Women Who Run


By Shanti Sosienski

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Women run for all kinds of reasons. We run for health, to ease tension, for strength, to challenge ourselves, to be social with friends, as professional athletes or the dream of being one, to turn our minds on, and to turn them off. Whether running a marathon, taking a quick jog around the neighborhood, or trying to reach the top of Pikes Peak, women of all ages and abilities have discovered running. In Women Who Run a wide range of women, including Olympians, marathoners, ultra runners, young track phenoms, and recreational runners, talk about why they run, what drives them, and what continues to spark their interest in the sport.

Women Who Run features Bobbi Gibb, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon; Louise Cooper, breast cancer survivor and finisher of the grueling 135-mile Badwater Marathon; Kristin Armstrong, who found solace and camaraderie in running with other women post-divorce; Olympic runner and two-time LA Marathon winner and Kenyan Lornah Kiplagat, Wall Street Journal reporter and Muslim women's activist, Asra Nomani; Pam Reed who ran 300-miles in one run—and many more.

This book will inspire and motivate you to get off the couch and find your inner runner.


To my grandmother, Eleanor Sosienski, who played tennis until she was eighty and only quit when she got knocked out by a fastball one afternoon. And to Rebecca Rusch, who taught me that the body and mind are capable of so much more than we ever could imagine. And lastly, to all of the women in my life, especially my mom, who have inspired me to run hard, run fast, and live fully because life only has the limits I put on it.

