Weeks 15 & 16: pussy power

“After today, whenever anyone boasts about running a half-marathon, you can tell them half-marathons are for pussies.”

This declaration to the larger group, intended as a morale booster, came from a fellow (male) runner as we were preparing last Saturday to take on 14 miles, our longest run to date and about the length of a half-marathon.

I was more than a little put off by the remark, which I took a bit too personally, but when I mentioned it to my husband later he just shook his head. “You know,” he said, “not all pussies are women.” Of course. In matters of language, I am more typically on the wrong side of the line between precision and elasticity, between consideration and offense. I prefer not to tread too lightly, letting coarse words to fall where they may. Gendered obscenities carry a particular giddy joy. They can deliver a much-needed wallop. They can pull one out of a funk. They can create a sense of possibility and purpose.

They can also offend. Once, when I described an important book as “seminal,” I was informed by an objector that I had bestowed upon it some masculine importance and in so doing excluded its female-driven value. I was informed that the word “seminal,” used in this context, was obscene. The work was David Halberstam’s The Powers that Be, as seminal to understanding the macho media as any assessment I’ve come across. I stood my ground.

So why did the “half-marathons are for pussies” get under my skin? In part because in the few months I’ve been training and blogging about it, I’ve learned a thing or two about the historic exclusion of women from competitive running.

From ancient Greece on, women were largely shut out of marathons. In the 1970’s, when they started running in the big races anyway, they were forcibly removed. In one notorious incident, marathoner Kathy Switzer was set upon by race organizers who tried to drag her off the course while her running mates did their best to protect her.


The excuses for excluding women were generally two-fold. First, there wasn’t enough room for women and second, women were not built for running. Eventually, in early 1980, the College of Sports Medicine found “no conclusive scientific or medical evidence that long-distance running is contraindicated for the healthy, trained female athlete” and recommended that “females be allowed to compete at the national and international level in the same distances in which their male counterparts compete.” Once that opinion was aired, it was only a matter of time before space opened up for women to run alongside men.

Fast forward a few decades to the ’08-’09 AIDS Project Los Angeles training for the LA Marathon. We are halfway through the training program now, and in my highly anecdotal experience, it is women who make up the majority of runners. Granted we’re talking not about elite marathoners, just everyday ladies who are hoping to do something good for the world and for themselves.

So where are all the dudes? One theory, again bolstered only by my very limited anecdotal experience, is that guys tend to overtrain and burn out quickly. They run too much and too hard, their bodies protest and they drop out.

Certainly in my running group most of the runners who have made it this far are women. There have been several weeks were only women showed up for the group run, and we are generally in better shape than the men in the group. On our hardest run to date, an eight-miler that felt like 18, it was a group made up entirely of women who made it to the finish line on pace.

One of my best runs so far was week 15, an easy six-miler (hard to believe I’m putting “easy” and “six-mile” together, but that is one of the great satisfactions of this program). It was the weekend after New Year’s and our group was a modest four. But all of us were amped and ready to roll. Our jaunt through the streets of Burbank was smooth, swift and sweet.

I was none too confident when I showed up this past Saturday for the 14-mile challenge-- the biggest run of my brief life as a runner. I haven’t been doing this long enough to believe that I can keep adding miles without suffering some devastating calamity. Yet each time I get out there I put one foot in front of the other, a few hours go by, it’s done, I’m starving and I’ve run some length I never imagined I ever would.

Saturday was no different. We started out with a group of eight, including two men, but both dropped out before the finish. We ended with an all-female group coming in at 3 hours, 25 minutes. Right on pace and feeling tired but strong.

I guess half-marathons really are for pussies.

11:24 PM Tuesday, January 13 2009 • Link •  
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