that makes me come alive as much as running does.”
For now, Hall intends to keep pushing: She believes she still has a “couple of minutes” to shed from her marathon time before all is said and done. It’s that kind of attitude that Ryan believes will one day land Hall as one of the country’s all-time greatest distance runners. It’s her enviable confidence and belief in what’s possible, without fear of failure.
“Hope is what fuels athletes to keep going, to stay motivated, to keep training at a super high level,” Ryan says. “Once you lose your hope, that’s when it’s over. When I started believing that my best days were behind me, my career was over. One thing I know, like for certain, is she can run a lot faster.”
Hall sees her age as an advantage. It’s given her a certain amount of wisdom. It’s liberated her, too—she never feels like she has something to lose by taking chances, whether in training or during a race. And that makes her a threat on every starting line.
“I’m just excited to see where I can go from here. Seeing a lot of improvement and getting faster with each build up is addicting,” she says. “It’s really important to love the process as a marathoner. You only get to race once or twice a year, but if you love the process along the way, then it’s worth it no matter what. So I think that’s kept me in it.” —Erin StroutSection divider
The Olympians: Hoping Patience Pays Off
No look into the new year would be complete without a nod to the women who earned their places on Team USA in 2020. Aliphine Tuliamuk, Molly Seidel, and Sally Kipyego finished the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials just before the pandemic hit, weathered the storm of COVID-19 race cancellations, and are hopeful their patience will pay off at the rescheduled Games in August.
Tuliamuk will likely have one of the most challenging buildups as she and her partner, Tim Gannon, welcome the birth of their daughter in January. She’ll have about six months to prepare for the Olympic marathon, scheduled for August 7, in Sapporo, Japan.
“I am hoping that I will be one of those few people who after having a few weeks to recuperate, will be able to come back to training healthy,” Tuliamuk says. “I keep telling my coach, ‘I’m going to light the world on fire.’ But, really, we’ll see about that.” —Erin StroutSection divider
Dalilah Muhammad: Pushing for More
Near the end of each year, Dalilah Muhammad, Olympic and world champion in the 400-meter hurdles, takes some time to envision the next one. In that process, she picks a power word to guide her. Or rather, one chooses her. “It’s something that literally comes to me, something I truly feel internally,” she says.
Heading into 2019, she had her sights firmly set on medals and records. With young up-and-comer Sydney McLaughlin nipping at her heels, Muhammad, 30, wanted to secure her legacy as the best there ever was. She had an image of herself and McLaughlin heading toward a final hurdle neck-and-neck. Her word? Compete, which reminded her not to let off the gas until she’d crossed the line.
All that year, Muhammad pushed to the finish, and prevailed. She won the U.S. championships in July, then the world championships in Doha in October, both by hundredths of a second over McLaughlin. In the process, she broke the world record in the event twice, running 52.20 and then 52.16 seconds.
When she sat down to plan 2020, though, Muhammad’s crystal ball turned cloudy. Of course, she had the Tokyo Games on the calendar, but she couldn’t clearly see the Olympic year playing out. Training to defend the gold medal she won in Rio in 2016 would take tremendous energy. She wasn’t yet sure how to summon it.
“I just kind of pushed it aside and thought, ‘You know what, the word will come to me when it does naturally. Until that happens, I’ll just do what I normally do,” she says. “And then—COVID.”
She won’t go so far as to say she predicted the chaos 2020 would bring, but in retrospect, the murkiness feels prescient. When the Chinese and Japanese athletes she trains with in Los Angeles suddenly flew home in March, Muhammad realized the pandemic might have a serious impact. Upon postponement of the Games, the pause from competing offered her an opportunity to reflect and reconnect to her purpose.
“Why I run has changed every single year that I’ve been running, and I’ve come to the clarity that that’s OK. As we grow as people, our ‘why’ should change,” she says. “For me, today, I feel like I have something more to give than just my athletic ability.”
So she’s broadened her view, making an effort to mentor younger athletes as well as connect to leaders in the sport. And, she’s used her voice for women and Black athletes. The reckoning in 2020 on racial justice brought conversations she’d long had behind closed doors into the open.
Muhammad has shared her experiences on podcasts and in mainstream media outlets. She’s discussed how, as a dark-skinned Muslim athlete, she receives far less media attention than lighter women despite her dominance on the track. She’s been told directly she might have more funding and opportunities if she were white, and now she’s pulling back the curtain on that treatment.
“For so long, especially as Black athletes, we’ve been torn between wanting to speak up on certain issues, and honestly being afraid of what it would mean for us financially,” she says. “Now that you have this huge movement happening, it took away that fear. It came to the point where it’s now or never.”
At one point in her career, Muhammad might have viewed these pursuits as distractions from a champion’s singular focus. “But now, there’s so much more I’m willing to do. I no longer put my own needs over those of the generation that comes behind,” she says. “I’m thinking about all those things that come with wanting to push the sport forward.”
