Somewhere in the middle of the pack of 2500 participants at the Naperville Women’s Half Marathon, a lone male figure came trotting past. He was wearing a number, so he was not a bandit. The small crowd gathered at an intersection paused in their clapping. One person said, “What’s up with that?”
Minutes later a man dressed in a North Central College athletic shirt wandered up to our cheer pack and smiled. “He lost a bet. That’s why he’s running in the women’s race.” But isn’t that an outmoded bet? What’s the implication anymore? That it’s an insult to run with women? That it’s men that are still superior runners, and that he’s a “girl” for losing the bet? Frankly, all bets are on the women in that one. He was firmly in the middle of the pack even running his apparent best.
Other than that, the only men who showed up in the race were the dapper male pacemakers dressed in tuxedo-style run shirts. Each male pacer carried a sign of their projected times from 1:40 through 2:30 and beyond. It was a nice service, but not entirely necessary. The women seemed to have a fine sense of pace on their own.
Few races have I attended where there were more police and volunteers working. In fact, security looked pretty high, with military grade vehicles parked at the start/finish line. These were flanked by generally smiling officers in flak jackets and thick chest protectors. If any threat was going to approach these women runners on a Sunday morning, it was going to have to face down a small army prepared and willing to meet it.
That’s likely how it should be at least one day a year. It’s a well-worn fact that women still face their share of stares and even street harassment while out running. But when you put 2500 women together in one place, and let them loose on 13.1 miles of streets in a comfortable Illinois suburb, the odds of male annoyances drops precipitously.
The interesting part about this race was the fact that the top 10 women all finished between 1:22:04 and 1:35. That’s between 6:00 and 7:00 mile pace. There are not that many male finishers in a typical half marathon that even manage those paces. At last year’s Fox Valley Half Marathon, a women runner named Tera Moody placed second in the overall race in a time of 1:17, seconds behind the male winner. One can do worse these days than bet on the elite female runners to compete for top overall placing.
At the finish line a woman named Jamie mused that the ultimate winner, Julie Favorite (her actual name) was perhaps playing it a little coy in her post-race comments about her victory. “She was like, ‘I didn’t expect to win.’ But she was the only girl standing in the 6:00-mile section at the start. What did she expect?”
And after all was said and done, she really was the favorite.
One can perhaps understand the self-deprecation. There seems to be a delightful realm of encouragement and etiquette among women runners. At least on the surface. Maybe not so much once the race is settled and done. “11th overall isn’t so bad,” the announcer said to Jamie at the finish. But, she observed, “My goal today was finishing in the Top 10, not 11th. I’m kind of mad! There were a lot of great runners in this race!”
The spirit of the day was supported participation. There were tons of tandem gals wearing matching race uniforms. Some ran for PAWS and a few for other causes. Many simply chose to sign up and run in the official race tee shirt. “I could smell the new shirts,” my companion Sue chuckled.
Not all women buy into the pink look so popular (or at least familiar) at so many women’s races. “Aaahhh,” Sue muttered as we approached the crowds of runners gathered near the pre-race Porta Potties. “Too much pink!” Patty Saccone was one runner that ditched the pink for a purple hat. “In honor of Prince,” she smiled.
With perfect weather conditions–– 50 degrees at the start and barely sixty degrees at the finish––with hardly any wind, there were few apparent medical needs. Just a number of old shirts cast to the curbs during the race.
The finish setup inside the stadium at North Central College was a nice touch. Competitors got to circle the last 300 meters on the track. The line of banners at the finish line featuring the logo of the Naperville Running Company made certain everyone knew who the lead running shop in Naperville truly is.
It was an impressive debut race and the organizers of the Naperville Women’s Half Marathon deserve a pat on the back. The proceedings went far better than the previous day’s Sly Fox Half Marathon in St. Charles, where a massive glitch in the course marshalling led hundreds of runners off course and cut a mile off the 13.1 Half Marathon distance. Not good. That’s a breach of The Basics when it comes to race management: Accurate Course. Porta Potties. Decent aid stations. The are the basics.
Yet such are the risks of race directing. When it works, it’s wonderful. There’s nowhere to hide when the basics aren’t in place.
It’s great that women still get their own races, but these days the bets are off on whether they run any slower without men around. They can run and win the day just fine on their own.