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A Feminist Runs the Nike Women’s Half Marathon

On Sunday, April 27, 2014, I got up at 5am to join a horde of like-minded women (and a few men) who all had the same goal: to run 13.1 miles around D.C. It was a beautiful day, a blessedly flat course for the most part, and I finished the race smiling – with good reason, since I P.R.’d, at 13.1 miles in 2:31:01. This was my fourth half marathon, so it wasn’t until I had finished my recovery routine (ice bath, regular bath, nap, beer, copious Mexican food) that I thought about it as significantly different than other races I’d run in any way.

But then I did.

Nike Women’s Half Marathon

“Wait a minute,” I thought between mouthfuls of enchilada, “I just ran the Nike Women’s half marathon. It’s a race geared towards women, and it was different from the other races I’ve run, and I should think about the reasons why and what I think about that.”

But it’s true: I’m a feminist, and I had just run a race almost entirely for women, and there were some significant differences that were quite interesting to think about. However, I had carbs and cheese to consume, and a life to get back to post-race, so those differences became a muted afterthought.

Oh, the things a liberal arts college education and graduate study in critical theory and gender studies will do to your brain – namely, distract you from a bomb-ass plate of crab & shrimp enchiladas with cheesy cilantro rice and fried plantains from El Centro D.F., my favorite Mexican restaurant in all of D.C.* (hey, this is partially a food blog).

However, as odd as this sounds, I’ve thought about the entire experience a lot in the wake of the insane misogyny-fueled, way too close-to-home shooting at UCSB, and the ensuing #YesAllWomen movement/hashtag. There are some aspects of this race I think about very differently nearly six weeks later, though many of my opinions remain the same. In the spirit of F+F, I’m keeping most of it light, and all of it truthful. So here we go.

I’ll rewind back to the day I signed up, and deconstruct (‘sup, liberal arts degree) the ways in which this race was different, and why that matters – and what, if anything, it has to do with #YesAllWomen.

The lottery
In normal races, people sign up until the event is sold out. Nike, however, has one popular race on their hands – so much so that the only way to get in is through a lottery system. I will admit, there was some appeal in seeing if I could be one of the lucky ones. It almost evoked the middle and high school days, when my brain was still developing and my hormones were dragging me in 10 different directions. In those days, being considered a member of any exclusive in-crowd, whatever that meant, was all that mattered. When I saw the email saying I had gotten in, and needed to register ASAP to confirm my spot, something lit up in what remained of my desperate-for-acceptance teenage girl brain. I didn’t think – I just scrambled, and dealt with that $185 charge on my credit card (more on that later). It kind of felt good to win this imaginary popularity contest, at the time, which I only slightly regretted after…

The price
$185. Did I mention that? I wasn’t used to paying any more than about $120 for entry fees, with tax. Clothing, haircuts, healthcare, half marathons; so many things are just more expensive for women. However, I suppose that higher race fee is what partially offsets the cost of…

Nike’s massive marketing campaign
I have to hand it to Nike – they’re good at their job, and that job is selling athletic gear. As someone who works in outreach, I’m definitely fascinated by the way they went about marketing the race – and I know it’s not cool to admit when you’re taken in by advertising, but Nike’s campaign worked on me. The double-entendre catchphrase ,“We Run D.C.,” is very good for making people feel powerful and strong – I think it’s also a sly allusion to the fact that the young women in their twenties and thirties who are mostly the ones running this race are the actual cogs in the machine that do all the work and make things go ‘round in Washington, D.C. One of the first things an old college classmate said to me when I first moved here was “The twentysomethings run D.C.”. So, it’s almost like Nike is giving us a little credit. Score one for Nike.

Seriously, as a young woman working in a city whose main industry is incredibly male-dominated, I don’t always feel very powerful and strong. In fact, most of the time I feel really ineffectual and weak, but pretend so hard that I don’t in order to project that powerful exterior that I need to be successful. Therefore, I will absolutely eat up that makes me feel that way, especially if I’m about to embark on something pretty physically challenging. So it goes without saying that this catchphrase AND the use of “Nike, goddess of Victory” imagery used throughout the campaign had me hooked, even if Nike herself was a bit prettified (she’s normally portrayed a little more like this).

