Race Review: Nike Women’s Half Marathon, San Francisco (October 18, 2009)

NIKE WOMENS MARATHON 3I was on the phone with a Nike representative. They were flying me out to San Francisco for a “global running summit,” to preview their Spring 2010 running collection, and the event coincided with the Nike Women’s Marathon, the largest women’s race in the world. Would I like to run the half or full while I was there?

“Um, I’m a guy?” I asked, bewildered. Turns out that the race is open to all genders, and that a couple thousand of the 20,000 or so runners are guys, so I figured I’d go ahead and do the half. “The course is really beautiful,” she told me, referring to the San Francisco scenery.

At the summit, Olympian Kara Goucher, who’s America’s great hope for the women’s marathon at London 2012, appeared along with Beijing gold-medalist and Chicago’s record-setting champ, Sammy Wanjiru. Goucher, whose gentle charisma and blazing speed has made her the new sweetheart of the running set, was asked about her next race. She responded she’s on “a hiatus” and that she and her husband were “trying to start a family,” after which she’d return to racing in preparation for the Olympics.

That, more than anything else over the weekend, drove home the spirit underlying a women’s marathon: no male racer in the prime of his career has to make room in his training routine for considerations like pregnancy. Men like Wanjiru can focus on just one thing which, in his case, is his mission to break the world’s record.

Nike’s advocacy of leveling the playing field for women in sports is probably the company’s greatest legacy, and represents a perfect example of a company’s pursuit of profits—obviously women represent a colossal market for sports gear—aligning with and even advancing an important social issue. Nike’s 1995 ad, “If You Let Me Play,” not only stands as compelling advertising, but its message resonates in moving ways. At the summit, Nike’s vice president of running, Amy White,  told us that in 2010, more U.S. women will participate in high-school competitive sports than men.

The Nike Women’s Marathon was started six years ago to honor the twentieth anniversary of Joan Benoit Samuelson’s historic victory in the first women’s marathon at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Astonishingly, woman were barred from races longer than 1500 meters prior to that, and Nike had been one of the voices for change, advocating in ads for the addition of a marathon event in the Olympics.

So if downtown San Francisco feels like a giant Nike ad this weekend, with a tent in Union Square flanked by colossal billboards, with crazy crowds at Niketown, I’ll cut them some slack. They’ve earned it. Plus it’s a big fund-raiser for leukemia and lymphona.

That tent, the “Expotique,” is a pared-down version of the sponsor carnival that most races today feature. This one’s less sponsor, more Nike, more “girly.” Like the free manicures that seem to be rather popular. The motto of the race is “Run Like A Girl,” after all, and that theme will carry through the race itself, with free post-race massages in a giant tent, and a Ghiradelli-sponsored “Chocolate Mile” at mile twelve.

The race starts downtown, in the dark, and follows a course of abundant city and natural beauty, with a taste of downtown, the famed waterfront, stunning neighborhoods and Golden Gate  Park, after passing by a cloud-covered bridge. It’s almost enough to make you overlook the hills you’re ascending and descending, including one at mile six that carried its steady ascent for a full mile. We’re definitely not in Chicago.

It turns out to be a powerful experience to be a man who, this day, “runs like a girl,” and not just because of the polite spirit of sisterhood that pervades the air, nor for the always valuable lesson in humilty for the male ego of being beaten by girls—by, in this case hundreds if not thousands of girls. More than anything, it’s the affirmation of inclusion in this women’s event, where men are never treated as anything other than welcome.

Finishers in this race do not get medals. Instead, we’re presented with special Tiffany necklaces by firemen in tuxedoes at the finish line, which I proudly accept. I do draw the line at a kiss from one of the big guys, though. Not that one is offered. (Brian Hieggelke)

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