Not that she’s done competing—in fact, the bigger perspective has only rekindled her motivation. Based on her efforts in training, she believes 51 seconds is possible, and she’ll shoot for it. “At this point, it’s no longer the world record, but a PR. Technically, that’s always gonna be the goal,” she says.
The Olympic delay also gave her the opportunity to shore up some weaknesses. Her coach Lawrence “Boogie” Johnson incorporated endurance-based workouts she’d never done before—for instance, sixteen 250- to 400-meter repeats with very short recovery—that boosted her fitness. Now, she feels less fatigued even when sprinting. “I don’t think anyone would think that at age 30, you could become a better athlete,” she says. “But I feel like I break those barriers every day in training, and I see more and more how possible it is.”
So what’s her word for 2021? Muhammad has some ideas, but she worries that divulging them might diminish their power. She will share a vision for Tokyo, though: a sweep in the 400-meter hurdles, with American athletes standing on all three podium spots.
Right now, she, McLaughlin, and Shamier Little are ranked top three in the world, with Ashley Spencer and Kori Carter not far behind. If they all stay healthy and perform on the day, there’s no telling what they could accomplish for themselves—and, by extension, the sport. “That’s what I would love to see and be a part of,” Muhammad says. “I’ve always wanted the best for all of them. But now I really, really want to see all of us win.” —Cindy KuzmaSection divider
Courtney Dauwalter: Racing Past All Limits
The rules of the game dictated that Courtney Dauwalter, 35, had to stop running after a record-setting 283.33 miles over three straight days. But she wonders if she could have kept going.
It was the U.S. version of Big’s Backyard Ultra, one of few opportunities to race in 2020 and Dauwalter defeated all her American competitors—men and women. She was only allowed to continue logging “yards” or laps of a 4.16667-mile loop as long as one other person was still racing. After her 68th lap, Dauwalter was declared the U.S. champion following Harvey Lewis’s retirement from the course.
“All I know is that I didn’t stop by choice,” says Dauwalter, who lives in Golden, Colorado.
Dauwalter is renowned for her ability to face the pain and discomfort of extreme distances. She doesn’t care who else is on the line—she wants to outlast and beat them all. And after she’s done, she’ll drink a beer with you, share some nachos, and tell you all about the hallucinations she had while she was running.
“While a man might have bigger muscle mass or lung capacity than I do, maybe I can hurt more or be more patient or whatever it is on the day,” she says.
In 2021, Dauwalter, who won the 2019 women’s Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, is itching to get back to racing. In the meantime, she’s never one to dwell on obstacles, opting instead to go after fastest known time records or fast-packing with friends in the mountains.
“Once it became clear that it wasn’t going to be a normal year, I had to take advantage of what I could do,” she says, “rather than mourning the loss of all the cool races I had been planning.” —Erin StroutSection divider
Shelby Houlihan and Karissa Schweizer: Pushing Ahead, Together
Sometimes when Shelby Houlihan and Karissa Schweizer go out for an easy run together, it turns into a tempo run by accident. They talk about American records they want to set and Olympic medals they want to win. Before they even realize it, their pace has turned into something…not easy.
“We hype each other up in these conversations,” Schweizer says, as Houlihan adds, “We’re good with each other like that. We just keep feeding off each other. We just look at each other like, ‘Yeah, I think we can do this.’”
Houlihan, 27, a 2016 Olympian, is the American record holder in the 5,000 meters (14:23.92) and the 1500 meters (3:54.99). Schweizer, 24, is the American record holder in the indoor 3,000 meters (8:25.70). Both Iowa natives, together they’re training partners with the Bowerman Track Club, and they egg each other on to excellence.
The partnership between the two, who are also fierce competitors on race day, is what Houlihan describes as a game changer for her career.
“Karissa has the same mentality as me, just like, ‘Let’s just go die today.’ Every workout, we just want to go to the red line and push ourselves to meet our potential,” Houlihan says. “I feel like that’s been really refreshing to have someone that’s willing to do that with me. I know I can’t fall off in a workout because she’s right next to me.”
Just a year into her pro career, Schweizer has already made her first U.S. team, competing in the 5,000 meters at the 2019 world championships, where she placed ninth in 14:45.18. She appreciates that she and Houlihan can work together without allowing their individual ambition to become destructive.
“I feel like it would be really easy to just be kind of catty or super competitive at practice, but I never feel that way,” she says. “And when it comes to race day, we’re going to give it our all. We’re going to compete against each other. It’s a very good culture that we’ve built, and it’s led to so much of the success that we’ve recently had.”
So when those easy runs turn too fast, it’s because these two have big plans for 2021. First, the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials in June, then if all goes well, on to the Tokyo Games, where Houlihan wants to compete in the 1500 meters and Schweizer in the 5,000 meters.
“Best-case scenario is that both of us can come back with a gold medal,” Houlihan says. “Fingers crossed.”
