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.

Inspiring Girls to Run for Parity!

Written by Stephanie Arzate

The sun had barely risen when hundreds of women and girls started to arrive at the Jawalakhel Football Field just outside of Kathmandu, Nepal. It was a little before 7 a.m. and everyone had come ready to run.

After weeks of planning, Women LEAD—along with their partners Higher Ground Bakery, Cycle City Network, and the Ujyalo Foundation—was finally seeing the fruits of their labor: the second annual International Women’s Day Fun Run. The Fun Run, open only to women and girls, was intended to let them “reclaim the streets” in a place where street harassment is common.

The event had another purpose as well: it was a day to celebrate the achievements of women and girls, like internationally renowned runner, Mira Rai, who came to address the crowd at the end of the run.

At the height of Nepal’s Civil war—and at the tender age of 14—Rai joined the Maoist rebels. She was captivated by the Guerilla’s promise to treat both women and men equally and looked up to the female combatants. Rai was too young to fight at the time, but she did train with the rebels. That training, she says, has helped her as she has gone on to become a star athlete.

Photo Credit: Higher Ground
Photo Credit: Higher Ground

It is not unlikely that you have not heard of Mira Rai. In a profile late last year, the Guardian called her a “low profile type of national hero.” But while Rai might not be known well beyond the borders of the Himalayan country, she is certainly an inspiring force in her home country.

Despite her small frame, Rai delivered a message that both captivated and energized the hundreds of young women and girls who had gathered on the field that brisk Saturday morning. Addressing the crowd in Nepali, Rai drew from her own life story and spoke of her struggles as a young girl. She reminded the mostly-female audience that they are just as powerful and strong as men.

“I believe girls can come to any level they want, do what they love to do, and break stereotypes and break records,” she told a group of Women LEAD girls after her speech. “If I can come to this level [in life], then anyone else can. All you gotta do is not give up, but give it your best.”

Women lead girlsIn the end, hearing from a trailblazer like Mira Rai was what made the event that much more special for those in attendance.

“She is a true inspiration,” said Aastha, a 2015 LEADer, who was able to meet the runner at the event. “We come from a society where women are criticized a lot and even we girls criticize ourselves and try to change ourselves for society rather than be ourselves. But Mira Rai has stayed true to herself, and has been able to become a role model to many girls, including myself.”

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

Don’t Call Me a Tomboy. Call Me an Athlete.

Me and my friends on a ski trip

The Collins American-English Dictionary defines ‘tomboy’ as a girl who behaves or plays like an active boy.

So what does it mean to play ’like a boy?’ Boys enjoy playing with everything from video games to Barbie dolls. Just like girls, boys cannot and should not be stereotyped with specific personality traits. For now, let’s assume playing ‘like a boy’ refers to playing sports (although I will explain why this is a ridiculous assumption).

According to Bonnie Zimmerman, author of Encyclopedia of Lesbian Histories and Cultures, the word ‘tomboy’ has been connected with connotations of rudeness and impropriety since 1592.

What is so rude about a girl who plays sports?  

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Growing up, my peers often referred to me as a tomboy. I heard it so much that, by the time I reached high school, I even used it to describe myself. I eagerly competed in any sport, including gymnastics, swimming, diving, softball, basketball, track, volleyball and/or soccer (just to name a few). And, not to toot my own horn, I did not just play sports, I was good at sports.

In primary school, my physical education teacher always paired me with an athletic boy for our one-on-one basketball drills. In middle school, I played on my school’s girls teams and, in 8th grade, we went undefeated in every sport. In high school, I ran cross country and broke multiple school records.

What I’m trying to say is that girls who enjoy playing sports are not tomboys.

We are athletes.

By playing sports, girls (and boys) develop mental toughness and important social and physical skills along with a heightened sense of accomplishment, confidence, determination, and empowerment. Athletic girls must not be shunned while athletic boys are celebrated.

In 2010, UNICEF partnered with the Bamyan Provincial Department of Women’s Affairs and the local Youth Information and Contact Centre in Afghanistan to promote girls’ empowerment through sport.

Participation in sport is a critical part of any child’s physical and social development, especially for girls. Sport can help improve their self-esteem and self-awareness. Sport teaches integrity and self-management by setting objective standards that girls can work to achieve.” ~ Dr. Atiqullah Amiri, UNICEF

In 2012, the U.S. Department of State unveiled its Empowering Women and Girls Through Sports Initiative. One component of the Initiative involves a partnership with espnW’s Global Sports Mentoring Program. The program matches emerging female leaders from 15 different countries with female top executives in the American sports industry for one month, allowing the young leaders to gain valuable skills necessary to build female sports leagues in their home countries. The Initiative also engages professional athletes, coaches and athletic administrators with underserved youth as well as invites young women and girl athletes to the United States to participate in clinics, team building exercises, and more. Watch former Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton announce the Initiative here.

Sports serve an important role in the dialogue surrounding women and girls’ empowerment – and the world is finally taking note.

Check out these fantastic organizations already working to empower women and girls through sport:

Don’t miss this great film depicting how boxing empowers women in Afghanistan.

Cover image courtesy of Flickr’s Creative Commons.