Nike Women’s Half Marathon
Photo Credit:
Nike Women’s Half Marathon
Photo credit: Run Nike Women Series Facebook page

But…we all know this isn’t 100% about empowerment, because oh my corporate Greek goddess are they trying to sell you stuff. I suppose it’s because I’ve never run a race that was sponsored by a major company like this, but the near-constant product placement in all of their social media content was astounding. The race itself was staged to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, but did they ever take the opportunity to push some of their own stuff. Every single feel-good advertising spot was accompanied by an opportunity to “up your game” or “reward yourself” with some Nike purchase or another.

Hooray “retail therapy” targeted at female consumers! This isn’t reinforcing negative ideas of women as “shallow, materialistic bitches” that drive a lot of horrible, misogynistic attitudes at all!

But, in the interest of full disclcosure, I actually had to resist the urge to buy a Nike Women’s Half Marathon commemorative jacket and/or the Nike Women’s Half Marathon commemorative shoes – I was only successful in this because I already had a running jacket that worked, I have very specific running-shoe needs that usually are met by non-designer models, and because I got a free shirt with my race packet.

But damn, they’ve got some really cool running stuff. It’s just that I don’t currently need any more running stuff.

Well played, Nike. Well played. It’s almost like you want us to drink the Girl Powerade and associate your products with a massive personal accomplishment, while heavily promoting your brand. Actually, that’s a really smart thing for a massive athletic company to want to do. Though since training for these things tends to be really isolating and unsexy, it might be kind of hard to get your target demographic too excited while they’re…

…oh wait, never mind, Nike was on that too. Because I had to like the Run Nike Women Series on Facebook to get updates on the lottery, and then on the race, I got a lot of Nike’s marketing campaign directly into my news feed – which included copious motivational messaging.

Much of this advertising was geared towards users of their particular training plan on the Nike + Running app, which allows runners to track and share their runs/routes.

Here’s where I really get into #YesAllWomen-land. I chose not to use the Nike + app for two reasons: 1.) As good as some of their training plans were, I already had a training plan that worked for me (all hail Hal Higdon), and 2.) Creepy guys taking pictures of women going about their ordinary business are already too prevalent; I know through far too much local anecdotal evidence that “creep shot” takers are definitely going to whip out their cameras for a woman in running tights and a tank. Oh, and “creep shots” are only the beginning. Women get stalked. Like, fairly frequently. And runners who have a known route are pretty easy to stalk, if someone is setting out to do that. So yeah, I’m not going to be a huge fan of anything that encourages me to to share where and when I run with anyone. I know that running with a buddy or feeling accountable to others for your workout can often help you stick with it, so…I ran with a buddy.

Nike Women’s Half Marathon
Photo credit: Run Nike Women Series Facebook page

Plus, can we talk about the Run Nike Women Series’ complete and total silence on another very real problem for women who venture beyond the treadmill for their training runs? In all of my persual of Nike’s social media, not once did I see a Nike-sponsored safety tip or discussion about catcalling, street harassment, or following of female runners.

I mean, Nike has to know that many of the women who will sign up to run this race will have experienced an obnoxious “mmm, I’d love a piece of that ass?” while they do their cooldown stretch in a local park? Somebody training for a Nike race in Nike gear has likely had a car slow down and follow them down a city block for no other purpose than say, with growing forcefulness, “hey baby, can I get a smile?” I’ve had friends get their asses grabbed by perps on bikes, have ice cubes chucked at them from a car go “get their attention” while stopped at a streetlight; I’ve even heard friends complain about having their way blocked by a group of men laughing refusing to let them pass until they “got a hug.” When we get this stuff from strangers, it’s not funny or flattering. What are we supposed to do in response to this? Most of the time, we smile, brush it off, ignore it, because we’re afraid that something worse will happen.

