“Why Women Run” by Rachel White

Why Women Run

Creative Nonfiction by Rachel White


Kilometer 29: my legs are smashing into the pavement. Left foot, right foot. Methodical. Easy pace. Stay relaxed. I can’t make out the figure twenty feet ahead, because the sunshine is so harsh on my eyes. The shadow is holding something out for me. I can’t see what it is, but I hope it’s food. It kind of looks like a sandwich. My stomach is yelling at me. The sun burns the top of my head. Black absorbs heat. Why did I wear a black hat?

The Honolulu Marathon has been held the second Sunday in December, every year since 1973. Participants run for 26 miles (or 42 kilometres) along Kalakaua Avenue, showcasing the famous Waikiki beach, through downtown Honolulu, up over Diamond Head crater, and back. Each year in North America, about 45% of marathon finishers are women.

A sponge. The volunteer is holding out a sponge. Odd, I think. But I take it, and immediately understand. It’s ice cold and dripping wet. I smear the sponge across the back of my neck, across my forehead. I see someone ahead of me put their sponge under their hat, and keep running. I do the same, water drips down over my ears and onto my shoulders. Bliss.

The first time I went out for a run, I was seven or eight years old, and I was with my mother. My dad left my family when I was five years old. My mom raised three kids by herself. Some mornings I would hear her cry softly in the shower before work. But in the evenings, mom would go running.

A few nights before the race, I’m sitting around a table in the common area of the hostel I’m staying at in Honolulu. Johnny, a local guy who works at the hostel, takes a big swig of his beer, sets it on the table and says to me,

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-two,” I say.

“Twenty-two… That’s how old the kid was who died in the Honolulu Marathon last year. Same age as you.”

“Well, hopefully it won’t be me this year,” I say.

“Yeah…” He continues, “isn’t long distance running really bad for you? I read an article once and apparently it’s really bad for your heart. Lots of people die running marathons.” He takes another swig of his beer. I’ve heard lots of people die from drinking beer too , I think.

“Yeah,” I say, “guess I’ll find out on Sunday.”

I was upset over a breakup when I signed up for the marathon in Honolulu. My ex-boyfriend’s family owned property in Hawaii and he had always talked about bringing me there. We dated for almost three years. He talked about doing a lot of things with me that never ended up happening. When I saw a discounted flight to Honolulu, I booked it immediately. No more waiting.

On my first night in Hawaii, I arrived at the hostel and was immediately invited to cook and eat dinner with two women who were staying in the same dorm room as me. Joan was seventy-two years old and would be running her fourteenth marathon this upcoming Sunday. The other woman, Amy, was about twenty years younger than Joan, and was here to cheer her on. Joan and I talked about running while we cooked dinner together. Joan was passionate about the sport. She told me I should do some training runs in the daytime this week to get used to the heat. (“Canadian, eh? You won’t be seein’ any igloos on this race!”) She also swore by these little molasses candies, the kind you get at Halloween, and always throw out instead of eat.

“Eat one at kilometer 37, and it’ll get you through to the end of the race better than any of those expensive gels you see the hot-shots chugging,” said Joan. We headed upstairs, and she gave me an extra molasses candy. I thanked her and tucked it away in my suitcase for race day. Back in the kitchen, Joan asked me if I had a boyfriend. I told her no.

“That’s good,” she said. “No man will ever make you feel as good as you will feel after a long run.”

The few men I had dated were not interested in my biggest interest: long distance running. When I told them I was running a 10k for breast cancer, or a 30k for the Kidney Foundation, they would say things like “Nice,” or “Good for you.” None of my boyfriends had ever come on a run with me. None of my boyfriends had ever helped me train, been interested in my nutrition, or my cross-training schedule. A few months after I ran the Honolulu Marathon, I bumped into an ex-boyfriend at a party. He said to me in an aggressive tone,

“So, what? You’re a marathon runner now or something?” “Yeah…” I said back to him, confused about what I was defending.

Lanni Marchant holds the Canadian women’s record for both the fastest marathon, and the fastest half-marathon. Marchant has been widely criticised for not wearing enough clothing while racing. Her outfit of choice is a sports bra and shorts, a standard uniform in women’s running. On an online running forum, one comments reads: “Don’t dress like you are going to the beach then complain that you are have been objectified!!” Marchant argues that male athletes never encounter this, as the sexier a male athlete is, the more likely he will be perceived as powerful and masculine. Marchant is dedicated to changing the way people talk about female runners. She demands that the public sticks to commenting on her performance, and not on her body.

Kilometer 32: I arrive at a water station, slow down, and drink the water that’s handed to me. As soon as it’s gone, I start running again and everything around me gets darker and darker. I don’t feel like I’m doing anything differently, but I look at my feet and notice that they are taking me diagonally across the road. I almost bump into somebody before I fall to the pavement. It’s just the heat, I think. You’re fine. Get up . I get up slowly, and start to walk forward. The world starts to brighten up, and I remember the molasses candy tucked away in my shorts. I eat it and keep moving forward. Thanks Joan. Left foot, right foot. Methodical. Stay focused.

In June this year, retired world-famous tennis player, John McEnroe, made a public comment about the greatest woman to ever play tennis, Serena Williams.

“If Serena played in the Men’s circuit, she’d be like 700th in the world,” McEnroe said in an interview for NPR.

Serena replied to him on Twitter, asking Mcenroe to leave her name out of statements that were not based on fact, and to “…respect me and my privacy as I’m trying to have a baby. Good day sir.” A few weeks later, Serena Williams won the Australian Open, while pregnant.

Kilometer 37: My legs are screaming at me, and I want to scream back. I’m angry.
I’m angry at that guy from the hostel who tried to make me doubt that I’m capable of running a marathon. I’m angry at my ex-boyfriend who said he was always going to be there for me, then disappeared. I’m angry at my father who left my family, and died too soon. My feet slam into the pavement. My tears absorb into my t-shirt.

Women weren’t officially allowed to run the marathon distance in the Olympics until 1984. It was commonly believed that running a marathon would be too physically harmful to a woman’s body. Some even believed long distance running might make a woman’s uterus fall out of her body.

Kilometer 39: I’m so hungry, for food — but especially to see the finish line. As I gallop past the sign that reads 40km, I find new strength, and feel like I can do another ten kilometers. Maybe I could have, if I had had more molasses candies.

At the finish line, I sprint because I want to show off, even though nobody I know is watching. I cross the finish line and am greeted by a storm of hula girls. They congratulate me, and one places a colourful lei over my head. I take a few more steps forward, another one puts a string of shells over my head. The last hula girl smiles at me and places a heavy golden medal around my neck. I did it, I can finally stop running.

When I cross the finish line, all I want is a banana. My legs start to cramp up, but I move forward through the crowd. Thirty thousand runners finish the Honolulu Marathon with me on December 10th, 2015. I navigate through them until I finally find a banana. With my back up against a tree, I eat my fruit under a blanket of shade I’ve been looking forward to all morning. I look at all the runners celebrating with friends and family around them. I feel alone, but proud. My phone buzzes and I get an incoming text message from my mom: “Hi Honey. Did you do it? Did you RUN A MARATHON??” I smile. I’m not alone.

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