Introduction: Why I Run
Until I was thirty-four, I never thought of myself as a runner. There were times when I called myself a snowboarder, a surfer, a mountain biker. I just started rock-climbing, and I occasionally paraglide. I often go in-line skating on the boardwalk that connects Santa Monica to Venice Beach.
But I was never a runner. This is funny, considering I grew up in Eugene, Oregon, the capital of running, the home of legendary University of Oregon runner Steve Prefontaine, who died at age twenty-four in a car accident before he hit his prime; Olympian Mary Decker Slaney, who set four world records in the 1980s for distances from eight hundred yards to two miles; and three-time New York marathon winner Alberto Salazar. I grew up ten blocks from the university's Hayward field, where famed track coaches Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight tested homemade rubber waffle-soled shoes on the U of O track team in the late '60s. In 1986, when I was fifteen, I waited tables downstairs from one of the first Nike stores, in the Fifth Street Public Market, in downtown Eugene. I remember coveting the wall of Nikes on my lunch break, wishing I had $70 to sink into a pair—but only because I thought they looked cool. I was still years away from my first running experience.
Fast-forward to a day in early March 2005. It was my second trip to Thailand, a few months after the devastating tsunami of December 26, 2004, which I narrowly avoided. During my first trip in December, my mom, my sister, and I were on Koh Lanta and Koh Phi Phi, two of the islands in Thailand that were hit by the massive waves. I got on a plane on the evening of December 25. Sitting in Bangkok the next day, I remember feeling lucky to be alive.
When I returned home to Los Angeles in December, I was determined to go back and find the people I met during my trip. I wanted to help them rebuild their lives. The first few months of the year were spent deeply entrenched in fundraising on behalf of the tsunami survivors, mostly ignoring my career and my husband of five months. We had grown estranged, and by March, it was clear we were breaking up. I felt like I had a metaphorical tsunami in my life, wiping away everything in my world I thought I was sure about.
When I returned to Thailand, my first stop was Phuket. I stayed with Neil and Tik Satterwhite, an American-Thai couple I met through various friends who ran a hotel on Kata Beach called Tik's Place. They were raising money for children who had lost family and for people who had lost homes and businesses in the tsunami.
Neil's energy was astounding. He certainly didn't look sixty years old—or like the father of a daughter my age. When I asked him his secret, he simply said, "I run." Every morning, Neil got up and ran six times back and forth on a nearly mile-long beach. He rarely missed a morning. The next day, I got up early, put on my running shoes, and joined him on the beach. He had packed a small cooler with water and one beer, a reward after we finished the run. Kata is like many of the beaches in Thailand. The water is aquamarine, the sky is usually cloudless, and the sun is hot—even early in the morning. I ran with Neil for maybe half of the length of the beach but quickly got winded.
As I trudged along, out of breath, I liked what I felt—and I hated it at the same time. My body was jiggling from too many years of not much exercise and much sitting at my desk. I felt alert though, and alive in a way I hadn't in the months leading up my ex-husband's confession to having an affair and the horror of the tsunami. Running felt hard, but it also felt good. Somehow I forgot that all of my life I had hated running. In fact, I hated it so much that I was kicked off the soccer team during my junior year in high school because the coach wanted me to run and I refused.
So what happened? Looking back, I think I was ready for the challenge, the sense of accomplishment, the endorphin rush, and the distraction that running provided during a particularly hard time in my life. That day in Thailand, I felt like a runner. I only completed one and a half miles, but it felt good. I sat on the beach and stretched while I waited for Neil as he completed his additional four and a half miles.
"Feels pretty good, huh?" he asked me when he had finished his run, offering me the water and cracking a beer for himself.
The next day, I ran again and completed two miles. Then, on the third day, Neil had to make a business trip to Bangkok, so I ran alone, completing almost three miles (walking a good part of it so I could go further). Then I ran the next day. Every day, I passed a woman who was obviously a serious runner. Her body was tan and toned, and she would still be running when I was finished. I could leave the beach after my short runs, go back to my hotel, get my bathing suit and beach gear, come back—and she would still be running. I remember wondering what made her stick with it. What did she think about? How far did she run? How did she get started running? Would I ever run like her, or would I just get tired of it after a couple of weeks?
I didn't get tired of it. When I returned home, running was my therapy. If I was angry or sad or just frustrated with anything, I would go running. This meant there were days when I would sit in my running clothes all day and every few hours go out for another run. At first it was just a few blocks of running and a lot of walking, but slowly I found I could run more blocks, then more blocks, faster. Eventually I got a slick little blue Timex marathon watch and started recording my times here and there. It was exciting to watch my time come down. One day I ran a mile in thirteen minutes, and then a week later, it was twelve minutes.
I didn't necessarily feel stronger with every run. On some runs, I felt weak. It was during these runs that I learned to dig deep and keep going even though I was bored, disappointed with my run, not really feeling like it. As I began talking to other women who ran, I realized they experienced the same thing and that not every run is perfect, that there are times when you just don't feel like putting on your shoes. But once you do, and you get out there, your body starts to remember the rhythm, the feeling that running gives you, the feeling that you know: This is what you should be doing, and this is what your body needs.