Schweizer nods her head in agreement. “That would be amazing. That’s ideal.” —Erin StroutSection divider
Kaitlin Goodman: Making Public Health Personal
Pandemics have always ranked among Kaitlin Goodman’s greatest fears. It’s one reason she earned a master’s degree in public health at Brown University. Since graduating in 2018, she has balanced work as a public health consultant with training, racing, and coaching.
When Goodman’s nightmares became reality this past year, friends and family sought her help to make sense of conflicting messages about the novel coronavirus. So, the four-time Olympic Trials qualifier and 2:32 marathoner began using her social media accounts to spread credible information. “You might wonder, ‘Who can I trust?’” she says. “I’m trying to elevate the voices of scientists and other public health folks.”
Goodman has learned to approach sensitive health topics with care. Shame doesn’t work to change behavior. Instead, she employs empathy, optimism, and humor—like #MaskMonday photos with her dog—and draws on the shared language of sport.
“No one’s following me for public health specifically—it’s a running account,” she says. “But that can be the avenue to connect with people. You need that common ground before you can have the harder conversations.”
She gets her share of “stay in your lane” comments, but other DMs show she’s making a difference. One follower made the tough call to cancel her Thanksgiving travel plans after reading Goodman’s reminder of the repercussions for the health care system. “She said, your post really gut-checked me and reminded me, this is the right thing to do,” Goodman says.
The pandemic has brought another aspect of her public health work to the forefront. After a near-miss with a distracted driver in 2018, she launched Safe on the Road, a nonprofit to promote pedestrian and cyclist safety. As towns and cities closed streets to cars to make room for safe outdoor recreation, Goodman put together an eight-page guide to help people talk to their elected officials about so-called open streets. She’s also hoping Safe on the Road can help more under-resourced communities, and she is currently developing culturally competent resources, including Spanish translations.
She’s not sure what 2021 will bring running-wise—she does have her sights on the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials this summer, though. But she’ll definitely keep talking about public health. “I will die on the mask sword,” she says. “If you’re tired of hearing about it, you can unfollow, but I will keep posting about it until everyone’s wearing one.” —Cindy KuzmaSection divider
NCAA Activism: Flexing a Different Kind of Muscle
Anna Cockrell is a gifted hurdler, but her career at the University of Southern California is also an example of NCAA track athletes who are using their clout on campus to make a difference.
Cockrell joined with other USC athletes to create the United Black Student-Athletes Association. Among the group’s requests to the athletic department: being included in decisions about the pandemic, and recognizing that COVID-19 disproportionately affects the Black community.
The pandemic spurred other athletes across the country to action, too. At the College of William & Mary, for example, the women’s track and field team said it would not represent the institution in competition until officials reinstated the men’s track and field program, which had been eliminated like several other programs across the country due to budget cuts.
“We will begin a campaign of passive resistance to the unfair practices and policies of the College’s administration, including the dishonest manner in which these decisions were arrived at,” the team wrote in a letter to officials. Not long after, William & Mary reinstated the men’s team.
“College athletes seem to be all in, critically thinking about their roles and responsibilities and the platforms that they have,” says Victoria Jackson, a sports historian and assistant professor at Arizona State University. “This gives me hope, for sure. This college generation gives me hope.” —Erin StroutSection divider
Kara Goucher: Protecting the Next Generation
If an important issue needs attention, it’s probable that Kara Goucher will lend her support. With one of the largest fan bases in the sport, she’ll reach a vast audience, too.
The year ahead could be a grueling one for Goucher, who was one of the primary whistleblowers in the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s case against her former Oregon Project coach, Alberto Salazar. He was handed a four-year ban in October 2019 for doping violations; with the support of sponsor Nike, he’s appealing the decision, which will likely be decided this year. Goucher will give testimony.
Salazar is also under a SafeSport investigation, brought on by allegations of abuse and mistreatment by former athletes including Goucher, Mary Cain, and Amy Begley.
For Goucher, 42, the issues no longer directly affect her career, but her concern for future generations of athletes who may find themselves in similar situations compels her to keep pressing uncomfortable topics.
“It’s not a revenge or vengeance thing for me. It’s standing up for what’s right for the sport,” says Goucher, a world championships silver medalist in the 10,000 meters who also helps host the “Clean Sport Collective” podcast. “I don’t have any wish to return to elite competition. It’s not for myself anymore. We need to protect new generations of athletes.” —Erin StroutSection divider
Alison Désir: Stopping the Silence
When Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was shot and killed by two white men while he was out for a run near his Georgia home, Alison Désir couldn’t believe that nobody was acknowledging the travesty.
The mental health coach and founder of Harlem Run took to social media and asked why nobody cared, igniting a broader conversation about the racism and white supremacy within the sport and why Black runners often don’t feel welcomed into the running community.
