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To say that women have historically fought an uphill battle for equal opportunity and recognition in the world of running is an understatement. It wasn’t until 1960 that women runners were allowed to race further than 200 meters. That year, the 800 meters was reintroduced, after being scratched for 32 years following its inclusion in the 1928 Olympic schedule, where the women runners were deemed too taxed from the effort.
More than fifty years later, the first women’s Olympic marathon was at long last held in Los Angeles in 1984. Since restrictions barring women from the opportunity to compete were lifted, women have made massive strides in the running game over the past 40 years.
Though we are still painfully far from global equality in the sport, women and activists around the world have made rapid progress over the past decade toward a more equal future in running. The last few years have witnessed a media spotlight on gendered pay discrimination, public backlash against coaching abuse and and misogyny within running brands, and a global conversation about the intersection of race and gender in discrimination against women athletes, particularly those of color. That’s why in honor of Women’s History Month, we’re looking to the future. We spoke to five individuals, duos, and groups of women spanning the globe who are at the forefront in the fight for creating a new age for women in running defined by equity, belonging, and personal empowerment.
Mhairi Maclennan and Kate Seary: Challenging UK Athletics to End Coaching Abuse
From Mary Cain’s accusations against Alberto Salazar to the disturbing expose on Canadian distance running coach Dave Scott-Thomas to the serial abuse that landed former Welsh national coach Phil Banning in jail, allegations of mistreatment and abuse by male coaches against women have been brought to the forefront of sports headlines across the globe in recent years, inspiring public ire and demands for systemic change. But concrete steps to ensure that the abuse actually ends has been a slow process.
Recently UK elite distance runners Mhairi Maclennan and Kate Seary have taken steps to add teeth to these demands for change. Last month, the duo, along with former pole vaulter Anna Gordon, launched a campaign seeking lifetime bans for coaches found guilty of physical or sexual misconduct, harassment and abuse.
Macleannan, Seary, and Gordon (who has since stepped back) started the campaign after becoming aware of recent and historic decisions by UK Athletics to issue temporary or restricted bans on coaches for sexual abuse and harassment of athletes.
“We were, frankly, shocked,” Macleannan and Seary told PodiumRunner in an emailed statement. “We wanted a clear message to pave the way in rectifying and remodelling a system which we felt did not fully protect its athletes. We chose to campaign for a zero tolerance policy towards coaches who commit sexual abuse or harassment as the first step towards a safer sport for athletes which should be followed by a full review of the welfare system.”
They pointed out that when parents leave their children in the care of another adult, be it a teacher, doctor, or coach, they should be guaranteed that it is a safe and trustworthy individual: “Until now this was not a guarantee for British athletes.”
This initiative caught fire, receiving widespread support from across the global running community. Following their campaign, Macleannan, Seary, and Gordon reached around 2,000 signatures, 800 clubs and 5 countries. UK Athletics have now announced that they will implement a zero tolerance campaign.
“Hopefully now, with the response we have had, we can assure a safer future for all young athletes, particularly young women and girls, where transparency is prioritised,” said Macleannan and Seary in their statement. “We want to see a future for young women where they are not afraid to speak out when they feel unsafe or feel that something isn’t quite right. We want a sporting culture where young women and girls have a voice. A voice that is listened to, believed, and acted upon.”
Martha Garcia: The Power of Perspective in Marketing
After getting her start working in fashion footwear, Martha Garcia joined Deckers in 2015 and began working full-time at HOKA One One in 2016 where she oversaw marketing communications and creative. As a Mexican immigrant and woman of color, Garcia’s perspectives and ideas played a key role within the brand helping to attract new customers by reaching out to demographics historically underrepresented by the running shoe industry.
“As a runner and when I worked at HOKA, I found myself not always being represented in the same way as someone who was a more competitive runner,” says Garcia, who considers herself a more casual runner rather than someone who chases goal times or distances. “It inspired me to continuously challenge the notion that running was for everyone, because for such a long time I felt like I didn’t fit in the running industry.”
Applying this viewpoint learned from her experiences, Garcia created and oversaw tactics that helped HOKA form relationships with affinity groups to tell and amplify stories of Black, Indigenous and people of color athletes. Garcia’s passion also extended to building relationships with partners to create opportunities for mentorship within the industry.