Even though it was a real challenge, I ran almost every day through the spring and into the early summer. My iPod relieved some of the boredom I felt at first, but eventually I started finding better, more contemplative ways to entertain myself. I would run different routes to the park at the end of my street. I would make up various reasons why the palms on Sixth Street seemed to bend toward the east unlike the palms on other streets. Even on days when my inclination on every other step was to stop, for some reason, I kept running. I felt the tension from the previous weeks draining out of my body, and as I ran I looked around at my neighborhood. I was surprised at how quiet the area was for an afternoon, and how few cars drove by.
I can distinctly remember the night I started to really love running. It was one of those perfect warm Southern California evenings, when the sky is pink and the sun is setting slowly over the ocean. At that point, I still had many days when I felt like a weak runner, but at the same time, I had also started to understand what it felt like when the endorphins coursed through my body. That night, I thought about how it had only been a few weeks earlier when I lasted maybe thirty minutes, and how now I could run for an hour. As I ran along the coast, I felt myself smiling as I relaxed into my run.
In June 2005, I went to Sun Valley, Idaho, to stay with my friend and athletic mentor, Rebecca Rusch, for six weeks. In the mountains surrounding Sun Valley, I started to learn how to relax my body while running and to get into that almost meditative state. I still marveled every time I ran at how it made me feel, whether I ran fifteen minutes or two hours. It was still hard to believe I was actually running and enjoying it. I was fascinated by the fact that my body felt strong some days, like a finely tuned machine, and pathetic other days. Either way, it put me in touch with my physical self, from my breath to the bottoms of my feet. Running taught me how to look inward, to calm down, to find jai yen yen, or "a cool heart," as they say in Thailand. With every step, it pushed me through anger and weakness, through sadness and disappointment. On some runs I would find myself crying, and other runs would make me laugh as I looked up at green mountains or across a fragrant field of purple and white wildflowers. Running had brought me to these beautiful places, and strangely enough, it had become a dependable friend.
Later that summer, I was asked to write a book about women who run. Over the course of interviewing women for this book, I met those who run for fun, for fitness, for fame, for stamina both physical and mental, because they want to meet people, because they want to change the world. With each woman, I learned something new about running and something new about myself.
Writing this book was a project that began as a marathon and soon became an ultra run. There were so many more miles to go, so many more women to talk to, but eventually I had to accept that the end was in sight and work toward it. One woman I interviewed but never met was Helen Klein. At eighty-four, she has run 143 ultras (defined as runs over 50 miles) and 70 marathons—and she didn't start running until she was fifty-five. Helen first went running with her husband, Norm, who was challenged by a friend to do a ten-mile race. She told me she couldn't imagine running that far at the time, but once they ran the race, they loved it so much that they sold all of their belongings and moved from the Midwest to Sacramento, California, to train for more runs. Helen's husband became the organizer for the famously grueling Western States, an ultra run of one hundred miles in the Sierra Nevada, which Helen has completed many times.
What is Helen's secret at eighty-four? Other than good genetics, she swears by her daily routine: Wake up at 4:00 AM, eat a piece of fresh-baked bread with almond butter and bananas, go for a two-hour run. "Because of my running, I have been able to see a lot of things I wouldn't have been able to see otherwise," Helen told me. "We ran up to 17,000 feet in Peru. I ran in Africa in Marathon des Sables. That was 143 miles across the desert this last summer. I've been on humanitarian missions to Nepal and Ethiopia. We put on races for the Ethiopian children for four days. They ran like the wind. They ran in their bare feet."
As Helen discovered and as I have now found, running becomes part of your soul once you find it. It's like that for so many people. Long runs or short runs, up or downhill, pavement or trails, competitive or not. It's addictive and it's soothing, but more than anything, it reminds us how alive we are.
As of this writing, I have only pinned a race number on myself once, for a fun 5K run called the Wasatch Wobble, in Salt Lake City in August 2005. Even though it wasn't a serious race and there were no prizes, it was exciting to run in a pack—watching people pass me, and passing people myself. I ran for a while with one woman who worked for the ski and snowboard company Salomon; I had met her the previous day at the trade show. She and I bonded on that trail run through a park in Salt Lake City without words. I followed her lead for a good half of the race, and then she dropped me, but it was still fun to run with her in companionable silence. At the finish line, my friend Rebecca—who, being a professional athlete, had led the race—cheered us all in. It was so exciting to cross the finish line, for nothing more than just knowing I completed a 5K.
Running has since taken on a different meaning for me: It isn't about losing weight or dealing with my emotions, it is about dedicating myself to training and believing that I am up to the challenge. I—a woman who has disdained running for so long—now believe in it like a religion, and I now dream of running a marathon.
It's only a matter of time.
In late October of 2005 I moved to Ketchum, Idaho, after living in Southern California for six years. Ketchum is the mountain town that sits below Sun Valley resort. As winter set in, I faced new running challenges. I had to learn to run in snow and to motivate myself on cold days, which wasn't easy. One day, I slipped on black ice and went down—hard. As I lay there for a second, my head spinning, I couldn't help but laugh at my city-girl ignorance. Getting used to Idaho was going to take some time, but it would happen.