“It was one of those moments for me that I felt like I was able to use my platform to bring a voice to all the people I had talked to, all those people I had been texting, ‘Damn, we can’t even go running in the middle of the day,’” Désir says. “I was able to give voice to all of us who share those concerns.”
She spent the rest of the year speaking on panels and organizing forums, amplifying a long-overdue conversation. In 2021 she has a book planned, The Unbearable Whiteness of Running, covering her efforts toward social change through distance running and a call for an inclusive fitness culture.
“People who are shocked by what happened to Ahmaud Arbery are in the beginning of their white racial identity, just realizing, ‘Oh my God, my whiteness carries meaning,’” Désir says. “When you are anti-racist, you recognize the privilege you have and use it in service of other people.” —Erin StroutSection divider
Emma Coburn: Securing the Sport’s Success
Some athletes put their heads down and focus solely on training and racing. Emma Coburn doesn’t fault them; she’s done it herself. But at this point in her career, as she prepares to make her third Olympics—the bronze medalist steeplechaser believes she performs better when she’s making a difference, no matter how small.
In 2019, World Athletics announced it was cutting several events from the Diamond League schedule, including steeplechase. The effect, she says, was to imperil athletes’ livelihoods. So when Olympic and world triple jump champion Christian Taylor announced the formation of an advocacy group called Athletics Association, Coburn immediately jumped on board, now serving as vice president.
They urged the World Athletics to reconsider, and in late 2020, the Diamond League announced it would return to a full program of 32 disciplines in 2021, adding back all they’d cut.
“There have been many, many decisions over the years, both in track and field and at a bigger Olympic level, that have been made without real consideration of the athletes’ opinions,” she says. “I think having an independent group, one that’s not afraid to ruffle feathers and is able to really speak freely, is important.”
Whether it’s an issue with personal safety or finances, Coburn, 30, plans to keep fighting. When the International Olympic Committee was still deliberating the fate of the 2020 Tokyo Games, Athletics Association surveyed more than 4,000 members worldwide. The overwhelming majority couldn’t train safely and wanted the Games postponed or canceled. Taylor and Coburn used the results to advocate for an immediate postponement, which occurred a day later.
In November 2020, Athletics Association joined athlete groups and anti-doping organizations worldwide to call for reforms at the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Clean sport is an issue that Coburn’s been speaking up on for years. It’s frustrating enough that she must compete on an unfair playing field, but she’s also seen far too many peers lose out on medals and wins. “Seeing the pain and frustration of those athletes, it’s hard to not want to step up and be involved,” she says.
Beginning this year, the association will provide benefits to members, including cash grants, product discounts, and courses in financial literacy. “There’s an endless list of ways to improve an athlete’s life beyond just their paycheck. We hope to discover what some of those gaps are in athlete welfare and how we can help,” Coburn says. —Cindy KuzmaSection divider
Tatyana McFadden: Fighting for Inclusion
Rising Phoenix, a documentary released by Netflix in August, traces the history of the Paralympics from its origins in 1948 through thrilling competitions at Rio in 2016.
It also highlights the backstories of nine athletes, including co-producer Tatyana McFadden. Her journey, which began in a Russian orphanage, includes 20-plus World Marathon Major wins, seven Paralympic titles, and 15 world gold medals. And a whole lot of activism.
“I’ve been an advocate all my life,” she says. In high school, McFadden, now 31, filed a lawsuit to compete with her able-bodied peers on the track team; the victory eventually inspired a national mandate. As a pro, she’s demanded equal billing at press conferences and in ad campaigns and pressured NBC to expand its Paralympic coverage. Behind the scenes of Rising Phoenix, she pushed the directors to hire crews member with disabilities, who ended up making up 16 percent of the film’s staff.
Her sights are still set firmly on Tokyo 2021—where, for the first time, American Paralympians’ medal payouts will equal Olympians’—as well as Los Angeles 2028, where she’d like to finish her career. No matter the arena, she’ll never stop demanding the equality she and her fellow para-athletes deserve: “It’s so important to be that voice.” —Cindy KuzmaSection divider
Sally Bergesen: Agitating and Improving the Apparel Industry
In 2007, Sally Bergesen had an idea for running shorts that didn’t poof, and a big question: What would it look like to start a running apparel company by women, for women?
The difference would start with the clothes. They’d fit right, move well, and look good. Simple, yes. Successful? Hell yes. Seattle-based Oiselle has seen consistent growth over 14 years, even during a pandemic: Online sales shot up in April and stayed strong—in part because more people were running outside, but also because work-from-home culture accelerated the trend of performance fabrics in everyday life.
“I’m all for it, not just because it’s my business, but because we believe that when you are comfortable in your body and in your clothes, it’s a form of self-care and self-respect,” Bergesen, the founder and CEO says. “Historically there’s been this lens of fashion—that whole beauty-is-pain line of thinking—that I think is dated. Women know that ultimately, the way you feel impacts the way you think.”