“Giving youth and folks access to information is a really powerful hiring tool,” says Garcia, who also serves on the Running Industry Diversity Coalition (RIDC). “I was (and still am) passionate about finding ways to recruit and retain BIPOC talent. As a hiring manager, you are in a position where you can drive real change and even more important than hiring, retaining BIPOC employees is an imperative conversation.”
Garcia points to her experience of moving from L.A. to Santa Barbara in 2015 as the catalyst for her becoming vocal around DEI topics.
“Living in Santa Barbara was a culture shock for me,” she explains. “I found myself being the only women of color in a decision-making position, so I leaned into that discomfort to bring awareness to the opportunity of building a diverse internal team with more people of color, as well as telling more intentional marketing stories to reach a broader consumer.”
Garcia left HOKA in January 2021, and is currently starting her own company to empower brands and companies to be accountable and inclusive marketers.
“As a woman of color and mother, my passion for driving change in the running and outdoor industry is personal because I want to create a future where my daughters’ generation doesn’t need to fight as hard as I have to have a seat at the table,” says Garcia.
Garcia says that an intersectional point of view has been central to her philosophy, as well as the importance of asking questions to understand other perspectives from women, and particularly women of color: “A very important question to ask yourself when developing any plan is whose perspective is and isn’t being centered in the conversation… It’s important to create a space where women of color are allowed to be their whole self in every room that they step in without consequences.”
Alison Désir: Calling Out the Inherent Politics of Running
As a mental health advocate, activist, and founder of the initiative Run 4 All Women, Alison Désir’s work has always been founded on creating diverse and inclusive spaces. But when Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black runner, was shot and killed by two white men while out for a run last year near his home in Georgia, Désir had had enough of the running industry’s silence on racism and blindness to the inherent politics embedded within the sport. She took to social media and an article published in Outside Magazine to directly call out racism and white supremacy in the running world.
“I spoke out because my rage and sadness were boiling over,” says Désir. “The murder of Ahmaud Arbery and the silence of the running industry, which had made claims of caring about ‘runner safety,’ was just too much for me to bear. I was also a new mother of a Black son who I was now responsible for raising in a world that apparently did not take notice when Black lives are stolen and murdered.”
Speaking on panels and organizing workshops, Désir amplified the long past due conversation about race in hopes that the running industry would take notice of the fact that “that running in a Black body is not the same as running in a white body.”
“I hope that the industry can work collaboratively to redefine what it means to be a runner — to be one that is inclusive and representative of the diversity of the United States,” says Désir. “I also hope that we can all be open to continued learning and getting things wrong in service of doing better.”
Désir is currently working on a book, The Unbearable Whiteness of Running due October 2022. She’s also launching season 2 of the Meaning Thru Movement Tour sponsored by HOKA, which will feature conversations with mental health professionals and activists, and a physical movement component such as yoga or HIIT. (This season, she says, will feature Alysia Montaño, Chris Mosier, Ilya Parker of Decolonizing Fitness, and Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, along with others.) Additionally, Désir has a sock line and appeared in a collection launching this fall with Oiselle.
Désir has also spoken out passionately about issues related to women and girls, often in conjunction with racial justice. The running initiative she founded, Run 4 All Women, has raised over $150,000 for Planned Parenthood and $270,000 for Black Voters Matter.
“As a Black woman, my hopes and dreams for the running world all exist within an intersectional framework — my equity work for girls and women is racial equity work,” says Desire. “I want the running industry to be a place where everyone feels able to show up as their authentic self — with physical safety, emotional and intellectual safety, and the access and resources to do so. I want the running industry to recognize our responsibility in advocating for equity, inclusion and belonging for all people with marginalized identity. Women deserve equal sports coverage, equal pay for equal work, equal access, and we deserve to be seen and treated as athletes in our own right — not simply in comparison to men’s achievements.”
Somali Women Runners: Normalizing Women and Girls Running
In Somaliland, a region northwest of Somalia that is not recognized internationally as an independent country, increasing numbers of women are beginning to take part in an annual running event held in the capital city of Hargeisa that includes the Somaliland Marathon as well as a 10K race. While clan infighting and terrorism have plagued Somalia, this breakaway region is something of a haven, attracting tourist and commercial enterprises. The running events — which began three years ago — have been part of a cultural outreach effort.
