In early December, I ran a marathon faster than I ever dreamed. I never thought an athletic breakthrough like that would be possible, especially not in my 30s.
Until I looked around. Something extraordinary is unfolding for American female distance runners, and it’s making all of us better. Well into our 30s and 40s, we are performing at explosively high levels, levels that used to be unimaginable. The fastest among us have shattered barriers: In 2017, Shalane Flanagan, at 36, became the first American woman to win the New York City Marathon in four decades. The following year, Des Linden, at 34, won the Boston Marathon, the first American woman to do so since 1985.
That success had a quiet and powerful ripple effect, from Olympians and professional runners down to hundreds of amateurs like me.
The most dramatic example is the United States Olympic marathon team trials, which will begin on Feb. 29 in Atlanta. The trials, where the fastest Americans race for the opportunity to be part of the Olympic team, are open to anyone, but to qualify, women have to run a marathon in under 2 hours and 45 minutes. It’s outrageously hard. Only 198 qualified in 2016. This year, the number of women qualifying skyrocketed to 511. The number of men has increased only slightly, from 211 to 260.
What’s behind this huge jump? Few of these new qualifiers are professional runners. Most of them are women who train in their spare time, often around demanding jobs and families. They are lawyers and surgeons, biologists and engineers. There is an astrophysicist and a maple syrup producer in the mix, from places as varied as Brooklyn; Minot, N.D.; and Lake Jackson, Tex. At least one of the new qualifiers is a mother of four. Another qualified while she was pregnant and gave birth last August.
And while distance running in the United States has always attracted white professional women, the sport is growing broader and getting better. Athletes have connected with one another more than ever before, in teams or online, sharing our training and sweeping each other along with each successful race. It’s a new model of competitive female leadership: We’re seeing each other win and challenging ourselves to keep up.
Last year, it even trickled down to me. As I watched so many women qualify, I decided I would try, too. I had written about Flanagan’s catalytic effect on her teammates after she took New York. And I had reported on the women who persevered behind Linden in Boston. I thought of these women as my team captains, even if they’d never heard of me, and it was thrilling to watch them finally triumph. And I thought: Why not me, too?
I’ve been a runner for awhile, sometimes good but never great. In college, my races were so forgettable I’m not even on some of the rosters. But, like me, many of the new qualifiers have been chasing the fast pack for most of their lives. Few of them ever actually win. They’re out there, trying, anyway.
I started last summer, and it was incredibly hard. It required a total reset in how I thought about myself and what I can do.
I had always thought that, at some point in life, most people become “who we are.” Our lives are built around whatever that is, and no matter what we might actually be capable of, this idea keeps us fixed in one place.
At 35, I thought I was “who I was.” I didn’t think it was still possible to improve significantly in anything, let alone something involving my body. Our culture is fixated on youth, on potential, on lists of “30 under 30” — especially for women, who are assigned a “biological clock,” whether they believe in it or not.
I had to dismantle all that. To qualify, I had to run a marathon pace of 6 minutes 17 seconds per mile. For me, that’s usually a sprint. When I started training on a path along the Hudson River, I couldn’t even hit that pace for one mile. I tried anyway, over and over. I would stagger home afterward, late at night or before work or both. Once, at the end of a workout, I cried out, “Oh, God!” so loudly that a man across the path looked up at me in alarm. But I kept trying, repeating something someone told me about “getting comfortable with the uncomfortable.” (It never got comfortable.)
But it did become possible. One evening in the fall, after logging 22 miles in Central Park close to my goal pace, I paused. Who did I think I was?
That was the point. After months of work, my physical and psychological reframing had worked. It wasn’t an idea anymore. It was my plan. We don’t have many opportunities later in life to change who we are, without worrying about what other people think or upending wherever we’ve landed in our lives. We especially don’t have a lot of ways to do that physically. I had internalized a narrative about my body — that once I turned 30, there might not be much to look forward to. I didn’t know the opposite could be true.
This is what all these other American women runners are doing right now, in their own ways. We are following the best of us, those who have already broken out, and we are bringing everyone else along with us. When Flanagan won in New York, she told Linden, “Now it’s your turn.” And then it was.
We’re doing this in ways that sometimes surprised me. For example, all I’d ever heard about social media is that it makes you feel bad. That’s not what happened to me. With my schedule last year, I often ran by myself. But I didn’t feel alone. I used Instagram to create a virtual cross country team of women across the country who shared the same goal and cheered me on too. If I was tired in the morning, I’d look through my apps to see what Veronica in Boston had run. I knew she was a lawyer, and her teammate had a small child — what excuse did I have? I went out and trained.
In December, I raced a marathon in Sacramento. The photos of the finish line of this race were beautiful. They show ordinary women achieving something extraordinary and then absolutely freaking out with joy as the strangers they ran with hit their goals and qualify, too. Female athletes are often presented as inspirational or embattled, instead of just excellent. This scene was completely different, and I loved it.
But when it came to hitting my goal of running a 2:45 marathon, I failed. (It really is hard to do). I still ran faster than I ever thought possible, with a new best marathon time of 2:53, long after I thought my best times were done. I became the kind of athlete I’d always wanted to be. The experience was the embodiment of that cliché about sports — it was empowering. As I trained, I realized I had become complacent in the rest of my life. Wasn’t it all enough? But running shook me out of it. There are a lot of things we can’t control right now, especially for women. Perhaps we choose running because we don’t need permission to do it — we can do it whenever and however we want. The roads are open. And behind those 511 women who qualified are hundreds of others, like me, who transformed ourselves trying.
Lindsay Crouse is a senior staff editor in Opinion. Last year, she was the first woman to win the George Hirsch Journalism Award for coverage of distance running.
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