Bergesen knew Oiselle couldn’t compete with the deeper pocketbooks of established brands when it came to securing big-name athletes. But the more she and her staff learned about standard runner contracts, the more fiercely they rejected the status quo.
Oiselle aimed to support its elites in a way that valued more than their medals. Athletes have stories to tell, Bergesen knew. Narrative deepened their connection to fans; it also, she suspected, would move more product.
They signed their first elite, Lauren Fleshman, in 2013, when she was pregnant with her first child. Her value wasn’t just her performances—though she had those—but her blog and her other ventures, including Picky Bars and Believe Training Journals. Her compensation included stock and a role in shaping the business.
Now, Oiselle’s payroll features three athlete-advisors—Fleshman, Kara Goucher, and Alison Désir, who joined last summer. The company supports them as much for their activism and thought leadership as their athletic accomplishments, and each has input into Oiselle’s direction.
Then there’s the Haute Volée, the company’s roster of competitive elites, which has expanded to more than 40 diverse women, including field athletes like discus thrower Valarie Allman, pole vaulter Megan Clark, pushrim racer Jenna Fesemyer, and Littlewing Athletics, a team coached by Fleshman in Bend, Oregon, that prides itself on putting runners’ health first.
It’s all part of the sisterhood Bergesen has aimed to build, and that, recently, she’s deepened her commitment to making more inclusive. She sought to deepen her own understanding of racism—then act on it. How could Oiselle do better on issues of race as a company, and by extension, influence the running community? “More than anything, it awakened in us a desire to be a part of what the future could be,” she says.
So Oiselle brought on Alison Désir along with diversity and inclusion consultant Courtney Carter, a marathoner and active member of the company’s 4,000-strong Volée running community. Carter had already helped shape the company’s product line—Bergesen hesitated to offer visors, saying they made her feel like a tennis player, until Carter pointed out many women of color couldn’t fit their hair in hats. In addition to their individual roles, both now serve on an advisory group meeting quarterly to guide the company’s progress.
Oiselle’s anti-racist efforts include everything from small details—filtering job descriptions through screening software to root out unintentionally discriminatory language—to grand gestures. Last summer, Oiselle teamed up with Désir’s grassroots activist group Run 4 All Women to host the Womxn Run the Vote virtual relay. Around 10,000 runners logged miles, learned about voting-rights history, and raised nearly $300,000 for the nonprofit Black Voters Matter. The event was such a success—“an aha moment of women coming together across different boundaries and barriers,” as Bergesen describes it—that they plan to hold another relay with a different focus in 2021.
Commerce and commitments to social justice haven’t always been easy companions, Bergesen acknowledges. For instance, when the brand donated 100 percent of its Global Running Day sales to the Loveland Foundation, some questioned why people should have to make a purchase to support the cause. Bergesen takes the point to heart, knowing that the brand as a whole, and she as a leader, have more to learn. “I don’t think we have all the answers,” she says. “But as Alison has reminded me, it’s a commitment to imperfection. You’re going to get it wrong or take a step somebody doesn’t agree with. It sucks when it happens, but doing nothing is worse.”
Meanwhile, as the company continues to evolve, so do the clothes. In fall 2020, Oiselle extended its sizing to fit more body types, introducing a new collection with styles up to size 24/26. In January, they’ll begin offering band- and cup-sized bras, with more support for larger cup sizes. The Runaway Bride collection, which has been popular with speedy newlyweds since 2009, now sports a tuxedo shirt as a non-binary option.
It’s all part of bringing confidence to all types of women, both in their athletic goals and the rest of their lives. “Runners are uniquely suited to be leaders in any number of areas, whether that’s politics or social justice or community endeavors,” she says. And no matter what you do when you’re wearing them, “we’re making garments that help you feel strong from the inside out.” —Cindy KuzmaSection divider
Allyson Felix: Breaking the Mold
More versatile products. Developed by women, for women. That’s a trend Allyson Felix wants to see more of in the future. And that’s what she’s helping to create with Athleta.
Since joining the brand in late 2019, nine-time Olympic medalist Felix has taken a hands-on role. “With Athleta, it’s a very authentic partnership where I truly have a voice at the company. I remember one of my first meetings formally with Athleta and sitting at a table surrounded by female leadership and it was something I had never experienced before,” says Felix. “I was heard, and I was seen.”
Her limited-edition collection, which launched last August, marks Athleta’s first-ever athlete collaboration for both women and girls. The 12 styles in the capsule represent the power of what happens when women come together and define their own legacies. That message seem to connect with consumers: A number of items were sold out within two weeks, and even caught the attention of celebs like Gabrielle Union-Wade.
“Allyson has had an impact on everything, from giving input on what the brand stands for, and how we show up for consumers. She really has become part of our Athleta family,” says Mary Beth Laughton, Athleta’s CEO. “We are so honored to work with such an amazing role model and inspiration, both on and off the track.”
