In 1967 – a year ironically considered modern – the race manager of the Boston Marathon attacked Kathrine Switzer to take her out of the race because she was a woman. At the time, it was commonly thought that a woman running such a long distance risked her uterus falling out. Thankfully the race official failed and Switzer finished (with her uterus).
With her triumph over this misogynistic ideal, she also started something massive and profound in our culture. Brave women like her, and men like the other runners who surrounded and protected her, helped start the modern era of female participation in sports, including Title IX and the opportunities it created for millions of young women during the past 50 years.
Fast forward to present day and the story of running is largely a story of women in running. Women are a majority of run specialty customers, as well as race participants.
And among the most fascinating subplots of the story is women connecting with one another in meaningful ways. Once limited to neighborhood-based groups, modern social media platforms have opened opportunities for women to connect globally, sharing stories, training tips, encouragement and inspiration at unlimited scale.
Taking The Lead in Social
Among those social media innovators are content creators Alysha Flynn (@WhatRunsYou) and Erin Azar (@Mrs.Space.Cadet). Each has a unique, personal journey to running. Azar started in the midst of life-changing events.
“I started running two years ago after having my third baby,” Azar explains. “I filmed it because I thought I could look back on it and kind of motivate me to keep going.”
When she posted that content to TikTok, it went viral. “I was posting about the relatability side of running in a candid and humorous way,” she adds. “Since then, it’s been impacting other people’s lives, which is another reason I keep going.”
Meanwhile, Flynn started as a student-athlete and with the encouragement of an influential adult.
“I started running back in third grade and ended up doing really well on a test in gym class,” she recalls. “When I finished the mile, my gym teacher walked over to me, and I will never forget – he’s a legend in my life – he patted me on the back and said ‘kiddo, you have a place in the world, you’re going to be a runner.’
“To me, it was the first thing that made me feel like I had a place, that made me feel like I had a home that felt safe, even if other things weren’t quite in alignment in my life, [running] always made me feel safe.”
For both Azar and Flynn, running has become a space where they can feel safe to share their thoughts and experiences with other women involved in the sport.
“As things progressed, it really became more about not just feeling safe in running, but the people it was bringing to my life and the value that they were adding to my life,” Flynn says.
Their enthusiasm for running directly translates to the rising success of their popular social media platforms. Azar has 703,000 TikTok and 68,000 Instagram followers who engage with her inspirational and often hilarious “Struggle Runner” posts.
Meanwhile Flynn shares advice, coaching tips and inspiration with her 330,000 TikTok and 22,000 Instagram followers in order to “help beginner runners take on their identity as a runner.”
Creators Or Influencers?
Both passionate women have ambitious goals for their platforms and consider themselves content creators versus influencers, as they enjoy being true to themselves and celebrating the authenticity of their content.
“If you think of influencers solely as someone who has influence or impact on somebody else, I would say, ‘yeah I’m an influencer,’” admits Azar, who prefers the overall term “content creator” because she is creating this content, not really setting out to influence someone one way. “I’m just being myself.”
As her platforms grew, people would tell her she was inspiring them or getting them into running. “I thought it was really cool, but I didn’t really believe it until I ran the New York City Marathon,” she recalls. “I saw everyone there with Mrs. Space Cadet signs and people were crying, or we were hugging, and that was a huge shift for me.”
Flynn aims for a balance between inspiring the everyday runner and providing advice for the athletes she trains. As a coach and trainer, she’s helped runners meet their goals for more than six years.
“For me, sharing content was about trying to share it in a way that made the idea of starting something new feel less scary, feel safer to ask questions and know that I was thinking about it from a behavioral perspective,” Flynn says. She was, in fact, gathering information not just from her own experience, but from all the athletes that she was coaching.
“In a lot of ways, I feel like I’m a content creator and I’m sharing content to build trust and to share things in a way that’s easily digestible,” Flynn says. “I do understand that within that space where the trust is already built and you’re working with me one-on-one, I do end up influencing your decisions and I take it so seriously. It’s important to me that all angles are weighed before I share options.”
However, sharing content with such a deep, personal connection is not for the faint of heart. Providing a transparent window into their lives and baring the road bumps in their running journeys to the world can be taxing, but both Azar and Flynn say it’s been worth it.
The Challenge of Sharing
They are not unaware of how their stories fit into the broader story that goes back to and includes Kathrine Switzer. Continuing the story, Azar and Flynn are breaking boundaries and encouraging more women to begin their own running journeys.
“Running is giving women a sense of community again. Especially with COVID, and with so many new runners coming into the space, finding that sense of community, and realizing it’s giving them something they never even knew they needed,” Flynn says. “It’s never about the run, it’s about the experience as a whole and how that’s serving your life and empowering you in ways that you really didn’t expect.
“For me, the barrier I’ve faced and continue to face, is the thought of could this be misinterpreted if I share what my goal is because a lot of beginners are looking at pace and comparing,” she continues. “To me, to share my journey, I feel like if I can share it in a way that people understand that goals should be scary, they should challenge you, force you to become another person and build your confidence as you go, then I can share that side of my story too.”
Parallel to Flynn’s journey, Azar started sharing content to relate to beginner runners and humanize the struggles that come with starting a running routine. Many of Azar’s followers credit her with inspiring them to start their own running journey.
“I do feel like as a female in a content creator space, the barrier I find unfortunately is we are judged on the look of our face, and sadly algorithms also judge by the look of their face,” Azar comments. “In a way, I kind of appreciate that a bit because it keeps the type of people who would judge me on my appearance away and I happen to have a super supportive audience because of it. I feel like males don’t face that same judgement.”
The Retail Connection
Both Flynn and Azar believe that run specialty stores have been pivotal in shifting the dynamic of female representation in the industry.
“The specialty stores do a great job of making you feel comfortable in their stores,” Flynn says, pointing out that they are willing to take what they have in their store and find the best option for a female runner.
“They see the demographic of who comes into the store,” she adds. “I also noticed, in terms of employees, there usually is someone in the stores that I’m comfortable approaching.”
Azar and Flynn often do reflect on the future of female representation in the running industry and social media sphere, along with their own contributions to the space.
“As we redefine self-care, to not just be manicures and bubble baths, having moms or other women understand that they need to take care of themselves too, it can be getting out for a run and getting your blood flowing with time to yourself in fresh air,” says Azar.
“If you have people like me and Coach Alysha, or even other influencers or store owners being more open and talking about that positive impact, I feel like it’s just going to flood the market and sport even more. Just to show that you belong here too.”
“That feeling [of connecting with fellow runners] has never gotten old,” agrees Flynn, who feels that every single time out it’s new and different, it’s resonating something different in the person. That’s why she loves pacing and helping someone live in their race getting through the miles, because it brings so much joy to watch.
“I love feeling that sense of community. That feeling of connecting goes back to that sensation that I have a safe space and a new home,” Flynn adds.