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Women on a Marathon

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If you live in New York City, chances are you've seen the signs for this weekend's upcoming ING New York City marathon. It is the 40th anniversary of the marathon, and a record 42,000 runners are expected to start the race. This Sunday I will be one of those runners lining up in anticipation of hours of city streets and cheering crowds.

People ask me all the time why I run marathons, and to be honest after 7 marathons, I've had to dig deep to find the motivation to log the miles at 5 a.m. Sure the health benefits are great- a strong heart, reduced stress and, let's be real, a higher metabolism that allows me to indulge in those unhealthy treats. But after countless loops in Central Park, I've come to the realization that I run because I can.

40 plus years ago, the running revolution hadn't hit yet -- there were no charity teams, no power gels, and Gatorade was not a household name. The widely held belief that our "uteruses would fall out" kept many women from lacing up their sneakers. It would take the continued persistence of women like Kathrine Switzer to spark the running craze that would usher in great athletes like marathon gold medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson and dare women like my mom to begin running recreationally with her friends in our neighborhood.

Kathrine Switzer was a normal, unassuming woman who decided to train for and run the Boston marathon in 1967. She entered using her initials, not because she wanted to hide that she was a woman, but because that is how she was used to signing her name. When it was discovered during the race that a woman was daring to compete alongside men in what many believe to be the most prestigious marathon in the world, the Boston race director tried to physically drag her off the course. She prevailed thanks to a shoulder check to the director from her boyfriend, and ended up finishing the Boston marathon. But she didn't stop there. She lobbied the founders of New York Road Runners, host of the NYC marathon, to include women in their races. To prove our worth in these events, she went on to win the women's race of the NYC marathon a few years later in a time of 3:07:29. Because of her determination and the countless other women who have followed in her footsteps, women runners are not only accepted but also celebrated. The NYC marathon prize purse is equal for men and women (a whopping $130,000 to $200,000 depending on if you are a previous champion).

Ms. Switzer blazed a path for women in this country, but in too many countries around the world, girls and women never experience the sheer joy of finding their stride. In places like the Congo and Afghanistan, a girl's first encounter with running usually involves running away from danger, not attaining a PR (personal best in race lingo). According to Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, in their new bestselling book Half the Sky, the moral challenge of the 21st Century is gender equality, likening it to the battle to end slavery in the 19th Century. A woman dies every minute from childbirth or from pregnancy related complications, largely in the developing world because of unsafe health conditions. In the past fifty years, according to Kristof and WuDunn, demographers estimate 60 - 100 million women have gone missing as a result of violence and discrimination.

So this weekend, when I line up in my Camino PR t-shirt and hear the cheers of family, friends, and co-workers, I'll be thinking about those faceless and nameless girls and women, and my dreams for a world that empowers all to tear down the fences that keep them from running and jumping: the woman who sheds her burqa and attends school to support her family, the girl who learns to understand and care for her body and not hide in shame. Whether you love to run or just love to support others, I hope you'll join me in blazing a path for these future runners.

Check out Billie Jean King's Women's Sports Foundation to learn more about gender equality in sports womenssportsfoundation.org.

Andrea Lynn Hagelgans is the Director of Media Relations at Camino Public Relations. She's run 7 marathons, including a PR at the Boston Marathon in 2008 of 3:21. This is her first NYC marathon.