One man’s experience at an all-women’s marathon.

Even though I’m an xy-chromosome-carrying member of our species, I ran the inaugural Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francisco in 2004 because: (a) I like running in San Francisco; (b) it sounded like a cool event; and (c) I am a man and, therefore, fairly dense.

Actually, when it comes to some important male/female dynamics, I’m an idiot. And it goes beyond the “seat up/seat down” controversy. Who decided that the floor isn’t a perfectly acceptable place to keep clothes between wearings? And why can’t I dry my wet winter running gloves in the microwave?

Having come to terms with my ignorance in gender relations, I decided not to run the 2005 race. Instead, I cheered from the sidelines and even got to pass out some of the Tiffany necklaces that substituted for finisher’s medals. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Originally intended to commemorate Joan Benoit Samuelson’s gold-medal performance at the first Olympic women’s marathon in 1984, the 2004 event was a celebration of, well, Olympic proportions. Joan herself welcomed the 9,000 participants.

For the 2005 race, Joanie was back – having just qualified for the 2008 Olympic Trials – and the 15,000 participants (including 150 men) made some history as well. The race, which benefits the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, raised $14 million for research and patient services, eclipsing all other running events in terms of fund-raising. On top of that, the quality of the race services was unparalleled. What other races have coat checks, pedicure stations, and Ghirardelli chocolate on the course?

But what made this race even more special was that 14,850 women were out there together. It was rare to see a woman running alone. I spoke with a beaming trio of sisters who were running in memory of their mother. They knew that completing this race was an accomplishment mom would have been proud of yet could never have imagined doing herself. She never had the athletic opportunities they’d been granted. And as the sisters ran, they were encouraged by countless women of their mother’s generation, who cheered loudly in thanks for representing them.

The course was also lined with young girls – the next generation of runners. These girls were supporting their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers, who were out there opening up the sport for them the way Joanie did 20 years ago.

Throughout the day I wondered if there could ever be a men’s race like this – one so centered on commitment to each other’s achievements. Even though men today are probably as different from their dads as women are from their moms, it’s still hard to imagine 15,000 testosterone-charged males appreciating personal grooming stations along the course. And it’s hard to imagine all those men cheering each other to the finish line. Even slow, old guys like me would probably risk a pulled hamstring by trying to outkick each other at the finish. Not that this would be all bad, but it would certainly be different.

So, hats off to the women of the 2005 Nike Women’s Marathon. You have proven once again that when it comes to knowing what really matters, you are in a league of your own.

Waddle on, friends.

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