Running the World’s Biggest Women-Only Marathon in Japan

This is crazy, I thought. My heavy feet pounded against the road. It was pouring rain and the cold air clung to my damp running attire. Who comes on holiday to Japan and decides to run a 42.2 km race in the cold?

I was in pain. Sore, cold, damp and slightly limping, yet regret had never clawed its way into my mind. It was a privilege to complete the Nagoya Women’s Marathon as my first marathon and be offered the opportunity to see what my body can do.

I didn’t know much about the city of Nagoya before visiting this March, nor was I very well informed about the Nagoya Women’s Marathon. I learnt that it is regarded as the largest women’s marathon in the world. It’s also a beginner-friendly marathon, allowing participants 7 hours to complete the race.

Of the 22,000 women who ran this year, only 3,000 were from outside Japan. I strongly believe that this race deserves to be more widely known on an international level for the importance of what it represents – strong women coming together to push their limits.

The respect, honor, warmth and hospitality at the centre of Japanese culture were captured in this iconic race.

Supporters gathered at every point along the route to cheer us on – despite the rain and cold. Runners took time and effort to hand their rubbish directly to volunteers. Men showed floods of emotion as they cheered from the sidelines in eccentric outfits with encouraging hand-made signs.

I watched literal cries of joy and pride as onlookers recognized runners. I experienced the genuine warmth of strangers as I reached the last 3 kilometres, the smile and euphoria long gone from my face. They cheered me on with shouts of “you can do it!” and “almost there!”. Along the route, I found constant entertainment, support and provision. Crossing the finish line was like nothing I had ever felt before.

It was a breath-taking experience. Literally and figuratively.

It was made all the richer because of three inspiring women: Martha Morales (Mexico), Stacy Conley (USA) and Daniella Morales (Mexico).

Although we’d just met, there was such a sense of camaraderie and support between the four of us that it felt as though I were running with old friends. What a privilege it was to experience the kind of human connection that transcends nationalities, traditions, language and seemingly vast differences. Instead, it celebrates coming together and allows us to be victorious as one.

We all finished the race and celebrated as comrades. It was a heart-warming experience because of the people I was surrounded by.


Don’t get me wrong. There were at least 5 occasions along the way when I contemplated tapping out. As a first-time marathon runner, this experience was one of the toughest things I’ve ever challenged myself to do. Still, the pain is necessary. There’s power in the pain. And you let that power drive you. I saw and shared in that with all the powerful women running alongside me. I will always remember this as one of the best and most memorable experiences of my life.

This race was about something so much bigger than personal achievement. It was about celebrating in alignment with other empowered women.

People run marathons in record times all around the world every day. I didn’t break a record or overcome wildly unassailable obstacles in order to finish, or even take part in, this marathon. But that’s exactly the thing. This race wasn’t limited to celebrating what I could do on an individual level. It was so much more for me.

Being one of 22, 000 women running in the world’s biggest women-only marathon was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Taking to the streets with women of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds and fitness levels was a proud and empowering feeling. The sense of support and emotion contained within the running space as well as that of the supporters lining the track was beautiful a beautiful feeling.

Returning to South Africa, I now advocate for the Nagoya Women’s Marathon. The organisation, hospitality and energy of this race reflects the eloquence of Japanese culture. The marathon celebrates strong, dedicated women coming together to challenge themselves, stereotypes and the historical culture of marathon running.

Marathons While Menstruating

On Sunday morning I went to a hotel fitness room for a run. While on the treadmill, I heard news about US politician Donald Trump. Referring to Meghan Kelly, the news moderator who hosted a republican debate that he participated in, Trump said that during the debate she had “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her — wherever.”

Her wherever meant her vagina; he was talking about menstruation. Mentioning menstruation is perhaps the quickest and easiest way to disregard, disempower and disadvantage girls and women. Menstruation is a normal biological function, but, happening to the female half of the population, it has been a symbol of weakness, emotion and incapability for centuries. Gloria Steinem mused that if men could menstruate, “clearly, menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event.”

Still frustrated over Trump’s comments, off of the treadmill I received some positive menstruation news: 26 year old Kiran Gandi ran the London Marathon while on her period- without using a pad or tampon.