“The running programs Somaliland hosts [are] not approved entirely by society yet,” says Asma Dhamac, a psychologist, mental health advocate, and Somali runner. “Some people are supportive and are willing to contribute and support girls and women running, although others are against it, due to our culture and religion values.”
Despite the conservative views of women’s roles held in the region, each year has seen more Somali girls and women competing in the 10k event. The increased levels of participation reflects how restrictive norms placed on women in the area are slowly changing for a more equal society — which has been notoriously male-dominated in government, business, and media.
“I run because at first I [believed] I could run, and running as a woman makes me feel fit, healthy and capable of my own protection,” says Dhamac, noting that running has also been a therapeutic experience for her.
While women are often heckled — some reportedly told they will become barren if they run too much, and asked why they can’t just stay at home — it’s becoming normalized to see women running in the region. In 2018 when the Somaliland running event began, just 13 women competed in the 10K race — and only five of them were Somali women. By 2020, 55 Somali women ran in the event, which included a total of 63 women competitors.
Beyond the marathon, women in Hargeisa are finding other athletic outlets including the Lions Women’s Football Initiative — a soccer league founded in 2016 by Asma Saed and Savannah Simons that offers training for women in self-defense and running.
“Running empowered girls and women to pursue exercise and go to the gym often,” explains Dhamac. “Women realized how important sports [are] for their lifestyle, and now you will find many women going in groups and walking or jogging on streets to exercise, including myself.”
Jordan Daniel and Rosalie Fish: Using Running to Spotlight Violence Against Indigenous Women
In the United States, violence against Indigenous women have reached unprecedented levels on tribal lands and in Alaska Native villages. According to the Indian Law Resource Center, more than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence, and more than 1 in 2 have been victims of sexual violence. The murder rate for Indigenous women is 10 times the average national murder rate. Yet, despite these jaring statistics, Indigenous women often remain invisible to law enforcement and media attention, and cases are vastly underreported and under-investigated.
In 2019, Lakota runner and activist Jordan Marie Brings Three White Horses Daniel brought this Murdered and Missing Indigenous Woman (MMIW) crisis to the attention of the global running community when she raced the Boston Marathon with a painted red handprint over her mouth (symbolizing women silenced by violence and lack of media attention) and the letters MMIW painted on her body. Daniel’s activist efforts — which also include her Running on Native Land Initiative and uplifting Indigenous voices through her organization Rising Hearts — are inspired by Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectional theory. This conceptual framework maintains that people are often disadvantaged by multiple sources of oppression such as their race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and other identities.
Daniel’s work, bringing attention to the MMIW crisis, inspired runner Rosalie Fish, who is a member of the Cowlitz and Muckleshoot tribes in Washington State, to use her platform as a high school and now college athlete to do the same. Following in Daniel’s footsteps, Fish raced with a red painted handprint across her mouth and the letters MMIW down her leg during the 2019 Washington state track meet in memory of Indigenous women in her own community whose lives had been lost to racist and sexist violence. She also created a poster board with the missing persons photos of women she was running for. While she says that a majority of the feedback she received was positive and encouraging, she was met with microaggressions from some of her fellow competitors who didn’t approve of the paint.
“I use my platform as an athlete to raise awareness to the social problems and pervasive systematic barriers that impact Indigenous youth throughout the U.S. I’ve faced many of these barriers myself, including racism and discrimination within my own sport,” Fish tells PodiumRunner. “When I first witnessed Jordan Marie Brings Three White Horses Daniel run for Missing and Murdered Indigenous women at the 2019 Boston Marathon, it drove me to realize that I can do more with my platform as a runner.”
Fish has since gone on to run at Iowa Central Community College where she has continued to use role as an athlete to spotlight issues that affect Indigenous peoples and communities. She also spoke about the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women crisis at a TEDx conference. Next year, Fish will return to her home state of Washington to run as a member of the UW cross country and track programs to spread her message against racism and sexism.
“I would like running to be a catalyst for women who have been underestimated,” says Fish on her hopes for the future of women in running. “For women who don’t fit in the box, and at one point in their lives have been labeled and put down due to their intersectionality, or told that they were ‘doing too much.’ Through running, women can show that not only are we strong and resilient — we’re champions. We are change makers. We are the driving force for an equitable future. Running will take us there.”