I Would Never Run a Women-Only Race. Until I Did.

This post was originally published on this site

I’ve avoided registering for women-only races the same way I avoid wearing that running bra that seems like it should fit perfectly, but chafes under my arms just enough to be annoying. I consider myself a feminist, but it’s always felt to me as though women-only events, with their finish-line pampering that screams of stereotypes — massages, chocolate, mimosas, men in tuxes offering congratulations — do nothing to actually advance the cause of feminism.

So when I heard about the Queen Bee Half Marathon, a women’s running event here in Cincinnati earlier this month, I initially dismissed it. The problem was, my training was going really well. I was in peak condition, and if I waited to run a coed event later in the fall, I worried I wouldn’t get the personal record I was hoping for. The Queen Bee just happened to be falling at the right time.

My politics were malleable when a potential P.R. was on the line.

The morning of the Queen Bee, I walked out to my car at 6:30 a.m. The Little Dipper hung clear and bright above me. It’s written in the stars that I’m supposed to run this race, I told myself as I made my way on Interstate 71 to downtown Cincinnati and the start of the race.

For some reason, I wasn’t expecting to see any men there. But there they were, everywhere — cheering for wives, girlfriends, sisters, aunts, moms. A dozen or so milled around me at the starting line, with race bibs and running gear. While there was no men’s division or awards, the race organizers, it turned out, do allow men to run.

I saw women in princess garb, wearing tiaras and tutus, and marveled that we had really not come further than this — then immediately felt ashamed for thinking that. What kind of feminist was I, anyway? The point of feminism was choice. Why was I being so judgmental?

The starting gun went off and I set the thought aside. I had a race to run.

But mile after mile, the thought kept nagging at me: How can I call myself a champion of women’s equality but have a nagging distrust of women-only races?

And then, around mile seven, as I reached for a cup of Gatorade from one of the (many) male race volunteers, it suddenly became clear to me. It isn’t that you hate women-only races or are a bad feminist, I thought. You’re just not a group person! Wasn’t that why I was a runner to begin with? I prefer the solitary, gravitating toward individualism and outlier-like behaviors. It’s why I started working for myself 15 years ago. It’s why my husband and I reversed the roles and he stays home with the kids.

In college, where I’d studied feminist theory 20 years ago, we’d called it “equality” feminism, which is all about individual opportunity. It’s about living and working (and running!) among men and minimizing the ways in which we are different from them. By contrast, “difference” feminism is more about maximizing our identity as women and finding strength and opportunity in it as a group.

I don’t know if it was the realization that I wasn’t a terrible feminist, but an “equality” feminist, or pure adrenaline, but I was soon on track to demolish my previous half-marathon PR of 1:59.

And then Mr. Inappropriate appeared around mile 10, snaking around us, leering and cheering in wholly uninvited ways. “Nice pace,” I heard him say to a woman just in front of me as he ran beside her and gave her the once-over. He sidled up to another woman and said, “I love seeing all these beautiful women out on a beautiful morning.” It was infuriating, and as I looked around, I could read the thoughts of the women around me: I don’t need your praise. I don’t want to engage. Leave me alone.

Maybe women-only events made a little more sense.

Around mile 12 I overtook Mr. Inappropriate, turning my music up so I couldn’t hear him as I passed. He was irrelevant. The finish line was in sight, and I took off. I crossed at 1:56:14 — bettering my best by nearly three minutes. Who cared about rude interlopers when I had had such an awesome run?

It’s what happened next that took me by surprise. There, waiting at the finish line, were a dozen or so members of the military offering hugs and high-fives to finishers. One of them, looking handsome and rugged in his fatigues, was opening his arms to me. If I’m not a group person, I’m really not a random hug person. All I could think to say was, “But I’m so sweaty!”

“That’s O.K.!” he said, his arms still open in invitation. And for some reason, and not because I felt forced, I did hug him. Tightly. “Congratulations, you deserve it,” he said.

It could have gone either way: indignation or melting.

I melted.

“Thank you,” I said, choked up as this man, who was probably risking his life for his country, beamed back at me. The problem wasn’t women-only events. The problem was my own either/or thinking about them.

I made my way through the chute, and got my water and banana. I passed up the mimosa and the after-party.

Like I said, I’m not a group person.

And anyway, I’d already gotten what I needed.