Pace Changers: A Look at the Women Who Changed Running
Running wasn't always a sport for females, but these women were the catalyst for change.
“Running is an amazing sport, no matter what level of runner you are or how fast you are. It is empowering, it brings people together, it develops a sense of community, and that’s especially true for women. I think it’s the easiest sport for a lot of women to be a part of, and we can all find inspiration all over the place. It’s no surprise how much it has grown and how much women are a part of it. I’m proud to be running now with so many other women involved.” —Shalane Flanagan, 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon champion and second-fastest female American marathoner in history.
Women are beating men when it comes to start-line gender ratios, but there was a time when running was a men’s pastime. We talked with some of the women who have been the front runners for the sport, championing innovations, empowering newcomers and outrunning any adversity along the way. Read on to see their stories.
1977: The Innovator
It’s unfathomable that before 1977 sports bras didn’t exist. In fact the first sports bra—dubbed Jogbra—was fashioned out of two jock straps sewn together by runners Lisa Lindahl, Polly Smith and Hinda Schreiber. That same year Moving Comfort—the women’s sports apparel company known for their highly technical and supportive sports bras—was born and released the first women-specific running shorts.
“Shorts built for a woman’s body was transformative,” says Anne Cavassa, the vice president of global apparel for Moving Comfort. “For the first time, women could run in comfort—freeing themselves from the chafing, binding, irritation or just poor support that came with the men’s or unisex product offering at the time.”
Founder Ellen Wessel, as a young 26-year-old runner, was unable to find attractive options for women’s running shorts. With only a $75 investment and a sewing machine, she set out to create the first pair of women-specific shorts, and from there built her business, Moving Comfort Inc.
However, it’s the brand’s sports bras that have revolutionized true running comfort for women. In 1995, Moving Comfort designed its first sports bras, the Olympia and Athena, as part of an expanding apparel line.
“Surprisingly, the market for sports bras hadn’t grown much since the ’70s. When we started to innovate, only one other company was making sports bras, Jogbra, which was sold to Champion,” Cavassa says. “The opportunity was huge.”
Today Moving Comfort boasts an impressive collection of 13 bra styles with some styles offered in 30 different size combinations—that’s more options than you’d get buying a regular bra. In 2009, in-house biomechanic testing of sports bras was introduced and as a result, in 2010, the Moving Comfort Fiona sports bra claimed the number-one-selling apparel item at specialty run retailers and it continues to be Moving Comfort’s most popular item.
“As a company of women, we understand and are well-equipped to address the unique ways women experience movement first and foremost,” Cavassa explains. “We then consider the athlete within the woman. It’s a subtle difference, but has led to our success in providing product that performs in the way women want and need.”
At the same time, Moving Comfort has Jogbra to thank for taking the lead in sports bra design and innovation—even if it was as simple as sewing two jock straps together.
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1984: The Pioneer
When the ’80s rolled around, Joan Benoit Samuelson was well into her running groove. The struggles of the ’60s and ’70s had morphed from an uphill battle to more a matter of time. And, although women did not yet have a marathon in the Olympics or equal opportunities across the face of running, the tide of change was riding high.
When asked about her role in the women’s running movement, Benoit Samuelson suggests she was simply lucky to be in the right place at the right time.
“I was not involved in the struggles, I just ran,” Benoit Samuelson says. “I let my running do my talking.”
Her soft, staccato footsteps made a big impact. While still attending Bowdoin College, Benoit Samuelson won the 1979 Boston Marathon, setting American and course records in the process. In 1983 she repeated her Boston win and broke the world record.
“When it came time for the first women’s U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon, knowing the Olympics were going to be hosted on U.S. soil in Los Angeles gave me a desire to make the team,” Benoit Samuelson says. “I wanted to give it my best shot. I also didn’t want to let Nike down since they had invested so much in me.”
Samuelson’s efforts paid off in 1984 when she made sports history by taking home the gold medal at the first women’s Olympic marathon at the summer games in Los Angeles. Samuelson, who had promised herself that she would run her own race, broke away from the pack just 14 minutes into the race because she thought the pace was too slow. She held on to her commanding lead through the race. When Samuelson ran through the tunnel to go into Olympic Stadium, she knew life would be different when she came out on the other side.
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“Joanie’s gold, to me, is the best moment in the history of women’s distance running,” says Shalane Flanagan, who earned the bronze medal in the 10,000 meters at the 2008 Olympics, placed second at the 2010 New York City Marathon and finished in seventh at the 2014 Boston Marathon in 2:22:02, the fastest time for an American woman. “That’s what I’m striving for—a moment like that.”
As a result of her ability to run her own race, fierce competitiveness and low-key approach, Samuelson has continued to be an inspiration to other women for 30 years.
“I think my legacy is that I’m fortunate and blessed to be out there running,” Samuelson says. “We all inspire each other and I’m happy to impart information to developing runners, but we all have to run our own race.”