This team is just getting started. (Athleta says it’s already planning the second capsule.) “One thing that has been extremely clear to me during and post-childbirth is that you can be strong and transform in a lot of different ways. That’s something that I want my daughter to grow up with, and I want all young women to understand. When I announced my partnership with Athleta, I was proud to be a living example of how things can be different and how we can break the mold.” —Jen AtorSection divider
Martha Garcia: Running, for Everyone
Martha Garcia got her start in fashion footwear. When she joined Deckers in 2015 and full-time at Hoka One One in 2016, it wasn’t a natural fit. “I questioned why I was working with them to be quite honest,” Garcia says. “I felt very intimidated by the running industry, and by the brand.”
A work trip to the 2017 Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, changed her perspective. “I was just like, ‘Oh my God, this is so beautiful,’” says Garcia. “There are so many different people who find passion in this sport. Look at the diversity. Look at the countries. Look at the like racial makeup, the ages. That’s where it just kind of all clicked for me.”
Garcia has played a pivotal role in finding the “unlock” to new consumers. As an immigrant and a woman of color, she knew there was a major blind spot in the industry, and that Hoka was in a position to grow.
“I’m really excited to be a part of a really diverse team who’re all passionate about challenging systemic racism and bringing the running industry along to be more inclusive to represent the makeup of runners,” says Garcia, who also serves on the newly established Running Diversity Coalition leadership team.
In her new role as global creative director for the booming footwear brand, she will continue pushing for stronger representation and storytelling of all runners. “I’ve always been someone to challenge the status quo,” Garcia says. “My parents didn’t work this hard to come to this country for me to like be quiet and then stay silent.” —Jen AtorSection divider
Jenny Taylor: Making Sport Equitable
For an outdoor brand rooted in high-performance technical gear for alpine sports like skiing and mountain running and heavily marketed to men, making women feel welcome isn’t an easy task. But at Salomon, VP of marketing Jenny Taylor and her team are determined to change that.
“We wanted to really over index and be deliberate,” says Taylor. “And it’s been working.” The brand’s WMN Campaign, which seeks to help break down harmful stereotypes and clichés that active women face in order to foster a more inclusive space, is the latest step. Based on outreach and engagement data, it’s the brands most successful campaign to date, says Taylor. “It’s a perfect example of the responsibility we felt. Hey, we’re saying we want to sell more product to women. But what are we doing to earn their business?”
Taylor is committed to ensuring that these changes are sustained, “not just what was cool in 2020.” The company has announced new trail running criteria for events they sponsor: all races must be Trail Sisters–approved with an equal gender ratio, volunteers and race directors go through DEI training, and free childcare is provided. Women’s-specific hydration packs coming out this year will run from double XS to double XL. “I want to make sure people know it’s for them,” she says. “It’s for everyone.” —Jen AtorSection divider
Alison Wade: Serving the Sport’s Top News
Every Monday morning, running fans open their inbox in eager anticipation. At around 5 a.m. Eastern, Alison Wade’s Fast Women newsletter arrives.
Since its launch in January 2019, the roundup of news and race results—often topped with Wade’s smart commentary and original reporting—has become a must-read for those interested in women’s distance running.
The missive grew out of fast-women.com, a website Wade founded and operated for New York Road Runners in the early 2000s. After, she held other running-related jobs, like a collegiate coach and freelance writer, while still closely following elite competition.
But even as digital media platforms and podcasts proliferated, Wade still found herself spending hours hunting down the information she sought and wishing for a single, comprehensive source dedicated to the women’s side of the sport. Because no one else had picked up where fast-women.com left off, she decided to create her own, again. “A lot of other people are doing the good reporting,” she says. “I just help consolidate and spread the word.”
Each week, between remote school for her 9-year-old twin daughters, Wade bookmarks news stories; watches road races and track meets; and listens to podcasts. On Saturday and Sunday, she pulls it all together before sending to thousands of subscribers. “It’s become basically a full-time job, but with really weird work hours,” she says. Her salary is entirely supported by sponsorships and Patreon donations. To keep the info accessible, she doesn’t charge for subscriptions.
Thanks to Wade’s expansive attention to the culture and business of running, she’s continued to curate and create new, compelling content—even in a year when most races were paused. “I quickly realized that even if there’s no competition, there’s always the story of how runners are handling this, how they’re making it work,” she says.
Wade had touched on issues of racism in the sport before. She’d noticed, and pointed out, how Black runners receive less coverage and fewer opportunities despite their significant accomplishments. But she didn’t always know behind-the-scenes details, and whether the athletes themselves perceived the prejudice.
