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See Jane Run

by Sharon Robb

Whether you are an athlete, a workaholic or a stay-at-home mom, stress can play havoc with your lifestyle. The typical working woman is often tired, probably not eating well and sometimes overwhelmed. As an antidote, many women gravitate to running, whether it's around the neighborhood, in the gym or at a road race. With running, all you need to do is find a good pair of running shoes, walk out the door, stretch a bit and then start putting one foot in front of the other. Given all the benefits of running, it's well worth finding the time - and the time you take is all your own. It can be 10 minutes during lunch hour or two hours on the weekend.

Good Health
Running is about learning, prevention, good health and getting to the starting line of fitness. Studies have shown that regular running and walking can reduce cardiovascular disease, the number one killer of women, as well as significantly impact diabetes, cancer and other diseases. "I push myself every time I go out for a run," said nationally-ranked Masters runner Carol Virga of Delray Beach, Florida, a former Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier, divorced mother of five and co-owner of Runner's Edge in Boca Raton. "It becomes a way of life. I'm getting slower than I was when I first started out, but it's not always about times and winning. It's about the people you meet, the camaraderie and health and fitness benefits."

Races such as the Susan G. Komen Race For the Cure Series provide a time-efficient, cost-effective and accessible exercise option for women, many of whom lead hectic, stressful lives and have difficulty making regular exercise a priority. A commitment to participation provides a fitness goal, an opportunity to meet new people with a common interest and is a means to partipate in a worthy cause. Check out Play With Purpose for other fundraising races.

Let's Hear It for the Girls
A vast majority of those running in the park or on the roads are women. For anyone who ran seriously in the early 1970s or before, the sheer number of people working out and the increase of women are evidence of two ongoing revolutions.

The running boom began a fitness revolution that continues to this day. The other revolution, the growth in fitness activities among women has sociological and political roots. The 1960s supplied the impetus for the women's movement which encouraged freedom of expression in all forms.

Congress helped by enacting Title IX, which resulted in an explosion in sports opportunities for women in educational institutions.

Running empowers women and inspires them to realize their individual potential. They end up taking charge of health, fitness and their lives in general. With the advancement of women's running as a sport, talented women have several avenues for training and development at college and club programs.

Running for fun, charity and health, women of all shapes, sizes and ages are hitting the road - and marathons increasingly are the race they choose. More and more women are challenging themselves to complete the arduous distance no matter how long it takes - 26.2 miles of agony and ecstasy, doubt and determination and exhaustion and exhilaration.

Herstory of Women's Distance Running
The history of women's distance running is very short, dating back at most to 1967, at least in the public eye. That is the year that a gutsy woman named Katherine Switzer dared to run the Boston Marathon, a feat previously considered physiologically impossible for members of "the weaker sex."

In fact, a handful of women had run the distance previously, even at Boston, but never officially. That year was different. A feisty Scotsman named Jock Semple, director of the then-all-male race, was so shocked to see that the runner who had entered as K. Switzer was in fact, quite unmistakably, female, that he jumped off the press truck and tried to tear off her official number. Switzer's powerfully-built boyfriend, running with her, threw a body-block at Semple. Switzer, though shaken, went on to finish the marathon, and photographers on the press truck recorded the entire piece of history. When the next day's papers appeared, many people realized for the first time that women not only could run, but they wanted to run. "I never realized I would have such an impact on women's running, I just kept thinking 'what's all the fuss about?'" Switzer said. "Women have made such incredible strides in running. It's nice to know we can run anywhere, any time."

Over the next few years, more and more women took up running for relaxation, sport and fitness. Though generally welcomed by male runners and local race promoters, they continued to encounter opposition from the Amateur Athletic Union and International Olympic Committee. Conventional society in general was not yet comfortable with the idea of women as truly physical, often sweaty, athletic creatures. The AAU, faced with increasing numbers of women demanding equal rights in sport, finally gave in. In 1972, due in large part to Title IX, they gave official permission for women to compete in events longer than a mile, and to run in the same races as men, though not against men. Women have their own, separate division in all races.

Joan Benoit Samuelson, 1984 Olympic marathon gold medalist, is one of the sport's pioneers. The wife and mother of two still runs competitively, although she says it's mainly for fitness. She holds a road race in her hometown of Cape Elizabeth, Maine. "I think I will always run, it's such a way of life," Samuelson said. "I feel horrible and lethargic when I don't run. I enjoy the people I meet at races and on the roads training. There's a special bond between runners, particularly women runners. There are no limitations. Running is the only sport that you can do with your neighbors, doctors, lawyers, teachers and executives."

In the late '90s, the number of marathoners nationwide increased by nearly 70% to 419,000 in 1998 from 250,000 in 1989, according to USA Track and Field. The growth has been spurred in large part by women.

In 1980, 10% of marathoners were women. By 1998, that number increased to 34%. The field at the popular New York Marathon reflects the statistics, increasing from 15% women in 1980 to 30% in 1999. About 40% of the field were first-timers.

For Love of the Run
The biggest reason to sign up for your first road race is to keep you motivated to run and exercise. A race, no matter how long or short, helps you pay closer attention to nutrition, stretching, warm-up exercises and race day strategies when it comes to running even splits and recovering afterwards.

Not everyone wants to race, however. There is a growing number of slow women runners who emphasize fun over finishing a race and relaxed, non-competitive runs in the park as opposed to competing for personal bests in road races. Many of these runners enter big-time marathons just to enjoy the scenery, the happening of the race and post-race socials. Few are concerned with running fast or reaching personal bests. "Just being there is a personal best," said 76-year-old Blanche Waldman. "It means I am still breathing fresh air, I'm alive and with my friends."

"It's great to see so many women running," said track star Suzy Hamilton. "The recreational runners are so enthusiastic. You can tell they want to be out there. The key is feeling good while you work out. I sometimes find myself saying, 'God, I love this.'"

Mary Maxwell Thomas, a Chicago circuit judge, was a 56-year-old rookie marathoner at the 1999 Chicago Marathon. "It's just a matter of getting out there and doing it," she told reporters at the race. "I'm not fast. But you don't have to be. I'm on the turtle pace." Some of today's women runners take walking breaks to give their joints a rest while walkers add jogs to their workouts for increased intensity.

It Just Feels Great
There is an openness or good spiritedness among the community of non-elite women runners that is comforting to others who aren't quite into the 100-mile weeks, keeping splits or eating bran muffins and wheat germ, but are looking for something else in their lives, whether they are a size 6 or plus-size Athena.

"There must be something about seeing a woman moving, competing, being strong. Being fearless that triggers something in other women," said elite racer Lynn Jennings of Newmarket, New Hampshire. "I think they want a little piece of that emotional resilience and courage and that strength and bravery. If I send that kind of message, well then, great."

Not a bad message at any age.

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