Women Who Run (the World)

I still remember the day when I ran my first mile in seventh grade gym class - four laps around that crumbling concrete track. I beat all the kids in my class – including all the boys.

If you were to ask me about my biggest running accomplishment, I’d probably say running that first mile in seventh grade. Sure, I’ve run many other races, but that was the first time I had the feeling of being so free – and fast. And finally on a level playing field with the boys.

I grew up playing soccer – a sport I still love – chasing that black and white ball around the field, kicking it as hard as I could. I played it before school waiting for the bus, during any open gym class time, and after school on the soccer team. I especially loved playing pick-up games with whomever wanted to join – it just seemed that I got tossed around a lot. I was going up against boys twice my size, constantly getting shoved off the ball. I was a tiny pip-squeak in middle school, but I still played my heart out. And that’s why that first mile meant so much to me. It showed me how I could stack up against people who are bigger and stronger I am.

Since then, I’ve carried that feeling of confidence with me in everything I do. Though running has had to take a back seat at times, it’s always been something that I can go back to, like an old friend. I don’t think it’s surprising that I’ve turned this love of the sport into a career as the Training Program Director at Fleet Feet Sports in Durham and Carrboro. I often tell people I have the best job – I get to spend my days coaching and encouraging people to run and walk. I’m out there on hot sweaty nights in the summer giving high fives to people who’ve just finished the longest run of their lives. I am there to celebrate the first, farthest, and most fun miles people have ever run. I’ve helped to build a community of runners and walkers, young and old, experienced and novice alike. The support, the camaraderie, and the empowerment that people get from each other in this sport is amazing.

And while running is a sport that welcomed very few women when it took off in the early 1970s in the US, the general growth over the past 15 years has seen a huge increase in female participation. According to Running in the USA, 57% of the finishers in US running events during the years 2013 to 2015 were female. In the years 2013 and 2014 over 10 million female runners finished races each year and in 2015 over 9 million female runners finished a variety of races.

So, what is it that draws women to running, especially over the past few years? I’ve often looked to my own training programs for that answer – and, I believe it’s the camaraderie and support that women give to each other.  In our current political and social climate we need more of that – the ability to believe in each other more quickly than we sometimes believe in ourselves. We come together and establish a sisterhood that allows to tackle new distances, reach our goals, and build each other up in the process.

Running is a great metaphor for life, and you don’t have to be an elite athlete to experience it. Whether you’re a weekend 5K-er, a just got off the couch-er, or Boston Marathoner, there’s plenty of space within the running community for you. With running you are reaching outside of your comfort zone – teaching yourself that you have more grit and fortitude than you ever thought before. You can run solo, providing the space you need to think for yourself; or, you can run with friends so that they can hold you accountable.

Running can start a movement within yourself or a group of people. One of my newest sheroes, Alison Desir, founder of Run4AllWomen, ran from New York City to Washington, DC in January of this year to raise awareness for women’s issues she felt were at risk with the incoming administration. Running gives you good days, bad days, and everything in between – much like life. You also get what you put in, and it’s been said that running a marathon is easier than giving birth. So, all you mamas out there – you can do this.

I often think back to those first laps around the track in middle school – I felt like I was flying. I wasn’t weighed down by my gender or size or defined by my looks or grades or popularity. I want others to feel this way – I strive to make running fun, engaging, and most of all feel like a community - one that supports, empowers, and accomplishes goals together.

Nora Hannapel Ayers is a runner, reader, and coach. She works as the Training Program Director for Fleet Feet Sports in Durham and Carrboro. She loves her job as she gets to work with runners and walkers of all abilities and build community around running. She also is a volunteer coach with Girls on the Run and is the Race Director for the Le Tour de Carrboro race series. When not at Fleet Feet, you are likely to find her on the trails in Duke Forrest or at Eno River State Park with her husband, Jordan.