Do Men Belong in Women's Races?

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This past February, about 1,200 women hit the streets of San Diego for the second annual Women's Running Half Marathon, which is part of a nationwide four-race series. While 38 men signed up to race alongside these ladies and raise money for breast cancer, it was evident that the essence of this special day belonged to celebrating women.

So when Alejandro Belmares, 28, of Las Vegas, surpassed the lead local female racer, Celestine Arambulo, in the homestretch and tore through the finish line tape first (they were just about 8 minutes apart), people were left scratching their heads.

“It was the first time I've ever seen that happen. I was a little disappointed by his actions,” says the Women's Running series race director Dana Allen, who is also the senior VP at Competitor Group Inc, a sports company that puts on some 40 large-scale races and owns four publications. Allen approached Belmares afterward to congratulate him and also gauge what he was thinking. "Did you know this was a women's-only race?" she asked him. His response: “My wife signed me up.” Belmares' spouse was also fast—she finished in the top 25.

If you want to give Belmares the benefit of the doubt, don't. He knew he was the lead runner because he was directly behind the lead vehicle for the last three-fourths of the course. Worst part: He was also aware that he would never be considered an official winner or even be invited to stand on the podium. “We state in our race rules on the website that the awards only go to women,” says Allen. Belmares went for it anyway.

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“If they didn't want a man to win, then they shouldn't have allowed us to race,” says Belmares, who studied the course and past winners' times well before the event. To ensure that women aren't overshadowed by male participants, event organizers always have men start in the last corral behind the walkers who are after the runners in the 11:30-minute-mile group. To Belmares, this minor setback only meant that the top women got a five minute head start. “I had to weave through the crowd to catch up to the front. By mile four, I was leading the pack,” he says proudly.

As Belmares approached the 1,200-meter straightaway to the finish, he could detect a hush coming over the crowd from the shock. “I heard the announcer say, 'Get your hands together for the first finisher!' And as soon as they realized it was a guy, there was a long awkward pause. I heard some people say, 'Seriously?!',” he recalls. Still, it never occurred to him to pull back and let Arambulo have her moment at her hometown's women's race.

Belmares was happy with his time of 1:18:53, though he wasn't immune the overall adverse reaction. “I could tell that some people were upset that I won, but I got what I wanted out of it. First place is first place, no matter if it's a women's event or 5K,” he says. Completing a fast 13.1 miles was part of his training plan as he prepared for his goal race, the Boston Marathon, in April.

He's not the first man to miss the memo: In 2009, Jonathan Mederos won Disney's Princess Half Marathon in Orlando, FL. Thankfully none of the few good men participating in the second annual Nike Women's Half Marathon D.C. this April shared Belmares or Mederos' mindset. Honestly, I didn't even realize men could partake in these so-called “women's-only” events until I was on the half marathon course in D.C. last Sunday. As a first-timer attempting this distance, it was really important for me to be in a welcoming crowd versus a daunting one, which is what so many co-ed races tend to be. And I got exactly what I wanted: That get-it-girl support that made me smile the whole time. It really helped that the men racing were quiet and generally stayed out of way of the trampling neon-clad feet of more than 15,000 females, who stomped their way around our nation's scenic capital (picture the opening credits of House of Cards). While the guys were respectful, I still can't help but wonder: Can't women just have this, please?

Four decades ago, most races were strictly for men. The Boston Marathon didn't invite women to compete until 1972—the same year a legislation called Title IX was passed. The game-changing law declared that men and women must be given equal access and opportunities to athletic programs offered in public and private institutions receiving federal funds. At that point, only 3 percent of girls played varsity high school sports. Today, 40 percent of girls participate in sports and, in 2013, 61 percent of U.S. half marathon finishers were female, adding up to a record-high of nearly 1.2 million women 13.1-distance runners.

“In general, more women are running than men these days in organized races,” confirms Allen. “Running is so accessible—you just need to lace up and go—that it's something busy, healthy women gravitate toward. And what I think women's-only running events have going for them is that they create an environment that is about camaraderie and acceptance and not intimidation. Women can feel more safe and secure than at mix-gender races.”

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Among the 500 men running at this year's Nike Women's Half in D.C. was Kevin Rutherford, the CEO of Nuun, the official hydration sponsor of the race. An avid runner who has competed in many events, he immediately noticed a difference. “It's unlike any other race I've ever done. You got this feeling like the women were in this together even though they were at all different fitness levels. There were no egos and no judgment on the course. If I could ever convince my wife to do a half marathon, this is the one to do,” he said.

Setting a new PR was not on Rutherford's agenda that day. Instead he had another plan of attack: “If I'm going to run with 15,000 women, I want to be able to enhance their experience. It's not about me, it's about you.” Running with a GoPro in hand, Rutherford channeled the comedic tactics of man-on-the-street Billy Eichner and shot off silly rapid-fire questions to female runners, like “Would you rather go to the White House or the Kardashian house?” He got some great laughs and one woman even thanked him afterward.

“If I can think of a way to make women laugh consistently throughout the race, I would definitely run again,” said Rutherford, who gave his Tiffany's necklace (the award every Nike Women's Half finisher receives from a handsome man dressed in a tuxedo) to his wife. It's that kind of encouraging attitude that makes women's events so fun, especially for first-time racers like myself, who can really use the comic relief to distract them from their screaming calves.

But still, do men really have a place a women's-only races? Guys already have football, baseball, and the Tour de France (until this July). Would it be too much to just give us this? Let us know what you think in the comments below or tweet us @Shape_Magazine!

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