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I Wish I Could Run Like a Girl

Huffington Post [2016-06-17]

By Dr. Mariappan Jawaharlal

As a recreational runner, I habitually run at least 5k every place I visit. A few weeks ago, I was in Leticia, a small town in Colombia bordering Peru and Brazil, for a seminar. As soon as I checked into my hotel, I asked the front-desk receptionist where in Leticia I could run, but I could not communicate with him, because I didn't know Spanish and he didn't know English. Two men who spoke a little English came forward, showed me a map of the town on a smartphone, and suggested a few places to run. I asked them if they would like to join me for a short run the next day. They politely declined; one of them said he was content driving his motorcycle, and would probably "run like a girl" anyway.

This was not the first time I had heard "run like a girl." I was reminded of a hugely successful commercial aired during the Super Bowl a few years ago, in which people gave stereotypically effeminate physical demonstrations of the phrase, which I had found to be insulting and demeaning. As I walked back to my hotel room, the words "run like a girl" kept ringing in my ears, and they made me think about how I ran.

Is running like a girl really bad?
I thought.

I was never a runner for sport. Games such as basketball and soccer made more sense to me, as they had clear goals--a goal and a basket--so I considered running to be an aimless activity. Then I saw my youngest daughter running regularly after joining her high-school cross-country team. I wasn't excited about running, but I admired her tenacity to go out and run every day. So I slowly developed a secret desire to run like her and experience what it felt like.

A few months later, when my oldest daughter asked me to run a half-marathon with her, I seized the opportunity. Since then, I have been running regularly with all of my family members. I ran three half-marathons with my second daughter. My wife ran a full marathon without much practice, managing to complete 26.2 miles with sheer determination and willpower. So I got into running, thanks to the women in my family.

When I got more serious about running and wanted to run a full marathon, I decided to attend a running workshop. My teacher, Mary Lindahl, happened to be a woman in her mid-60s who had completed over 35 marathons with the best time of 3 hours and 9 minutes. I was amazed that this woman, who was older than me and looked so fragile, could run 1.5 times faster than me. In fact, she had run the Boston Marathon six times. Since her workshop, I have completed 25 marathons, but am not anywhere near Mary's speed, and I may never qualify to run the Boston Marathon.

Speaking of which, I remembered Bobbi Gibb, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon. In 1966 she entered the event as a 'bandit' runner, because women were not allowed to run marathons then, as they were considered physiologically incapable of running long distances. So Bobbi hid behind the bushes, jumped into the middle of the pack, and simply ran. She had run 40 miles a day preparing for the Marathon, and the Boston Athletic Association now recognizes her as the event's pre-sanctioned era (unofficial) women's winner for 1966, 1967, and 1968. Female Marathon entrants were officially sanctioned beginning in 1972.

I don't know what makes women run faster when they run longer distances. In a short distance such as a one-mile race or a 5K or 10K, men easily win women. Even in a marathon, elite women run about 10 minutes behind men, but if the distance increases, the speed gap seems to narrow.

Recently I ran my first official 50K race in Lone Pine, a little town on the foothills of Mt. Whitney in California. Though I am an experienced runner, the feeling of running a 50K race for the first time made my stomach churn. During the first two miles I struggled, as the terrain was sandy, so I started walking. As I walked, I could hear two middle-aged women talking very loudly right behind me. I looked back and noticed one of them limping. I wasn't certain if it was a disability (left leg a bit shorter than the right) or if she had an injury. I wondered if she would even be able to complete the race within the time limit.

Normally my mind wanders around when I run, but these women were chatting at such a high volume I could hear their entire conversation. They prattled on endlessly about running, clothes, shoes, boyfriends, health issues, groceries, etc., etc. By now the course was all uphill, and I was unable to run at all, so I walked as fast as I could, but could still hear those women within earshot. At that point, I was wondering how they were able to talk constantly without raising their heartbeats.

Though not a competitive runner, in my mind I had no doubt I would beat those two big-mouthed ladies, because one of them was limping, they were just behind me, and I would take off on the downhill part of the course. Sure enough, after about an hour or so, we all reached the top of the mountain, and away I went downhill. I ran really fast for the next eight miles or so, confident that those ladies had no chance of catching up with me.

However, after mile 21, things got worse. My body was shutting down, and I once again was unable to run. At mile 22, I saw the limping lady closing in on me. Minutes later, I helplessly watched her pass me. She was maintaining a steady pace and seemed to run with little effort. That was the last I saw of her on the trail.

Then, at mile 24, I saw the second lady approach me. She smiled at me as she passed, as if just getting started, while I was struggling to put one leg in front of the other. I finished the race only because I had no other choice--going back is not an option after running 27 miles with 5 to go. I took almost 7.5 hours to finish the race, 30 minutes behind the limping lady and 15 minutes behind the second one.

Women and girls were not allowed to officially run long distance just a few decades ago. Now there are more women runners, and more of them finish races: 57% of the 17 million U.S. race-finishers in all contests from a 5K road-race to a full marathon are now women.

You've got to be kidding if you tell me that "run like a girl" is an insult. I wish I could run like a girl.