Now, as more runners openly share experiences with discrimination, she amplifies their voices in the newsletter and on social media. And while she recognizes how much work remains, she’s seen significant signs of progress toward racial equity in the sport and the industry, including more diversity in podcast hosts and other content creators. “There are more athletes speaking out consistently, and more white athletes speaking out,” she says. “We have a lot more people on board with doing better.” —Cindy KuzmaSection divider
More Female Commentators: Breaking the Boys’ Club
One Purdue University and University of Southern California report found that, in 2014, about 96 percent of all sports analysts were men.
But in the running world, at least, more women are picking up the mic—and we are loving it. Deena Kastor, Amy Cragg, Shalane Flanagan, Paula Radcliffe, and Carrie Tollefson have all worked for major marathon broadcasts. Alysia Montaño, Sanya Richards-Ross, and Tianna Bartoletta all served as NBC Sports track analysts in 2020.
Having more women in these high-profile roles could not only bring more balance to each broadcast, it would also offer female athletes more long-term career prospects in the sport. It could also lead to more female fans.
While good commentary is not gender-specific (men can competently comment on women’s races, and vice versa), recent and repetitive comments about athlete’s body size, well, they’ve all come from the mouths of men. “I don’t care about how much someone weighs because that is not relatable to the general audience, but I do care about mindset, form, and trying to catch glimpses of boldness and vulnerability as a race unfolds,” Kastor says. While it’s too soon to know who will occupy the booth in Tokyo this year, it is clear there’s an increasing array of experienced, qualified women ready to step up to the mic. —Cindy KuzmaSection divider
Molly Huddle: Writing the Sport’s Legacy
In 2019, two-time Olympian Molly Huddle launched “Keeping Track,” a podcast highlighting female runners whose full experiences haven’t been described in mainstream media, which she co-hosts with fellow Olympians Alysia Montaño and Roisin McGettigan.
Though it began as a way to lift up others, the collaboration with and sometimes difficult discussions about doping, representation, and social justice have helped Huddle, 36, speak up more herself. In the past year, she’s written about touchy topics, including an editorial supporting an anti-doping law published in the Washington Post.
It’s also inspired her upcoming book, How She Did It, with coauthor Sara Slattery. The goal: Compile success stories from around 50 female runners into a guide for a sustainable career. “There are a lot of hurdles and pitfalls that can happen to young athletes with a win-at-all-costs mindset,” Huddle says. “We wanted to elevate women’s stories for the benefit of others, teaching them there’s a way to get to high performance and stay in the sport for a long time, in a healthy way.”
The timing proved providential. “It’s been really cool to talk to everyone during quarantine. You’re not seeing your close friends, but you have an excuse to talk to every running idol you’ve ever had,” she says. In a single week, she interviewed Shalane Flanagan, Shelby Houlihan, and Lynn Jennings.
The lessons have hit home for Huddle, as she balances these multimedia projects with the remaining years of her pro career. After a disappointing DNF in the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, she dialed back. Instead of traveling for meets, she staged a unique challenge close to home: She set an American record for the most track miles in one hour, running 11.14 miles to beat Nancy Conz’s mark from 1981. The goal struck the right balance of motivating yet possible, and gave her a chance to honor the sport’s history.
This summer, Huddle will compete in the 10,000 meters, attempting to make her third Olympics. “I don’t have that many years left,” she says. But inspired by lessons from her peers and mentors, she knows she can make the most of them. —Cindy KuzmaSection divider
Alysia Montaño: Showing (Real Life) Mom Life
She might be an Olympic 800-meter runner, but Alysia Montaño is also a mom of three, trying to prioritize family and breastfeed an infant while tackling a long list of work projects: a book, a podcast, and &Mother, the nonprofit she founded in 2020, just to name a few.
Montaño, 34, has always pushed against the boxes people put her in. From childhood, she didn’t see why she couldn’t love sports and flowers; as a pro athlete, she hated having to project the image of perfection. So now, sharing the full, real journey not only connects her to fans, it’s also proven liberating, creating a positive feedback loop from which she also reaps benefits.
“I’m going to be open, I’m going to be honest, and there’s nothing to hide,” she says. Like in late November, when she underwent surgery to repair her diastasis recti, the split in her abdominal muscles post-pregnancy. She not only opened up about her decision-making process, she even posted full videos of the procedure on Instagram.
She got an outpouring of gratitude from other moms, runners and otherwise, including some now rethinking their own options. “I did every single thing to have my best chances of healing my diastasis myself, and it just wasn’t in the cards. Sometimes that happens,” Montaño says. She shared because didn’t want other women to have to feel like failures just because they hadn’t lived up to an unrealistic expectation of powering through without medical intervention.
“I’ve been an example to myself too, that there are hard times, there are great times, and you can still have great results at the end of hard times.” —Cindy KuzmaSection divider
Desiree Linden: Championing the People
How do we keep running when everything is so uncertain? Look to Desiree Linden—she’ll show us the way.
