The Women Who Endure: Long-Distance Racers Find Personal and Community Empowerment
A September, 1975 New York Times headline reads: “Women Marathon Runners Are Racing to Equality with Men.” Featuring the story of Kim Merritt, the women’s winner of the 6th annual New York Marathon that year, the journalist, Steve Cady, places Merritt’s story in the context of the turbulent women’s liberation movement happening off the race course. “In long distance running,” wrote Cady, “women’s suffrage means the right to suffer the same mental and physical torment as men and to enjoy the same sweet sense of accomplishment.” Cheeky, indeed–he later refers to Merritt as the “Susan B. Anthony of long-distance running”–but his point may nonetheless have held particular significance, and even giddy novelty, for the generation of women who only three years prior had seen Title IX passed into law.
Today, endurance racing among women manifests as everything from a one-time personal challenge to a full-time profession. Women compete in citywide runs for causes, professional marathons, college cross country, Olympic races, and affiliated local or national events. And as Elaine Harris of Manhattan put it, “Everyone is surrounding you, people of all ages, races, genders… it really is equalizing.” A sentiment not far from Cady’s, though it takes on new meaning in the 21st century.
Harris decided to tackle the challenge of a triathlon during her first year out of college. Signing on with “Team in Training,” a NYC-based organization affiliated with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS), Harris made a two-fold commitment: in order to compete, she had to raise a minimum of $2,000 for LLS; and, of course, she had to complete the rigorous Olympic-style Triathlon–a 1-mile swim, followed by a 25-mile bike ride, and concluding with a 6-mile run.
“It’s like a trick,” she says. “You tell people you’re going to do it. You say to yourself, ‘I’ve told people I’m going to cross that finish line, so I’m not giving up.”
And she told lots of people. Through a widespread letter-writing campaign and aggressive fundraising, Harris raised five times the minimum—$10,000—for LLS. “Unfortunately, it’s a cause many people relate to,” she says. Her campaign not only raised awareness among her friends, family, and community, it also raised her own consciousness. Through the scorching hot summer, she spent two or three weekdays and a Saturday each week training in both group and personal settings. One day, she recalls, she got through a “mental block” and ran farther than ever before, telling herself she would not stop until the entire 6-mile course was completed. At 8-miles, she was still going. “I’ll admit I started to surprise myself.”
The day of the race, it was pouring rain in Manhattan. Starting with a swim in the Hudson River, Harris and her fellow triathletes descended from 98th to 78th Street, then biked back up through the Bronx, finishing with run straight back to lower Manhattan. Harris’ entire family came out bright and early to show support; even among the masses of swim-capped heads in the stormy Hudson, Harris says, “my sister could spot my stroke.”
During the run, Harris noticed athletes running together, holding a string. “Blind athletes,” she explains, “Incredible.” She also saw a veteran competing with one leg. Surrounded by such inspiring acts of courage and strength, Harris found her own strength anew during her last 2 miles: “I can’t complain,” she remembers thinking. “I have both legs; I’m a healthy young woman. I can do this and I will.” When she crossed the finish line, she cried. “They were literally handing out bagels,” she remembers with starry eyes.
Davida Ginsberg of Connecticut felt a similar sense of community and personal empowerment when she completed a 115-mile bike ride last year with the Jewish Environmental Organization “Hazon” ( which means “vision” in Hebrew. The cyclists rode over a two-day period, beginning in the Hudson Valley and ending on the Upper West Side of Manhattan near the Jewish Community Center.
Like Harris, Ginsberg decided to take part in this endurance race both as a personal challenge and as a way to connect with others. She, too, raised funds for the organization and got her family and friends involved in her race. Hazon’s work and mission was central to her motivation. “I knew I would feel supported and connected to people with whom I shared values of environmental sustainability and social justice,” Ginsberg says.Endurance racing thus took on manifold meanings in her life: personal challenge, physical activity, and hobby—but also participation in her Jewish community. It also represents a manifestation of her environmentalist principles and activist work. Ginsberg echoes many of Harris’ feelings after the completing the challenge. “I definitely see myself as more capable,” she reflects. “I feel amazed by the capabilities of the human body.”
Michelle Saindon, of Connecticut, had yet another reason for getting involved in endurance racing: she wanted to be an example of good health for her three children. Although Saindon was not a self-identified “runner,” she decided to do the half-marathon after she watched the Hartford race: “I saw many women that looked just like me crossing the finish line,” she recalls. This inspired her, so she and two friends signed up.
Saindon drew upon the communal experience of the race for support and strength, much as Harris did. “[My friends] and I knew going into the race that were going to stick together, finish together, and most of all have fun,” Saindon recounts. This allowed her to work through that “suffrage” Cady wrote about–the mental and physical pain that endurance racing entails. “Even when my knees were killing me at mile 9,” she says, “we focused on the parts of our bodies that didn’t hurt, like our pinkie fingers… If I had raced by myself it would have been much, much harder.” Harris also had strategies for keeping her mind focused through the pain; as she ran through Manhattan, she looked for familiar places from her memories and worked toward them. “I knew we were going to pass my family’s old apartment, and later on the Met, and other spots I love…I had a mental map.”
All three of the women emphasize the feelings of empowerment they gained from their endurance races. “You can get into the grind,” Harris explains, “[but] there’s more than just living on your blackberry. You can do something for yourself and bring it all back into perspective.”
But more than a feeling of personal betterment, the race made them feel like part of a positive community with a common goal. Saindon was so inspired by her accomplishment in the half-marathon that she rallied her neighborhood together for a 2-mile “Turkey Trot” this past Thanksgiving; where the community event raised $750 for the local food bank. “The races I’ve done have given me the confidence to motivate others,” she says. “The young and the old participated, everyone felt great, and we’ll be doing our second one next year.”
Harris will also compete in her second triathlon this summer, only this time she is serving as a “peer coach” for newcomers to the sport. While the decisions to complete these endurance tasks may not hold the same political significance in 2012 as they did for Kim Merritt in ’75, their accomplishments are perhaps just as significant in the scopes of their lives, communities, and society. “The race is ageless, genderless,” Harris says. “It’s just groups of runners, and we all do the same course.”