After two weeks in Idaho, I missed my friend Devin, who lived in California. Shortly after I returned from Thailand, she became my first and only running partner. She was also a magazine writer and was just finishing her first book, so almost every day, we would call each other and set a time to go running. Sometimes we walked, sometimes we ran, sometimes we huffed our way up and down a set of stairs near my house. Meanwhile, I learned about her life, about how she was a "fat kid" growing up and lost fifty-five pounds thanks to running. Whenever I ran with Devin, I liked how it never felt competitive. Some days she was stronger, and other days I took the lead. Either way, we stuck it out together and pushed each other on those days when we would have rather gone out for happy hour cocktails.
During that time, I shared thoughts with Devin that I didn't feel comfortable about sharing with anyone else. I didn't know whether it was the running that brought out that honesty, and it didn't really matter. All I knew was that in Idaho, I missed her, because there are times when it's just nice to have someone to encourage you to run further when you might not have enough energy on your own.
Before I left California, I learned about another group of women who ran together—a running club called the Janes. They are a group of elite women runners who meet in Santa Monica near the beach every Tuesday night to train. They are all former high school and college track stars, and they still run competitively. One woman, Erika Akulfi, was a triathlete who recently went professional. She led the pack as they set off running east up San Vicente, a residential tree-lined street. I wished I could run with them, but they were too fast for me. Instead I followed alongside in a car with their coach, Tania Fisher, who was also a member of The Janes but was pregnant and therefore taking a breather from running.
I remembered how the women paced each other. Erika led the pack by nearly half a block at times. Her lean body moved effortlessly as she pumped her arms and stared straight ahead. They were doing intervals. When they came to a rest point, where they jogged instead of running at full power, Erika slowed down so she could run with her friends. It was exciting watching them run. It was also wonderful to see how they hugged each other after runs, that they had such a tight bond in spite of obvious differences.
The Janes run together because it motivates them and helps them judge how well they are doing. To these women, competition isn't a dirty word. It makes them stronger.
The women who fill the pages of this book run to keep from getting caught up in the monotony of life. They run because it helps break up the day-to-day—because even if they run the same path every day, no two runs are ever alike. One day you are strong, the next you are weak, and the next day you are ready to take on the world, because you solved everything midway through a run.
Running for these women is the place where they draw their inspiration to be mothers, wives, friends, leaders, rebels. Running is also the one place where there is no right or wrong, no rules, no time limits, no discrimination. Today, women can run almost anywhere, and they do—from the Sahara Desert and Tibet to the top of Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, California. And while there are still limits in other parts of the world for women, and a notion in some places that running spoils a woman's purity (as runner Asra Nomani experienced in Pakistan), many run anyway, or are willing to face the consequences of trying.
When I think about what it would be like to be forbidden to run, I think about a girl named Weda whom I met three years ago when teaching a writing class to teenagers from conflict zones around the world. There were Muslim girls from Pakistan and Afghanistan sitting next to Jews from Israel. There was a girl from Cyprus and another from the Gaza Strip. Weda was a quiet seventeen-year-old from Kabul who spoke limited English. On the first day, when we introduced ourselves to each other, she told our group that she had been engaged to a man with "the gray hairs" when she was thirteen in an arranged marriage, which she was eventually able to escape. She also told us that she dreamed of running one day. She loved how it felt to have the wind in her hair and to run without a burqa constricting her movement.
At the end of the class one afternoon, I pulled Weda aside and offered to buy her a new pair of running shoes because I knew she was poor. She smiled sweetly and thanked me, then refused the offer, saying, "This is kind of you, but what would I do with running shoes? I have nowhere to run." In the war-torn city where she lives, if a woman were to try to run on the streets, it would be a sign of something wrong, and she would either be arrested or men would think her immodest and inappropriate. She could be jailed or even worse for her rebelliousness. "Women don't run where I come from. But someday I will make it so women can run," she told me.
It's hard to imagine women not being allowed to perform such a natural act as running, but this was the case in April 2005 in Pakistan, when fifty women were arrested for attempting to run in a public marathon that was supposedly open for women. And as I wrote this book, I was surprised to learn that it has only been thirty-five years since women could legally run in marathons in the United States. Prior to that, women were physically pulled out of races by organizers when they ran alongside their male friends. There was no marathon event for women in the Olympics until 1984, and it wasn't until 1996 that the 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter events were included on the program for women.
Yesterday, I went running. It was a short run, about two miles, on a bike path leading out of Ketchum. The sun was out, the path was mostly cleared, the air was crisp. It was a fast day for me, and I felt strong. When I have days like that, I wonder why I don't run twice a day, every day. Running becomes something else, deeper and more ingrained in your body, once you are hooked. And for those who have ever felt that running high, whether it was last week or in high school, they talk about it fondly, with a dreamy look in their eye. They can recount that feeling of running and will agree that there are few other sports that leave you feeling so free.
Each one of the women in these pages knows that feeling of freedom. They share a passion for running that unites them in sisterhood. And while some of them were born for running, others weren't, and had to teach themselves to love it. It's such a simple thing, to put one foot in front of the other, but it has changed all of their lives, and mine as well.
So enjoy reading, but feel free to put the book down and go for a run. None of us will blame you or take it personally. We're right there with you.
Shanti Sosienski
Ketchum, Idaho
June 2006

