This week we’ve been on vacation with a group of friends and their families, in North Carolina. A number of us have been taking advantage of running on the nice long stretches of flat sandy beaches. And we’ve all been watching the Olympics.

Which has made me reflect on my recent conversation with my friend, Bill Katovsky, over at the Natural Running Center about gender equality generally and particularly in running. Truly, I had never really thought about the issue of gender equality in running until Bill called me. Saudi Arabia had finally relented under human rights pressure to allow women to participate in the Olympics. The country has allowed two women to participate – one in Track and Field (the 800 meter) and the other in Judo. The ironic thing is the woman runner representing Saudi Arabia, Sara Attar, has grown up in the United States — in fact, in my own hometown, San Diego. Bill was as outraged as I am by the fact that in Saudi Arabia, women are not even allowed to run, and he asked me to provide my own personal experiences growing up in the United States. Here’s what I provided Bill, posted here:

To get a broader and different perspective on the issue, the Natural Running Center turned to D. Casey Kerrigan, M.D., creator, chairman and head of manufacturing for OESH Shoes. Dr. Kerrigan, who ran track in high school and college, is now a trailblazer in another male-dominated arena: the manufacturing of athletic and everyday footwear.     — Bill Katovsky

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Women, Running and Gender Equality

by  D. Casey Kerrigan, M.D.

This is only good news for Saudi Arabia. But it doesn’t sound like it’s going to change much for girls and women there. Clearly, one law that has to go is the law making it illegal for girls and women to exercise. The thought of not being able to go for a run is just not even imaginable here in the U.S.

I’m not a lawyer but I do appreciate the power of law. Without the laws here in the U.S. that give girls and women an equal chance, I would certainly not be where I am today. I started running in 1976. Four years into Title IX. Had it been just a few years before, there wouldn’t have been a girls’ cross-country team at Patrick Henry High School in San Diego. And I might never have become a doctor.

Honestly, I can’t think of anything in high school or college where being a girl/woman was a disadvantage. The coaches were encouraging as were the boys’/men’s teams. We had loads of camaraderie and plenty of other girls/women to compete with. And we had just as many people come to our meets to see us run as the boys –which was usually zero.

Sure, at the time, women couldn’t yet run more than 800 meters in the Olympics but there were plenty of local and state championships that made it worthwhile. And road races were just starting to be a big thing. In high school, a bunch of us would run whatever local race was around. I don’t remember any 5K’s but there were lots of 10Ks, half-marathons, and the annual Mission Bay Marathon. My main event in track was the mile but running a marathon now and again seemed to be just fine. No one ever discouraged us and I don’t recall one single race or event where girls/women weren’t allowed to participate.

I will say that I did feel like my being a girl was a disadvantage in another sport that, ironically, will also be represented by a Saudi Arabian woman– and that was Judo. I was a bit of a Judo prodigy, starting at age 5 and beating many of the boys in the area dojos (I was typically the only girl) but there were no opportunities for girls to compete in tournaments. I left Judo at age 15, as a brown belt, to run cross country and then track. I’m pretty sure my running helped me get into a good college and medical school as well as get me interested in the study of movement as it relates to health.

Dr. Casey Kerrigan and her two oldest daughters running

Thirty-six years later, I’m still running, often with my husband, Bob, who’s been running since we met in college, and with our three daughters. Our oldest, a rising junior, and our middle, a rising freshman, are now both on the high school cross-country team.

What is different between their and my experience? Not a whole lot. The boys and girls all support each other just like we did. I imagine running will be a part of our daughters’ lives for years to come.

Running could very well be the one sport in America where girls and women have been treated pretty much the same for the past third of a century. That doesn’t count being heckled and honked at by men during road runs. Thank goodness that doesn’t happen anymore at least to me; either I’m not much to look at now or those men are all dead… of cardiovascular disease.

In academic medicine only rarely did I hit my head against that proverbial glass ceiling. Over half of my class in 1987 (from Harvard Medical School) were women but still very few of our teachers and mentors were women and maybe only a couple women were full tenured professors. So the roads to tenure in academic medicine for a woman hadn’t yet been mapped out. In 2002, I became the first woman to be a full tenured professor and chair of a department at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. I did a lot of research on walking, running and shoes which made me famous before I created another “roadmap,” giving up my laurels in 2009, to build a factory to make shoes.

Unlike in medicine, there are very few women in manufacturing here in the U.S. But in many cases, I find being a woman to be an advantage. For example, I’m never afraid to plead my ignorance about “torque wrenches” and “set screws.” But sometimes I do confuse people. For example, I was speaking to a factory tech on the phone the other day who just couldn’t believe that I was the “guy” who would be doing the dump valve orifice change on the waterjet saw.

Though there are many other situations in the United States where being a woman is a disadvantage, in my case, undoubtedly because of the fields (and sport) I’ve chosen, those situations have been more humorous than anything else.

And though we are a world apart from Saudi Arabia and have a pretty good set of laws here in the U.S, I also realize that we all still have a ways to go. For example, why, given all the research I’ve done, do women still have to wear shoes that are detrimental to their musculoskeletal health? I’m doing my best to help change that.

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Sara Attar is scheduled to run next week. Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani lost in her first Judo match in 82 seconds.

Meanwhile, yesterday, Kayla Harrison, from Wakefield, MA, became the very first American to receive a gold medal in Judo. Congratulations Kayla!

And, hurray, on many accounts, for the U.S.A.

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