So, where were the tips for women who run on the Run Nike Women Series social pages? #NotAllWomen run, but #YesAllWomen who do sure as hell need to watch their backs if they choose to train outside the gym. Wait, we even have to at the gym – I’ve had to move machines several times in response to really uncomfortable, creepy stares. The reason I didn’t report? I didn’t want to give these dudes any reason to remember who I was, now, did I? I’m always afraid something worse will happen. I just want to work out.

From my perspective, the lack of tips for women training for a women-oriented race on how to handle or even stand up to harassment and threats to our safety while we train was a bit alarming.

But, back to the positive stuff. Even if I didn’t do it on Nike’s schedule or within its social network, I trained so hard, and was all kinds of nervous and excited for…

The race itself
The day of the race arrived. I was pumped. My mom and stepdad were there in the (very easily accessible) starting line spectator’s crowd, with supportive signs and high-fives and hugs. The pre-race atmosphere overall was quite supportive, though I kind of wondered why the announcer kept shouting “ARE YOU READY TO MAKE HISTORY??” “I’m not making any history here,” I thought. “I’m just running a race that lots of people have already run before.” I suppose they were referring to personal athletic history, since the announcer’s other refrain was noting that over a third of all runners that day were first-time half marathoners.

Hey, I actually like that. Points for inclusivity, Nike – when I first started long distance running, I felt like I wasn’t experienced or good enough, and got embarrassed talking about it around more experienced runners. I even refused to describe myself as a runner for a long time, because I had started late in life, and didn’t feel like I deserved to identify as such (even though I’d logged some serious miles). So, good on Nike. Lauding first-timers is a great way to combat this sort of awkwardness.

Nike Women’s Half Marathon
Photo credit: Run Nike Women Series Facebook page

That inclusive spirit seemed to hold through the entire race – maybe it’s because it was more accessible to spectators and in such an advantageous downtown location, but the starting line felt much more encouraging with more people there than I was used to, and everyone running looked and smiled at each other much more. It could have also been the fact that there were a lot of women running a punishing distance together in the same place; some claim women are more biologically inclined to be supportive and empathetic (though I’d argue we’re socialized to be competitive with each other far more often, and that everyone needs to be supportive of each other, biologically inclined or not). Either way, I appreciated that supportive atmosphere, because the adrenaline you get from support and encouragement is a huge part of what gets you through 13.1 miles.

NOTE: Some of the corporate partners of the Nike Women’s Half Marathon in years past have had an, umm, interesting approach to encouragement/product placement. I’m really glad I didn’t see any versions of this sign, which absolutely perpetuates the idea that women run for men’s approval. Bullshit. This woman runs to feel strong and powerful, and so she can eat whatever she wants after the race.

But because I didn’t see any signs of this nature, I got a really good, supportive vibe from both the spectators and my fellow runners. Piggybacking on that inclusive, supportive spirit, Nike’s social media marketing campaign continued throughout the race, as well. There were quite a few opportunities to take pictures next to things and hashtag with #werunDC, including a giant light-up Nike sign, and a wall adorned with the signatures of all running (to which I didn’t contribute, since I avoided the chaos and camaraderie of the main packet pick-up and fitness expo in favor of early packet pick-up). If I had been with friends, I might have been all over this – however, I was running this on my own and I was aiming for a P.R., and when you’re trying to beat your time, ain’t nobody got time for that.

Nike Women’s Half Marathon
Photo credit: Run Nike Women Series Facebook page

At one point, as I ran past one of these photo ops in a sweaty haze, I briefly wondered, “What if all of this is playing into the idea of women as vapid, shallow, and selfie-obsessed? That’s not particularly empowering.” Then I remembered this piece about how selfies can be empowering, and told myself not to be so preachy (despite some outcry about the ‘empowering selfie’ movement – I’m just going to accept that everyone has different opinions within the sphere of all things feminism, and that they’re entitled to them!).

The all-women drum line was a nice touch, though I’m not sure if it was an existing group tapped for the race, or whether it was assembled just for the day for promotional/motivational purposes.

