If you can’t join them, hand them cups of water

I experienced a first as a runner this weekend.  No, I didn’t come in first place at a race, nor did I soil myself while running.  I didn’t lose a toenail and I didn’t trip and go flying face-first into a telephone pole.

Nope – I volunteered at a race.

It’s kind of astonishing to realize that I have been racing for about five years now, and I have never once helped out.  I have taken hundreds of cups of water from volunteers, then tossed the cups so other volunteers could pick them up, but I have never been on the other side of the exchange.  That changed yesterday, when Brian and I volunteered to help out at the Girls on the Run water stop during the Iron Girl half-marathon in Clearwater.  The group was in need of volunteers and since I wasn’t running the race because I’m in Full Blown Marathon Taper Mode, I figured why not?  Because, you know, we are all about giving and not just taking, or something like that.

By the time we arrived at the water stop early Sunday morning, a bunch of Girl Scouts had already filled up two tables’ worth of Dixie cups of water and sports drink, so we stood around and chatted while we waited for the first runners to crest the Belleair Causeway, which is one of three major bridges in the area.  (We don’t have hills in this part of Florida.  We have bridges.  If they were hills they would seem puny, but they are bridges and thus they seem monstrous.)  I was particularly anxious to see the leaders, as it has been a while since I’ve seen the front pack of a race up close. I’ve made considerable improvements in the half-marathon over the past few months, with times that had me nipping at the heels of the front pack.  I suspect that with more training and some focused speedwork, I could break the 1:40 mark in the half-marathon next season.  So I have to confess that I was curious to see what ladies who are faster than me look like, just to see how I measure up.

The surprising thing was that they actually don’t look all that different from me!  I mean, I was a lot taller than all of them, but almost none of the front-runners had that zero-percent body-fat look we tend to associate with fast runners.  What was surprising was just how effortlessly they maintained the kind of paces that I’m still struggling to attain for at least one mile.  Like, I ran a 6:47 mile in February and I exerted myself so much in the process that I had to stop and catch my breath with my hands on both knees when I was done.  Of course, there was also a time when I felt like I was going to die after running a single mile in 7:47, but then in February I ran thirteen miles at a pace that was slightly slower than that, so I’ve learned that I can never say never, especially when it comes to running.

Anyway, as I watched the front runners and the chase pack blow past our table, I got all giddy and excited, and I felt a little sad that I wasn’t out there running with them.  The ironic thing is that even if I wasn’t tapering for a marathon next weekend, I probably wouldn’t have run this race.  See, last year I decided that I didn’t want to run in any more women-only races.  I’d done a couple of them, and while I liked running in the streets with hundreds of women, a few aspects about them kind of bothered me.

There’s the fact that the races tend to be incredibly expensive, especially when compared to co-ed races.  One of our local race directors puts on fantastic half-marathons, complete with pasta and beer at the post-race party, for the same price as one of the women-only 5Ks.  I’m willing to spend money for races but that’s just absurd, don’t you think?  At the very least, if race directors are going to charge us that much, hook us up with some beer and some actual food when we finish the race.  I also found myself irritated by the “you go girl!” atmosphere of these races.  That kind of exuberant “female empowerment” always feels kind of cheesy and patronizing to me.  I mean, I took my “Girls Kick Ass” bumper sticker off my car in 1998, you know?  And of course, the pink.  Oh my god, the pink!  A friend of mine did a women-only triathlon and she reported finding pink toilet seats inside the Port-a-lets!

I have other reasons for my ambivalence, reasons that seemed very important to me until I stood on the street corner and watched as the women streamed past me.  There were groups of women who wore custom matching shirts.  Groups of women who were friends or family members.  Women who were older.  Women who had obvious disabilities.  Women who were younger.  Women who had put together outfits especially for that day.  Women with tattoos.  Women with glitter tutus.  Women with hot pink compression sleeves on their legs.  Women of all races.  Women of all sizes.  Women who were running.  Women who walked.

Some of the women tossed their cups at my bag and apologized when they missed.  A lot of women thanked me for being out there.  I cheered on as many as I could, telling them they looked awesome and strong, and they all rewarded me with big, sweaty smiles. I wanted to hug all of them.