1996: The Motivator
Unlike any of the nonprofit programs of its time, Girls on the Run (GOTR) started in the ’90s as a social movement to empower young girls through running.
Founder Molly Barker piloted the program in Charlotte, N.C., with 13 girls in tow, coaching and counseling them through the 24-lesson life skills curriculum. From the initial 13, the girls multiplied to 26 the following year, then 75 and now more than 130,000 girls in 200-plus cities across North America participate in GOTR programs every year.
“The original goal, interestingly, is just coming to fruition now,” Barker says. “In the beginning it was to create a personal, individual awareness about the girl box and that we have ways to get out. But the ultimate goal was to create a cultural awareness of the box so that systems would change and more women could be in leadership roles.”
The “girl box” refers to gender stereotypes and pressures that limit opportunities for both young girls and women. Once a self-conscious teen herself, Barker recalls her own difficulties within the girl box and its genesis for GOTR.
“I discovered when I ran for those brief periods of time, that girl box and all those negative messages just slipped away—the ‘I’m not pretty enough,’ ‘I’m not smart enough’ and all that,” says Barker, who started running at the age of 15.
As Barker got older, her battles with the girl box resulted in alcoholism until she quit drinking at the age of 32. In recovery, she says, “I started to live a more full life and thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to give girls the tools to navigate their way through and around that box?'”
Through Barker and GOTR, running has not only provided an escape from the girl box, but it has also made space for thousands of young girls to express themselves freely, healthily and without judgment.
“The other thing that GOTR has introduced is that this whole sport is a social agent for change. It can be used to create fellowship and introduce more girls to running and their own power,” Barker explains. “It is an opportunity to bring people together from all walks of life and to actually combat a certain social stereotype.”
Since GOTR’s founding in 1996, women in running and women-specific running events have significantly increased. In 2012, GOTR alone hosted 253 end-of-season 5K events across the country. However, Barker is still amazed by the impact GOTR has had on women’s running as a whole.
“Joanie [Benoit Samuelson] was my space-maker. She ran that marathon and I was just 22. I looked at that and just went, ‘Oh my god, if she can do that.’” Barker says. “So I’m sure people do that with GOTR and I just can’t see it yet. Maybe when I’m 80, I can look back and see the space it made for girls and women.”
2011: The Entrepreneur
Like many blossoming companies, Oiselle Running started with the simple desire to make something better—in this case, it was a women’s run short that was flattering and didn’t “bunch” in the wrong spots. CEO and founder Sally Bergesen went through the crafting process to bring the improved piece to the women’s running market, birthing the first-ever Roga short in 2007.
Now, seven years later, Bergesen leads an empire of notable elite athletes, close-knit colleagues and runners. Not only is Oiselle—French for “bird,” alluding to the weightlessness that only a runner knows when flying through a workout—making a presence the women’s running market with its quirky marketing and daring social media presence, but it is also gaining traction among speedy elites. Marathoning sweetheart Kara Goucher, a former Nike athlete, signed with the brand in March.
“It’s blown my mind, frankly,” says Bergesen about signing Goucher. “Women are gravitating more toward brands that view them as a human more than just a stat sheet.”
The small Seattle-based clothing company prides itself on catering to the woman athlete and maintaining a noticeable presence for its sponsored elite runners as they step onto the track or into the road-racing scene. The unique business structure and contract program for elites allows those who join Oiselle to not only race with the brand, but also have a say in the clothes underneath their bibs.
“It makes [our athletes] feel more connected to our brand. It’s more authentic when they wear it—they aren’t just selling something, but they are wearing something they like,” Bergesen explains. “Clothing actually has a proven ability to enhance your state of mind and confidence—that feeling you get when you want to feel like you can do anything, like a pro athlete would want to feel if they were starting a major championship race.”
Bergesen and Oiselle first raised eyebrows after signing Lauren Fleshman, a former Nike athlete, during her pregnancy, an unheard-of move in the industry. Fleshman, a two-time U.S. champion in the 5,000, was the first major name to jump on board with Oiselle’s uncharted sponsorship structure, which offered a stake in the company, a say in the clothing and a tiny two-page contract to seal the deal.
“There’s a lot of work to do [to make contracts] that reward both healthy training and racing, but also recognize the full scope of women’s abilities, one of which is having babies, instead of punishing them for that,” says Bergesen, who points out that Oiselle athletes are also its consumers and a big source for product feedback.
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Oiselle has certainly grown into its big girl shoes as it continues to celebrate women and running. In an effort to bring more eyes to the demanding elite racing scene, the brand recently launched “The Flock,” a membership-based program for its sub-elite athletes working to make a splash on the competitive running circuit.
Between nabbing famed athletes, such as Fleshman and Goucher, and boasting a recognizable presence on the running scene, the brand is soaring to a whole new level—one that will continue to support women runners, challenge the norm and raise the bar for any future brand that steps in the fem space of endurance.