Photocredit: Kirangandi.com
Photocredit: Kirangandi.com

Kiran, who had been training for a year and ran with her friends to raise money for Breast Cancer Care, got her period the night before the race. According to social norms, her options were bleak: she could either forfeit the marathon or run while wearing a pad or tampon. Since she would not be able to stop to change a pad or tampon, this option wasn’t viable. And neither was forfeiting. So she created a third option: running without a pad or tampon.

Kiran saw this as an opportunity to break taboos and advocate for girls and women. “On the marathon course, sexism can be beaten,” Kiran explained on her website. “Where the stigma of a woman’s period is irrelevant, and we can re-write the rules as we choose. Where a woman’s comfort supersedes that of the observer.”

Kiran also said, “I ran with blood dripping down my legs for sisters who don’t have access to tampons.” Globally, adolescent girls who lack access to pads miss a week of school a month, which puts them behind their peers academically and perpetuates the marginalizing and disadvantaging stigma that continues into adulthood. Women who lack access struggle to work outside of the home because they cannot miss one week of work a month.

While Trump worked the existing power structures, Kiran worked to break them down. Let’s run in her footsteps and rewrite the social rules.

More Than Just a Foot Race

Recently, I wrote a piece about the ability of athletics to empower women and girls. Running a marathon is no exception.

Running, especially marathon running, is more than just a foot race. Finishing a marathon is a state of mind that says anything is possible. 

Last weekend, I had the amazing opportunity to run in the New York City Marathon, a race often described as being second only to the Olympics in terms of excitement and prestige. However, the hype surrounding the race did not push me across the finish line (although it didn’t hurt), but it was the strength, enthusiasm, dedication and fearlessness of other female marathoners from all corners of the world.

So go ahead and ask yourself, “Why do I run?”

Yinka, Sierra Leone & USA

“I run because I can.”

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"I run because I can." – Yinka, Sierra Leone

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Team Takbo, Philippines

“I run because I can.” ~ Ariene

“I run because I am strong.” ~ Mia

“I run for sanity.”

Lina, Dominican Republic

“I run for ice cream…seriously.”

 

Rose, Jill & Cristina, USA

“We run because we are strong and great friends.”

Renee, The Netherlands

“I run because I have the strength to do so.”

Crystal, USA

“I run because I am a busy mom.”

Mette, The Netherlands

“I run because I ROCK! Yeh!”

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#ingnycm "I run because I rock!" Yes you do!!

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Mantza & Andreina, Venezuela

“I run because I can and I will.”

“Yo corro porque soy awesome!”

Cover image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

What the Boston Marathon Bomber Forgot

Image Courtesy of TheRuniverse.com
Image Courtesy of TheRuniverse.com

Running, particularly marathon running, allows individuals to aspire to greatness, to demonstrate that anything is possible, and to conquer self-doubt. As a result, you will never find a marathon runner who does not wholeheartedly believe the famed Muhammad Ali saying,

“Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”

Kathrine Switzer serves as a shining example of achieving the impossible.

Prior to 1973, women were forbidden to compete in marathons.  However, that rule did not stop Switzer from registering for the 1967 Boston Marathon. Registering for the race using the name K.V. Switzer, Switzer broke the marathon gender barrier and will forever inspire female runners around the world. Switzer’s actions paved the way for women around the world to run marathons, including me.

In 2012, I ran my first marathon in Philadelphia. The night before the race, I anxiously studied the course map, memorizing the uphills, downhills, water stations, and mile markers. After training for six months, race day had finally arrived and I was ready. Throughout the race, crowds lined the streets to cheer on runners, handing out water, Gatorade, and small snacks. Inspirational messages on signs dotted the raceway, ensuring runners maintain the mental toughness necessary to run 26.2 miles. Although the race is now a blur, I vividly remember the outpouring of support from runners and spectators alike.

Yesterday’s events in Boston shook me to the core. As photos and videos continue to pour in through various news and social media networks, I cannot help but think that could have been me.

However, much to the bomber’s dismay, he will inevitably fail to instill fear in the hearts and minds of runners. The bomber forgot that runners are of a special breed. The bomber forgot that positive attitudes and an unbreakable determination defines the mentality of a marathon runner. The bomber forgot that an extraordinary amount of people show compassion and love during times of crisis, as proven by the enormous amount of blood donors following the attack.

As for me, the bombings only serve as motivation to complete another marathon in order to personally contribute to America’s mental toughness and its will to overcome. Although yesterday’s events are tragic, the bomber will never stop us from running, from empowering, from inspiring.