I wondered how many of those ladies came out that morning just because it was a women-only race.  I bet quite a few of them did.  It was kind of a humbling experience, to be reminded that just because I see something as cheesy and patronizing, it doesn’t mean that other people are going to see it the same way.  I mean, there’s a reason why “you go girl!” persists even though it makes me die from vicarious shame whenever I hear it, and that’s because the thing it’s shorthand for, that sense of sisterly support, is something so many of us prize in our day-to-day lives.

When we left after the last of the walkers passed our station, I was both excited and thoughtful.  I know that I get so caught up in the competition of racing, both with myself and against others, that I sometimes lose sight of the fact that there are as many reasons to race as there are racers.  I guess you could say that a different perspective on racing gave me a different perspective on racing.

I’m only going to be posting a couple more times between now and next Sunday, so this will be the last time I hit you up for donations for Girls on the Run.  Please consider giving if you can!

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11 responses to “If you can’t join them, hand them cups of water

  1. One of the things that surprised me most about racing in general was the feeling of spontaneous camaraderie that often arises among runners–that, and seeing the wide variety of people out there running. (And I LOVE how you can never really tell who’s going to be fast!) Women-only events always kind of bothered me, too, especially the way they’re marketed, but your take on them as a more generalized (and perhaps slightly clumsier) form of female bonding helps. And who knows, in this cultural climate maybe we need to bring back the “Girls Kick Ass” slogan. Whether or not women-only events are the way to promote that spirit is another question, but a strong woman is a strong woman, right?!

  2. While I wholly agree with you that over-priced, over-pinked races actually make me feel patronized, I think there are a number of women who find them SIGNIFICANTLY less intimidating. It’s the same reason women join Shapes and Curves. Whether they feel inadequate or just refuse to show off their “human” (I know we feel the same on this topic), I guess, at least, they’re doing it! Of course,I don’t have to tell you I agree with exactly what you’re thinking right now. Haha

  3. I am a big defender of women-only races (especially when I hear them criticized as being ‘sexist’ or ‘demeaning). I considered myself a ‘back of the pack’ kind of person until my first women-only race last summer. It was a corralled start, based on previous race times, and I was surprised to find myself in the front half of the corrals. I realized that I was in the faster half of runners– when you compared me only to other women. I also think that women-only races give the faster women an opportunity they rarely have– to actually lead a race. To not just be the first woman, but to be first. I think this opportunity– the chance to be objectively first– is something that men take for granted.
    (and yes, I know that women do sometimes win Ultras outright. But in most races, the overall winner is the top male)

  4. Love your blog. Agree about the cost compared to other races and I was disappointed in our post-race “food” if that’s what they chose to call it. I was also quite surprised by the friendliness of other runners when I compared this race against my high school cross country races. Girls then were brutal and would push, shove and claw their way to the finish. As I was running it also hit me that this race is Iron “Girl.” Why can’t it be Iron Woman? Sigh…It was a great race though. Really enjoyed it. And thanks for collecting my water cup–it was nice to see you out there. I was surprised you weren’t running. Good luck on the marathon. That’s my next goal, way in the future sometime.

    • Hi Sarah! I was also excited to see you! I didn’t know you were a runner, or that you ran cross country in high school. Very cool. Also, not surprised to hear that x-country could get a bit violent. I played basketball in high school and I would be matched up with these huge girls who would claw the crap out of me under the basket. Whoever thinks girls are not aggressive has never spent time on a girls high school sports team.

      Good point about the Iron GIRL. Why is that, I wonder?

      If you are looking for a good local half-marathon, I really recommend the ones put on by Chris Lauber. My favorites are down at Fort De Soto, and the post race food consists of the standards plus ziti and meatballs and beer. Amazing. Hopefully I will see you at more races in the future!

  5. This post nicely illustrates the confusion I often feel about “women-only” spaces. Thanks. I try to remember that in my version of feminism, I want there to be spaces and opportunities that work for all women.

  6. I’m going to run my first ever race (except a relay) in June. It’s a woman only race, even “the” woman only race in Switzerland. I think the reason I chose it was because everyone and their grandmother is running it, or has run it before. I know no other mixed race around here where I know that many people who have participated in. And this lowers the inhibition threshold for me, probably because it feels less serious, less like a competition, more like something a group of people does together (yes, I do know it’s a serious competition, but somehow it feels “safer”.)

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