Women’s Only Races

Women Only

One of the many reasons I started this site was because of a conversation I found myself having repeatedly. Women’s only races. It kinda goes without saying that I’m pro-women. I am one, hence, have kind of a vested interested here. Given the evidence that women are more likely to work out if they can do it with a friend, I like the idea of women’s only races. All the gals, in it together, sisters doing it for themselves and all that. But then, well, then there’s the execution of said races and it all just falls kind of…flat.

I want to love them, I really do, but it’s just made so hard when you’re slapped in the face with stereotypes and being patronised at every turn. Firstly, any women’s races in the UK are 5 or 10K, which kind of implies that we’re not capable of going further. Can’t we get some half marathons and marathons going for women? I’m all about just getting people moving and having 5 and 10K options is great, but it’d be nice if longer distances were an option.

Then there’s the half naked men holding up the mile markers or the corny signs. I heard of a sign at a women’s only race recently that read ‘run like you’re late for a spray tan’. Of course! Because we’re women, so we’re vacuous beings who have nothing better to think about than our precious spray tans. Talk to me when there are some ‘run like you’re late for a board meeting’ signs and I can respect it.

And when the race finishes, you can get your hair blow dried or a manicure done – because you just ran, so you might look a little sweaty, quick, GET PRETTY! I do understand wanting to freshen up post-race, but as a woman, I’m judged by the way I look 24/7 and I rather like that when I’m running or working out, that’s my time to focus on my body in a positive way. To finish a race and be reminded that I once again have to fit into a social norm (because, God forbid anyone sees us sweaty) is kind of sad.

I’m not saying any of these things are wrong per say, I just wish that people’s interpretation of ‘women’s race’ wasn’t to simply throw glitter, lipstick and pink feather boas at it. The dynamic of and reasons for women working out is changing. Thankfully, through sites like this and others, women have been able to tap into a message about exercise and body image that is far more powerful than years gone by, where all that mattered were the numbers on a scale. Women now are working out for reasons that go way deeper than the purely aesthetic. Races aimed at us need to reflect that. The message needs to be about empowerment, bettering oneself, pushing yourself, doing your best. Better yet, that you can do all these things and still be feminine but that doing them with a fresh manicure is not the be all and end all.

A couple of years ago, I did the Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francisco (and I hope to do it again this year). I loved it. It was empowering and uplifting and full of badassery and awesome. To run alongside that many women was an experience I’ll never forget. But what was great about it was that while the event was for women and was distinctly feminine, I did not once feel patronised. There was a half marathon and marathon option that day. My training was respected, the huge undertaking of a marathon was taken seriously. There were firemen in tuxedos at the finish line to present you with your finishers necklace – probably just the right amount of catering to the girls (note how they didn’t need to be topless and oiled up though).

It’s a fine line – how to get women to exercise in a comfortable, non-intimidating environment and keep it feminine without tipping it over the edge so as to be completely patronising. I wish we had more women’s only races, especially of longer distances. It is a real opportunity to empower women and to spread a positive message about exercise and training, but we have to get the balance right.

What have your experiences been like with women’s only races? Are you for or against them?

19 Responses to “Women’s Only Races”
  1. Interesting thoughts, I’ve never run a women’s only race but I have my first one coming up on June 3rd the Dublin women’s mini marathon (10K), i’m not really sure what to expect from it compared to other races, but it will be the biggest field i’ve ever run in (40,000!)

  2. kathleen @kat_rocket says:

    I’ve only run in two women’s only events and I didn’t feel patronised at either. Both the Human Race 10k in Richmond Park and She Runs Windsor events were really well organised and were well balanced. The stalls in the Expos at both events were relevant and I didn’t see any glitter or inappropriate signs. At She Runs Windsor the pacers were women in matching CEP kit who shouted encouragement to the women around them. Plus at She Runs Windsor my medal was presented to me by a girl Scout, so well done to the organisers for getting children involved at a running event!
    If they do announce a women’s only marathon in the UK I fully expect the forums on the Runner’s World site to combust from the angry typing of men.

