The State Of The (Women’s Running) Nation Address

Who are SA women runners? Why do we run? What challenges do we face?


Lisa Abdellah |

Fact: more women read Runner’s World than men. But who are we? Why do we run? What challenges do we face, and who or what inspires us?

We Are Younger

Inspired by the millennial, a new breed of running club is attracting younger women. Lindiwe Maseko, 30, is a member of Thesis Run Cru, which began as a streetwear and lifestyle brand with a small store in the Sowetan township of Mofolo Village, selling T-shirts and bucket hats inspired by youth culture – art, graffiti, music – from the streets.

When people saw co-founder Wandile Zondo out on his training runs, they wanted to join him. By 2014, a core group of around 30 to 40 runners, including Maseko, had become close friends.

“We run together, break bread together, and party together,” she explains. “Some of the women are unemployed, have come out of a bad relationship or they’re in a dark space, so it’s good for them to have a place they can escape to, where someone will reach out to them if they’re not okay.

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“I joined because I wanted to lose weight. The guys trained with me, even on rainy days, and encouraged me to run my first marathon. They also helped me to challenge a stereotype; I’d always thought of myself as ‘big-boned’.”

We Run In Packs

According to psychologist Lindy Emsley, we are more inclined to run in a group than on our own.
“It has been found that women seek emotional connection, and generally fear isolation more than failure.”

The all-women running initiative Catch Me If You Can is an ideal starting point for newbie woman runners who feel intimidated by traditional running clubs.

“We are a group of likeminded women, who help each other to walk and run first,” explains founder Sabrina Walter. “We share stories, discover new routes together and motivate one another.”

Sanette Smit (owner of the Self-Defence Workshop) demonstrates five (surprisingly simple) self-defence moves that will help you stay safe on the run.

Trail-running enthusiast and freelance events organiser Sue Ullyett found a mixed group equally beneficial. “The only reason I got good on the trail was because I ran with people who were better than me. It killed me in the beginning, but I improved.”

We Don’t Feel Safe

Another reason we run in groups is to protect ourselves. Just before the Soweto Marathon last winter, one of Maseko’s friends was mugged.

“All it took was a split second: she was grabbed, and stripped of her takkies, jacket and watch.”
But it isn’t always possible to run in a group, which is why ensuring we know what to do in a hostile situation is vital.

RELATED: Running While Female: Midrun Harassment

“You need to understand who the attacker is, what his intention is, and how to get out of it,” advises Kelee Arrowsmith, CEO of ACT Personal Safety.

“Thieves probably want money, so it makes sense to have some in your pocket. I know lots of people who’ve been stabbed, shot or beaten, simply because they weren’t carrying any.”

We Race

Our participation in short-distance races has boomed. “One of the main reasons women run is to lose weight, so they tend to focus on what they need to do to achieve that,” says Ullyett.

“Typically, their programme starts off with a 5-K, then a 10-K, and then extends to the half marathon. Bruce Fordcye’s parkrun has got a lot of women off the couch.

“Having said that, lots of women still feel more comfortable racing in a women-only environment. Events like the Spar Ladies 10km convince women that it’s actually not that bad. They can put on their running shoes and have lots of fun – at any race.

“At the moment, far more men enter the Comrades than women, but I think that will change – many of my friends are considering it.”

We’re In Fashion

Nowadays, says RW gear editor Ryan Scott, brands are almost expected to make women-specific running shoes, with a higher bridge and a narrower heel that accommodate the anatomy of our feet. Garmin and Polar have introduced watches that are smaller, and feel less ‘clunky’.

“Running gear is attractive enough to be worn at leisure, without compromising on technicality and performance,” he says. “Brightly-coloured, patterned tights have become the hero of every woman runner’s wardrobe – even the likes of Lorna Jane, which isn’t technically a running-specific brand, are popular.

But at what price? asks Ullyett. “Running shoes and kit are expensive.”

We Inspire Each Other

Our heroines are just like us, but they’ve achieved extraordinary things. The reason we love Caroline Wöstmann is that she’s a mother of three who doesn’t come from an athletic background – and yet, she won the Comrades. Wöstmann makes us believe that with the right mindset, perhaps we can transform our own lives.

We could start by inspiring even more women to join us, beginning by posting photographs on social media: of the beautiful routes we run on, and the healthy post-run breakfasts we indulge in!

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