What I've Learned Running Races As a Woman In 10 Different Countries
Beyoncé was right. After racing in 10 different countries, one runner learned that running while female is empowering as heck.
Who run the world? Beyoncé was right.
In 2018, female runners outnumbered men worldwide, tipping the scale at 50.24 percent of race finishers for the first time in history. This is according to a global analysis of nearly 109 million recreational race results from all 193 U.N.-recognized countries between 1986 and 2018, conducted by RunRepeat (a running shoe review website) and the International Association of Athletics Federations.
As part of that now-majority, and a woman who's logged runs in two dozen nations and toed the line at races in 10 of them, here's what I've learned.
United States: Run with Women
It's no surprise that women's races have flourished stateside: RunningUSA reports that 60 percent of U.S. road runners are female, which is more than any other country in RunRepeat's study except Iceland. When it comes to the marathon, the U.S. is the world leader, with women accounting for 43 percent of 26.2-mile finishers. We're home to the world's oldest women-only road race—the NYRR New York Mini 10K, which debuted in 1972—and the first Olympic women's marathon in 1984, won by American Joan Benoit Samuelson.
And women's races still have a cherished place for runners like me. Vibes of fellowship and feminism feel alive. The Disney Princess Half Marathon Weekend is the largest women-focused event in the U.S.; 83 percent of the 56,000 registered runners in 2019 were female. It's a race I return to again and again, running with my sister, husband, and alone. Each time, I've gotten chills. Simply, there's nothing like running with a sea of other women. (More here: 5 Reasons to Run a Women-Only Race)
Canada: Run with Friends
Females represent 57 percent of all Canadian runners, the third largest proportion in the world. Among them is my racing partner-in-crime, Tania. She persuaded me to sign up for my first triathlon. We trained together virtually and toed the line together in Ontario. It was the beginning of a ritual that has spanned three countries, two Canadian provinces, and three U.S. states. Training virtually has helped keep our friendship strong despite time and distance. We've had sing-a-longs on road trips to races, workout rendezvous in remote Canadian towns, and friendly race-day rivalries that pushed us both to personal bests. (Related: I Crushed My Biggest Running Goal As a 40-Year-Old New Mom)
Czech Republic: Make Friends
While traveling to the start of the Prague Marathon, my husband and I met an older couple. We were all running the event's 2RUN two-person relay. Paula and I immediately buddied up. We started together, each completing the first leg. I found her waiting for me at the exchange point, where we sent our teammates onto the course. We spent the next two hours talking about Prague, running, triathlons, kids, life, and much else as we waited for our partners to finish. About 15 years my senior, Paula is the runner I hope to be someday—experienced, full of clear-eyed perspective, and passionate as ever. After the picture-perfect finish in Prague's historic Old Town, the four of us shared celebratory drinks and walked back to our hotel together.
A few days later, I met Marjanka, who organizes the Cross Parkmarathon in Bohemian Switzerland National Park near the northern Czech border. She led me on a stunning running tour, and won me over with her effervescence and passion for the area. Marjanka even convinced me to skinny dip in a remote stream. "Good for your legs!" she beamed, as I stood laughing and naked in a freezing cold pool with a runner I'd just met. She followed it up with farm-fresh sausages roasted over an open fire. Marjanka and Paula were uncommonly warm, and I immediately felt an unexpected camaraderie. In the city and in the country, Czech Republic seemed to encourage fellowship through footsteps.
Turkey: You're Never Alone
The multi-stage Runfire Cappadocia in rural Turkey was the hottest, hardest race I've encountered. How tough? Only one runner finished the first day's 12.4-mile course in under 3 hours. Temps pushed 100 in the sun-scorched desert with an elevation near 6,000 feet. But it was also the most memorable of my running travels. As a woman traveling alone in a Muslim country, I didn't know what to expect. I found a welcoming community as I traversed the Anatolian countryside over the course of three days. Girls in headscarves giggled as we ran through their rural village. Grandmothers in hijabs smiled and waved at us from second story windows. (Related: I Ran 45 Miles In the African Serengeti Surrounded By Wildlife and Armed Guards)
I made friends with other runners when we collectively got lost in the wilderness and buddied up with one, Gözde, for two of the three days. She shared apricots and cherries plucked from nearby trees and told me about life in her hometown of Istanbul. She gave me a window into her world. When Gözde ran the New York City Marathon the following year, I cheered her across the finish line. Turkey taught me that we're never truly alone; we have friends everywhere if we're open to it.