  3. Abnormal Yak says:

    This got me thinking, what would an equally stereotypical and insulting men-only race be like? Instead of water stations would there tables filled with cups of beer? Would there be a huge barbecue at the end with sausages and bacon and a whole spit-roast pig? Would there be tents filled with pretty girls in bikinis to massage your legs while you listen to Aerosmith and Bruce Springsteen? I think that sounds entirely awesome. I want to sign up for a men-only race right now!

  4. Laura says:

    I totally agree with Kathleen above about the awesomeness of the pacers in the SheRuns Windsor race. On the other side of things the recent We Own the Night race (and 6 weeks of training offered at Niketown London) done by Nike UK and Elle had hundreds of super girly moments that made me cringe beyond belief. The only-male pacers (wtf!?), the sign about running towards Ryan Gosling along the race was not only cringy in that it’s an overused meme, but seriously not what got me going. The “DIG DEEP” sign at 8k was more my style.

    I think it’s a fine line in women’s races as there are things that can be offered to female runners to make the experience more comfortable. The headband and kleenex packs after the Nike race were great as I could scrape my sweaty hair back and enjoy the night without needing a blow dry.

    Count me in for the Nike Women’s Marathon this year if the ballot gods are smiling on me. A hilly marathon is JUST what this woman needs!

  5. Andrea says:

    I agree with Laura about some of the WOTN branding. I tweeted this after: “Ryan Gosling at finish line, motivation? Really? Imagine was a men’s run and motivation was the equivalent. Daily Mail fodder.”

    And also the questions being asked of Paula Radcliffe when she was on stage – “So what make-up do you wear running?”. So unnecessary, and so cringe inducing.

    I did enjoy the race (except for the chaotic start, which of course had nothing to do with the face it was a women’s only race!)…and I thought all of the marketing/branding leading up to it was quite cool. It’s a shame it was let down on the evening.

    • Leah says:

      I actually thought I misheard that question when it was asked, I was horrified. But thanks for confirming that no, I don’t need my ears checked!

  6. Interesting opinion. I’ve entered races for women and really enjoyed; but I quite like racing with men – it pushes me more (You know the priceless feeling when you overtake some male runners). Being honest I don’t see the difference (or maybe I don’t want to) but when I run/exercise I don’t mind males as I’m 200% focused on what I’m doing and I sort of switch myself off.

  7. Beki says:

    I’m a relative newbie to running, and so far all the races I’ve done have been women only. This hasn’t been intentional, but it did make me feel a little less pressured, and like I was among people who were embracing “girl power”, rather than being competitive and dismissive of slower runners. However, having never run a mixed race, I’m sure that’s not the case! But the extra effort to make the race accessible/comfortable for women (or perhaps, beginner women) is appreciated.

    I do agree with Laura that the signs at the Nike We Own The Night Race did really annoy me rather than spur me on though!

  8. Jasmine says:

    I completely agree with these sentiments and talking to other ladies who took part in wotn too my disdain for the event has deepened.

    There were things I loved; profiling inspirational female athletes and taking part alongside them, emphasis on women gettinhg out there together etc etc but I also hated the inane questions put to paula re: make up. Who cares what mascara she wears I want to know how she runs marathons and trains and has a family. Much more powerful and interesting!

    I am just glad the top wasnt pink!!

  9. Jen says:

    I’m kind of in two minds about this subject. On one hand, I support anything that gets women exercising; if the idea of an all-female event seems less intimidating then I say go for it. On the other hand, the lack of long distance events is disappointing and having participated in a woman’s 10k the ‘pink’ overload and warm ups taken by instructors in tutus is a tad ridiculous.

  10. Ali says:

    I did the Race for Life 10k last year and hated it – pink, tutus, boas etc. is just so unnecessary! I ended up taking someone else’s place this year and it was just as bad. To be honest I don’t really see the point in women only races, but I’m someone who doesn’t really care about how I look when I’m exercising. Out of interest, are there any men only events?