Chapter One: Marathon Women
It's hard to believe now, but just forty years ago, women weren't allowed to run long-distance races. In 2005, of the 383,000 people who finished marathons around the country, 40 percent were women. Until 1960, the longest Olympic event for women's running was a mere two hundred meters. Now women like Olympian Paula Radcliffe have world record marathon times that are sub-2:20—that's more than two hours faster than the first woman known to run a marathon in Greece in 1896.
But whether or not the International Olympic Committee has recognized it, women have always found a way to run. The history of women's competitive racing can be traced back to ancient Greece, when every five years a short footrace was held at a women's festival to honor the Greek goddess Hera. In 1896, a woman named Stamatis Rovithi was said to have run the proposed marathon course in Athens a month before the Olympics. The next month, when the Games were held, another woman, Melpomene, tried to enter the Olympics for the marathon and was denied because of her gender. She ran alongside the men anyway and arrived at the stadium an hour and a half after the winner, with a time of 4:30.
Women had their own separate form of Olympics in 1922 and 1926, as well as their own international federation—the Federation Sportive Feminine Internationale. In 1928, fed up with being excluded from the regular Olympics, they negotiated with the International Olympic Committee and were granted an experimental program of five events, one of which was the 800 meters. The catch was that in exchange they would have to hand over the control of their federation and their championships. Hopeful to make progress in the world of women's sports, they agreed. But women at that time didn't know how to train for long distances, so during the 800-meter race in the 1928 Olympics, several women collapsed, and as a result, the event was dropped.
The early running pioneers had sacrificed their independence and control to be a part of the men's Olympic track and field program, and the world of women's sports took a blow because of it. During and after the Great Depression, the idea of women being athletes had been squashed. America went into a conservative period, and competition among women was frowned upon. It was not until the late '60s that women began to fight to play competitive sports and run longer distances. In 1960, a full thirty-two years later, the 800-meter race reappeared in the Olympics for women; until then, nothing over 200 meters was allowed. The next step was the addition of the 1,500-meter race in 1972.
In 1983, after an ACLU lawsuit was filed against the Olympic Committee on behalf of women distance runners, the 5,000- and 10,000-meter events were added. And finally, in 1984—almost a hundred years after Melpomene and Stamatis Rovithi ran 26.2 miles on the sly in Athens—other women could boldly say they had run an Olympic marathon.


On Sale
Jan 8, 2010
Page Count
320 pages
Seal Press

Shanti Sosienski

About the Author

Shanti Sosienski is a freelance writer who grew up exploring the great outdoors around her homes of Eugene, OR and Nelson, BC. She writes for Men’s Journal, Outside, Marie Claire, Self, FHM, and a handful of other fitness and sports magazines. When not writing, she spends her time running on pavement or trails, mountain biking, road riding, surfing, snowboarding, wakeboarding, paragliding, and traveling around the world.

Learn more about this author