Linden, the 2018 Boston Marathon champion, has never quite fit the description of “elite” athlete, save for her exceptional running talent. Maybe it’s because of her down-to-earth attitude, her understated sense of humor, her whiskey indulgences, or the simple mantra she’s shared with the world, to “keep showing up.” Whatever it is, it often makes us feel like Linden could easily slide into our running club meetings and fit right in.
The pandemic only heightened Linden’s ability to inspire. While we all experienced a lot of running-related disappointment in 2020, nobody’s big dreams were dashed quite like hers. She came in a heartbreaking fourth place at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, one place outside of making her third Games. Then her plan to race the Boston Marathon shortly afterward was canceled (twice).
“I always think of that meme that says, ‘Oh, you want to know what am I training for? Life, motherf*cker,’” Linden, 37, said in March, just as it was becoming clear that the pandemic would put events on hold indefinitely. “You have to find some purpose in putting one foot in front of the other and tap into why you run. It can’t just be about race results.”
As elite-only race opportunities started to pop up, Linden instead decided to issue a challenge to the masses during the month of October. She invited anybody to join a “calendar club,” running the same mileage as the date each day (one mile on October 1, two on October 2, and so on)—though just getting out the door for a run or walk, no matter how far, also counted.
Why not train for one of those professional races instead? It just didn’t appeal to Linden, who lives in Charlevoix, Michigan. Because we wouldn’t be there.
“I love that people are getting creative and starting to get events back on the calendar,” Linden says. “But I also love the community side of running and that the activity and the sport can exist on the same course. It’s just hard to get as amped up for these races that are pros-only.”
In 2021, we may see Linden on the track, if she decides to go for a 10,000-meter qualifying time for the Olympic Track & Field Trials. If not, we’re sure she’ll let us know whatever she has planned next.
“It’s a luxury to be a pro runner,” she says. “Racing will start again and we’ll be ready when it does.” —Erin StroutSection divider
Tianna Bartoletta: Creating Space
The sprinter and long jumper with three Olympic gold medals and three world championships titles has spent as much of her life sharpening her writing skills as she has her track and field prowess. She’s equally inspired in both disciplines—and in 2021 she’ll publish her memoir, Defying Gravity, while attempting to make her third Olympic team.
During the pandemic year, Bartoletta checked in on the mental health of her large following via social media, periodically posting a simple question: “How are you?” Her followers responded on a scale of colored emoji hearts, a red broken heart indicating, “I’m in a dark place.” Bartoletta shared her status right along with everybody else and often flagged a fan’s broken heart with a comment, “Send me a message if you need an ear.”
She has a way of drawing people in with her blunt but empathetic tone. If Bartoletta, 35, has feelings about any topic, from her yoga practice to racial injustice or voting, she’s not afraid to express her perspective. She shows support and encourages others—though never sugar-coating the circumstances.
“Canceled opportunities. Diminished paychecks. Strained relationships. You name it. It sucks…but it’s reality,” she wrote on Instagram in December. “So instead of focusing on all we can’t do…try plotting out all you can do within this framework. Don’t compare it to what you used to do. You aren’t as paralyzed as you feel right now. Mask up. And tell everyone else to back up. You’ve got some thriving to do.” —Erin StroutSection divider
Stephanie Bruce: Shining Light on the Imperfect
Shortly after placing sixth at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, Bruce took it upon herself to fill the void left by race cancellations by offering up daily Instagram live pep talks, advice, and giveaways to healthcare workers. A mother of two young boys, she also cataloged the disruption of all that togetherness—the joy of it and the challenges, too.
“My kids are kicking my ass this week,” she wrote in mid-April. “I’m sure they are sad about not seeing their friends and they miss their grandparents. I’m sad for them. It’s hard to communicate the bigger picture and how really we have it easy in this house.”
Bruce, 36, who lives and trains in Flagstaff, Arizona, has used her social media to help runners of all abilities get a glimpse of a professional athlete’s life. She covers body image by openly talking about the loose skin on her abdomen from pregnancies. She gives resources to postpartum women coping with diastasis recti. During the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, she opened up about her own learning process as a white woman, and how she didn’t recognize her privilege or use it for change.
“I didn’t see my U.S. teammates who I cheered on as they won Olympic medals for us,” Bruce wrote. “I saw their accomplishments and work ethic, but I didn’t see them raising a fist on the podium, and being told they were too Black and angry when asking for change.”
Fans respond to Bruce because they can see themselves in her triumphs, her struggles, and her mistakes. She gives a space to talk about the hard stuff as it relates to running and beyond. And because she takes her following along for the journey, she also brings a spotlight to the sport in a way that few others can.
In 2021 we’ll see Bruce at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials, likely competing in the 10,000 meters. She never counts herself out, even when her chances may not look good on paper—and she asks her fans to do the same for themselves.
“You know what you’re capable of even if you haven’t achieved it yet,” she says, “Be bold enough to dream it and to pursue it, and don’t let anything take up space in your head and heart that doesn’t align with your belief in yourself.” —Erin Strout