Women on the run


Boston started letting women run only in 1972 but the numbers have steadily grown ever since In our continuing coverage of the build-up to the Dublin Marathon, Emmet Malonelooks at the role of women in the event

As he and his colleagues quietly prepare in Boston for the city's 2008 marathon, Jack Fleming, communications director for the Boston Athletic Association which organises the race, is a happy man and you don't need a masters from MIT to see why.

"Over the last 15 years women, particularly young women, have produced the biggest demographic change that we've seen in terms of race entries," says the cheerful Irish American. "It's hard to tell how much of that is down to the fact that they were just under-represented previously and how much is down to other factors, like Adidas and the other apparel manufacturers focusing in on them," he observes.

"From the sport's point of view though it's been great. The last running boom, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, were pretty much dominated by middle-aged men. Now, in the third running boom we're seeing a very different demographic come in and broaden the whole base. It's great for everyone involved in all sorts of ways."

Now I could take offence about the middle- aged men bit but it's hard not to see it from his point of view.

Women, in fact, are taking over running and not just the young ones. Boston, incredibly, started letting them run only in 1972 but the numbers have steadily grown ever since. Over the past 20 years the rate of increase has been remarkably steady with 1 per cent more women participating each year. They accounted for 41 per cent of this year's 23,900 runners. Fleming concedes that the numbers might be higher but for the ways in which people gain entry to the race.

"Obviously a lot of people enter by signing up for charities and that's a popular approach with women but for Boston a large part of the field has qualified by achieving a particular time and maybe our numbers suggest that it's slightly more difficult for women."

In Dublin, the trend over the past five or six years has been almost precisely the same with that 1 per cent annual increase again evident although the overall percentages here lag behind slightly with women expected to comprise about 35 per cent of this year's entry.

In both cities, though, the figures for shorter races provide strong evidence of the direction in which the sport is going. The 3,000-strong field for the annual five-mile race in the Phoenix Park was split almost evenly between the two sexes this year while the BAA's October half-marathon has had more women than men (53 per cent versus 47) compete for the past couple of years.

If we Irish lag behind on those terms, however, we can boast the largest women-only race in the world in the form of the Flora-sponsored mini-marathon, itself a 10km spin-off of the longer event which was first run in 1983, which has become something of a phenomenon since and now attracts more than 40,000 participants annually.

Lindie Naughton, an experienced runner turned coach with Dublin club Crusaders as well as a journalist and author (her next book about the sport, Let's Run, is due out next month), is not at all surprised by the trends.

"In my view," she says, "men play football and women run. Running is simple and there's no problem with age. After three days you're dying, after three weeks you're just about getting the hang of what's involved and after three months you're hooked.

"A lot of women start to run, get fit and then they get ambitious and look for races to take part in. The problem is that most women starting out these days have terribly little experience of exercising, even from school, so they're very much starting from scratch.

"They're playing catch up and it can take five years for them to really look like 'a runner' but it's never too late."

Naughton is still bemused by the thought of the difficulties encountered by early women distance runners and points to the likes of Mary Purcell, Carey May and Jean Folan as pioneers whose hardest battles were often fought just to get to the start lines.

"What's funny about it all," says Naughton, "is that women are actually better over long distances. They may not be as quick but the longer the race gets, the better suited they are physically to the running involved."

A German doctor, Ernst von Aacken, made a compelling case for this four decades ago but it took a while longer for the people running the sport to be convinced.

In any case, motivation and self-confidence can often be the most significant factors as Mary Jennings, whose Revive Fitness provides coaching and a more wide-reaching support to (mainly) women keen to take up the sport on even the most casual level, often finds.

"Most people starting out believe they can't run and that runners are a bit mad but nearly everyone changes their mind very quickly," she says. "The first time they go out they might run for a couple of minutes and they're knackered but the key thing is the speed at which they find that they're surprising themselves.

"First of all it's just the fact that they run for a little longer each time and so pretty soon there's the sense of achievement that they've run for 20 minutes or half an hour. But then as they settle into it, it's the awareness of the beneficial effects it's having on their posture, their weight and their general sense of well-being."

Many thrive on the experience and some, like Tracy Guilfoyle from Killnaboy, Co Clare, genuinely excel. Just four years ago she was a first-timer in Dublin. This year she won the Cork City marathon in a time of 3:01.

And then there are some, of course, who just simply don't know when to stop. Take Mary Nolan Hickey from Arklow who Ballygowan brought along last week to announce its involvement as a sponsor of this year's Dublin marathon. She is the only woman to have run the race every year it has been staged - the first was in 1980, her 28th will be this autumn - and she's squeezed in a few other decent runs along the way.

Of her first Dublin run, she once recalled in The Irish Times: "I remember people were getting massages all through the last six miles. In fact, it was a bit of a war zone." But like many before and since, she was drawn in by the experience and ran in London the following March where she completed the course in 2:58.

Different things keep her coming back like the untimely deaths of loved ones. "Running to me was as good as any medication," she says. "You can get a lot out of your system on a long run."

And signs that she was getting a little bit carried away with it all were sometimes glaring as when she discovered she was pregnant with her youngest son, now in his late teens.

"I remember when I got the news, straight away I counted up the months and thought, 'this might be difficult'. I wouldn't recommend doing the whole thing when you're six months pregnant but I was pretty stubborn about not letting my record go."