Teri Christopher started running recreationally more than a decade ago as a way to stay in shape after the birth of her second child. A few years later, the 47-year-old fundraising event manager from Vancouver joined a running group of women who all had kids in the same school. When they got together, running a marathon was the furthest thing from their minds.
"We just wanted to run and get fit and be together," she says. But having progressed from a 10K run to a half-marathon, Ms. Christopher and several other members decided last year that it was time to tackle a marathon. Since then, she has completed three of the long distance runs, including the BMO Vancouver Marathon last month.
Ms. Christopher and the women she runs with are now hooked.
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"We actually call ourselves a coffee group with a running disorder," she says.
While marathon running has been dominated by men, increasing numbers of women are tackling the 26.2-mile (42.2-kilometre) distance. It is a way to not only challenge themselves, but also to remain healthy, bond with friends and find a little "me time" between the demands of work and family. And with more women entering half-marathons and 10K events, race directors say, it won't be long before women make up the majority in marathons across Canada.
As early as the 1970s, women were barred from participating in many marathons. For example, women were not allowed to officially enter the Boston Marathon until 1972. It was believed they simply couldn't handle the physical demands of the distance. Now, however, the split between men and women participating in marathons is approaching 50-50.
The number of women participating in marathons has "definitely picked up," says Brian Eastcott, race director of the Mississauga Marathon. In 2008, women made up 40 per cent of the field in the event. Last year, that number jumped to 44 per cent. As well, women now make up the bulk of runners in the half-marathon portion of the Mississauga Marathon, as they typically do at many such events.
At the Scotiabank Calgary Marathon, for instance, women have made up approximately 60 per cent of the half-marathon field for the past five years. While many of the women who enter will likely stay at that distance, it is just as likely that many will move on to the marathon, Mr. Eastcott says.
"It's part of that constant trying to improve and challenge yourself," he says. "Some just like the [half-marathon]distance and will stick with it. But I think that will push it over, as more women are getting in to it and more are at shorter distances, they'll just start challenging themselves and moving up."
Wanda Bergshoeff, who took up running about 10 years ago, did her first marathon last September. Initially, she began running as a way to deal with a case of severe osteoporosis. Once she began, doing a marathon became the target for the 37-year-old sales manager at a radio station in Peterborough, Ont.
"It was always a goal of mine," she says. "It was so awesome."
While a marathon is often the ultimate goal for most runners, men and women typically enter longer distance events and half-marathons for different reasons, says Andrea Eby, marketing director of the BMO Vancouver Marathon.
"They both have an overall goal of staying fit and achieving a lifetime goal. But then for women, what seems to predominate more is charity, running clubs, friends and family. So they're more driven by the social. Whereas males seem to be more driven by the competitive, 'I want to improve my time,' " she says.
When Ms. Christopher took up running, she did so simply because it seemed like the ideal form of exercise.
"You can just put a pair of shoes on and go, and as a busy mom in those years I wanted to maintain my health and fitness and I needed to get what I felt was a really good work out in a shorter period of time."
Today, moms flirting with marathons have a wealth of role models to look up to, says Jessica Aldred, editor of iRun magazine.
"I'll never run a marathon in the same time as Paula Radcliffe, but I can have the image of her running and winning the New York City Marathon a year after having a baby, which she did in 2007," Ms. Aldred says.
Now, running with a group, it is the social aspect of training that keeps her motivated, Ms. Christopher says.
"We talk the whole way," she says. "It's got to be fun or you're not going to keep with it. That is actually one of the keys to marathon running for middle of the packers. It's doing something with your friends, and that's what gets you through the training."
Running also allows Ms. Christopher a bit of "me time" away from her husband and kids.
"There's also something about it being mine. It's an activity I do with the girls, and it's great."
Men are welcome to join the group, she adds, but so far none have.
"I think they're intimidated by us."
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