Nike Women’s Half Marathon
Photo credit: Run Nike Women Series Facebook page

Another interesting thing to note – we got chocolate at around mile 12. Usually around mile 12, I’ve been offered Gu or Gatorade, so this was unusual. I had several thoughts when I ran past “the chocolate zone”:

1.) “Oh God one mile to go, don’t vomit.”
2.) “Chocolate? OMG really?”
3.) “Geez, way to play to stereotypes about women and chocolate.”
4.) “Wait, do I actually want chocolate.”
5.) “Ugh, I can’t have anything more solid than Gatorade while I’m running, I shouldn’t.”
6.) “Oh God less than one mile to go, don’t vomit.”

However, I felt fairly victorious as I circled up the grand, wide stretch of Pennsylvania Ave by the Capitol where we started, waved to Native Companion*, and booked it towards the finish line with a time of 2:31:01 (a PR!), and then joined the semi-orderly queue for…

The Tiffany pendant
Finishers of the Nike Women’s Half Marathon don’t get your average race finish medal – they get a motherf**king Tiffany pendant.

OK, this is the part where I admit that the Tiffany pendant is a huge part of the reason I signed up for this race in the first place. I’m almost a little ashamed to admit that. Why?

Because women are too often portrayed as frivolous and materialistic, and I don’t want to add to the problem by falling all over myself for a little blue box when there are, you know, actual problems raging all over the real world and other things I should probably be thinking about. Honestly, I even cringed a little bit at the thought of receiving a Tiffany pendant in said little blue box from a silver tray borne by a tuxedo-clad male model (wearing black-and-white Nike sneakers, of course), because I felt like I was buying into society’s objectification problem with both genders if I giggled and posed with a Nike Tuxedo Man as so many race participants did after they got their pendant. I did smile and thank Mr. Nike Tuxedo, of course, and he probably got paid decently for a half-day’s gig.

Nike Women’s Half Marathon
Photo credit: The Washingtonian

However, I will not be ashamed that I love my medal, and wear it whenever possible. It represents an accomplishment, it’s easier to wear than your average race medal, and it makes me feel classy and strong.

The moral of the story
Alright, there were some aspects of this race geared towards women that kind of raised my feminist hackles – and I would be pretty stupid to expect otherwise, since someone has to profit from a major race like this. It’s not all going to be equality and forward-thinking; this is America, after all.

Is Nike just another evil corporation pinkwashing over some sticky problems in order to sell their products through an event that represents a fitness milestone for many? Well…I hesitate to say “yes” completely. Yes, they are just another big ‘ol for-profit corporation selling athletic gear and staging the occasional half marathon, and yes, they’ve had a huge problem with sweatshops, but they also do a ton of charity work through the Nike Foundation – say what you will about The Girl Effect and its methods, but it got people talking about child marriage and other excruciatingly uncomfortable truths of life for women in much of the world where big, organized half marathons with Tiffany pendants at the end don’t really happen.

Look, I don’t fully blame Nike for some of the elements of this 13.1-mile race that don’t actually advance the idea of equality – they’re just really damn good marketers playing into prejudices and preferences we in Western society already have, that have been culturally ingrained in us practically since we were born. That’s something we’re going to have to learn to see and filter out and talk about and work against in our own awesome ways so we can be role models (because as 2011’s Miss Representation pointed out, “you can’t be what you can’t see”).

Some of my fellow runners may have really liked some of the elements of the race that rubbed me the wrong way – and that’s totally OK. Feminism isn’t all about raining on anyone’s parade: It’s about knowing who the Grand Marshals are, and making sure everyone can march and dance and baton-twirl equally.
I still stand by my earlier point – for a race that’s geared towards women, the Nike Women’s Half Marathon social pages were awfully quiet about the very real challenges and threats faced by women runners. However, I liked the Nike Women’s Half Marathon as an experience overall. If anything, it reminded me that as long as we think critically about what we put our time and money towards, and how our efforts impact others, we can celebrate our accomplishments with pride (and with some ballin’ enchiladas).

*For more on Native Companion, see Learning to Ski at Whitetail Resort.

For more from Sarah, click here or follow her on twitter at @sflocken