France: Share Your Passion
I was five months pregnant when I headed to the Disneyland Paris Half Marathon. French law requires a doctor-signed medical certificate from all foreign race participants, pregnant and otherwise. That was a first. Thankfully, I had an obstetrician who not only encouraged me to keep running but also signed the form without hesitation. (Related: How You Should Change Your Workout While Pregnant)
Before the race, I had the opportunity to chat with marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe, who trained through two pregnancies. "It's great that you can run through pregnancy and you shouldn't be scared to," she told me. Indeed, I wasn't. Those 13.1-miles were my daughter's first race. It felt like a magical moment in a magical place—Paris and Disney— sharing my passion with my newest love. I like to think we bonded that day.
Spain: Bring a Cheerleader
The 2019 Barcelona Half Marathon broke its own participation records. Among the 19,000 registrants, 6,000 women and 8,500 foreign runners from 103 countries set all-time highs for the event. I was one of them. But the race was a highlight for me, too; it was the first time I brought my daughter to an international race. At two years old, she braved the red-eye flight and jet lag to cheer on runners. She shouted, clapped, and saw Mommy run the streets of a foreign city. Now she grabs her sneakers and says, "I need my bib!" Her race bib, of course.
Bermuda: Run On Vacation
More than ever, runners are traveling to other countries to race, according to RunRepeat. And women, it seems, love a good runcation. At the Bermuda Marathon Weekend, 57 percent of runners are women, many coming from abroad. The race's signature color is pink, a nod to the island's famous blush beaches. But don't expect a sea of pink tutus and sparkle skirts. When the event held a pirate-themed costume contest in 2015, my husband and I were the only two people dressed for the occasion. We heard cheers islandwide over the course of the three-day Bermuda Triangle Challenge: "Arrrgh! It's the pirates!" #WorthIt
Peru: Blend In… or Stand Out
When I showed up at the start of the Maraton RPP in Lima, Peru, I thought someone might notice my blue shirt, blue star arm sleeves, and stars-and-stripes socks. But I had no idea just how much I'd stand out. Every other runner—women and men included—wore the race-issued red shirt. There was an air of solidarity among them, storming the streets of Lima in uniform. Women, men, young, old, fast, slow all dressed and running as one. I suddenly wished I was "one" with them. But I got cheers of "Estados Unidos!" the entire race and was interviewed at the finish for television. Who was this crazy woman in stars and stripes? And why was she running in Lima? My answer was simple: "Why not?"
Israel: Show Up and Show Off
At the Jerusalem Marathon in Israel, I felt completely surrounded by men. It was the first thing I noticed as I entered the start corral. Women accounted for just 20 percent of marathon and half-marathon runners combined in 2014. Eventually, I spotted a number of women like me—in shorts or cropped tights—and also Orthodox women in long skirts with heads covered. I eyed them with admiration.
In 2019, the proportion of women rose to nearly 27 percent in the half and full marathon, and 40 percent overall including the 5K and 10K races. Meanwhile, ultra-Orthodox runner Beatie Deutsch was the top Israeli woman at the Jerusalem Marathon in 2018 and won the Israeli marathon national championships in 2019, long skirt and all.
Norway: It's All Relative
Norwegians are a speedy bunch. They're the fifth fastest marathoners in the world, according to RunRepeat—a phenomenon I experienced first hand. At the Great Fjord Run near Bergen, the average American woman's half-marathon time (2:34 according to RunningUSA) will land you at the back of the pack. I finished in 2:20:55 on the undulating, windy, and scenic course that crossed three fjords. That put me in the bottom 10 percent of finishers. (Pssst: An Open Letter to Runners Who Think They're "Too Slow") It's no wonder that Grete Waitz, one of the greatest marathoners of all time, was Norwegian. But locals stuck around to spur me on just the same with a throaty cheer that sounded like, "Hi-Ya, Hi-Ya, Hi-Ya!" Translation: "Let's go, let's go, let's go!" Front, middle, or back of the pack—I've been in all three—I'll keep going, indeed.