    • Cazzdevil says:

      Hey Ali, can you imagine the uproar that would cause among the ‘feminist’ masses? Oh… Right… They’re the same feminists who champion these women’s events aren’t they?


      Ps, muchos kudos for not caring what you look like when you exercise, even though you do always look awesome xxx

  11. Sam says:

    Completely agree with Jen on this. On the one hand – I really hope women only events spur women on to enter races and enjoy running with other women without feeling intimidated and pressured.

    I raced the 5k in Blackheath for Race For Life. And despite there being a lot of pink in the race, this was no fun run for the top places. It was a proper race with full on sprints to the finish (just how I like it!). I prefer training and running in a mixed environment – more of a competitive feel.

    However some race organisers feeding into stereotypes doesn’t do us any favours, even if their intentions are good.
    Despite that, I guess if women didn’t enjoy dressing up and wearing pink tutus then these events wouldn’t be so popular would they?

  12. kathleen @kat_rocket says:

    I do read things like this with a little bit of amusement because as a young athlete taking part in junior and some senior events my days were spent at athletics tracks and at cross country courses surrounded by women watching women compete. Never a feather boa or glitter ball in sight. Just women and girls doing their thing, trying to be better and trying hard for their team. They were actually some of the best days of my life. Sorry Spikes and Heels, just got all nostalgic on your blog!

  13. I’ve done 3 women-only triathlons and I was glad I did. There was none of the fru-fru stuff people have mentioned above. There was just a camaraderie amongst the women that I loved.

    I did, however, run the Diva’s Half Marathon and that was a totally different experience. Lots of women wearing tutu’s. Near the end of the race they handed out pink boas and little tiaras. At first I thought it was cute. But then…I started to feel like it was so unnecessary. But maybe, at mile 12, many women needed that little pick-me-up to finish the race? I don’t know. I do know that I won’t do that race again.

    I like women’s only races when they feel empowering – helping to turn victims into survivors, etc. But when it’s all about the glitz and glamour, the crowns, the nail polish, the mimosas at the end, that’s when you lose me. If I wanted a manicure, I would have gone to the salon.

  14. Caitlin says:

    This has been my ongoing issue with women-only races. I appreciate the attempt to make a space that feels less threatening for women, but good god, why do they have to be so patronizing about it? I mean, getting my hair blown out after a race? Seriously? Can I have a massage and a cold beer (or maybe even a mimosa) instead, please?

  15. Cazzdevil says:

    “And when the race finishes, you can get your hair blow dried or a manicure done – because you just ran, so you might look a little sweaty, quick, GET PRETTY! I do understand wanting to freshen up post-race, but as a woman, I’m judged by the way I look 24/7 and I rather like that when I’m running or working out, that’s my time to focus on my body in a positive way. To finish a race and be reminded that I once again have to fit into a social norm (because, God forbid anyone sees us sweaty) is kind of sad.”

    So, it’s okay for you to get your hair braided/coiffed before a race and get your fancy swanky nail art done in prep for every race (oh, and let’s not forget about the snazzy leggings you HAVE to have because let’s face it, running is basically a fashion show and you’re not allowed to be seen out in public in Aldi’s own brand kit…), but it’s not okay for women to want to relax and be pampered immediately AFTER a race? I somehow doubt the blowdrys and manicures are because women aren’t allowed to look sweaty after a race, I suspect it’s because these ‘badass’ women who’ve just ran a race are tired and sore and want to relax for a bit whilst having someone treat them to something nice.

    I’m really uncomfortable with this post actually. I find it incredibly contradictory to a lot of things you’ve preached on this site so far. I’m not saying I disagree with it per se, I just find your approach to it completely backwards.

  16. Jess says:

    I don’t like women’s races. Not for all these reasons pointed out above but because, why the hell can’t we run with the boys?

    I think it’s okay to have manicures, blow dries etc before/after (/during?) a race. Whatever floats your boat but it should be about the running and that is very non-gender specific.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] interesting thoughts about women’s only races, to super hipster sportswear wish lists, Muireann Carey-Campbell consistently delivers compelling, […]