We profile six amazing women shaping running culture
2017 was packed full of unforgettable sporting stories. Shalane Flanagan crossing the line in New York in that emotional finish, to Emma Coburn’s win in the World Champs, and even the première of ‘Gabe’, the story of Gabe Grunewald’s ongoing battle with cancer, 2017 was a big year for women’s running.
On the marathon scene, we’re just over a month away from seeing an epic showdown between Flanagan and the-next-big-thing Jordan Hasay.
Already in 2018 we’ve brought you the inspiring story of young Australian runner Meriem Daoui, an altitude camp with the Bowerman Babes, and showed you a side of Gen LaCaze that she rarely lets people see.
Now, in the lead up to International Women’s Day we’re shining a light on more outstanding runners. They’re from different corners of the world and their backgrounds are varied, but the one thing they have in common is their passion for the women’s running community.
Esther Park, Los Angeles, USA
Esther Park is a Korean-American living, working, and raising her young son in Los Angeles.
Park, an optometrist by day, is well known in LA for logging huge miles (she ran over 6,000 kilometers in 2017) and for an infectious spirit that brings runners together.
Park’s parents came to Koreatown, LA in the 1970’s to make a better life for their family, and like many Korean-Americans struggled early on with a feeling that police authorities didn’t provide them the same protection that other residents were afforded.
At no time was this more evident than the LA Riots, when police basically abandoned Koreatown and residents were forced to arm themselves to protect their community businesses.
“One distinct memory as a child were the LA Riots in 1992, the unrest that developed after the trial of Rodney King. I remember walking down the streets of Koreatown with my parents, neighbors, people from all gender, ethnic and social backgrounds calling for peace and protection of political rights.
Fast forward to 2018, I am now able to run freely as a woman, a Korean-American, a proud mother amongst my peers who thrive in this complex and highly diverse community of people”.
Park runs with her local group, Koreatown Run Club, an inclusive and growing group started two years ago by her friends Duy and Mike. For someone that logs so many early morning solo miles, Park still somehow spends so much time running and connecting with others.
“I have met some of the strongest, talented, dedicated, and humble individuals through Koreatown Run Club. I am proud to say this of both male and female runners that are a part of KRC.
This group is as diverse as the city it represents, with people from all walks of life, gender, social, economic and political backgrounds. And when we run together, male or female, we are not afraid to be who we are. We don’t run for accolades or headlines, we run together as a way to take action each and every day towards achieving our goals and finding our purpose in life”.
When it comes to taking action, few runners are pushing the boundaries as much as Esther Park. She’s recently returned from completing Run Across Haiti for the second time, a 200 mile (320 kilometers) run over 8 days from the north coast of Haiti to the south. The trip finished with a 50 mile final day (80 km) from Port-au-Prince to Jacmel.
Run Across Haiti is an initiative raising funds to help improve the quality of life for Haitian families through sustainable projects like job creation, better access to education, and more.
“As I ran across the country of Haiti for a 2nd time with a team of 40+ runners and crew, I realized how simple life really is in that we are all striving and living for the same things, love, laughter, purpose, and to serve others. This year I was able to see the impact our work is making in the lives of our family members in Menelas and Truttier. New school rooms are being built, bricks are being laid down, and there is food on the table. These are tangible changes, things that have improved from just one year ago, things that wouldn’t have changed if we ignored the problem".
"This is what drives me and my running. I run for progress, for hope and to give back to those in the world who need our help...you never know who you’re going to impact when you give and when you do, I believe it will leave a legacy that will live far longer than we will”
Despite being the first female to have made it to the finish in 2017, and being part of a group that has collectively raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and made a huge impact on the lives of many people in Haiti, Park is modest about her position in the running community.
“I don’t think of myself as an ‘inspirational’ person, but I am certainly aware that my actions have an impact on those around me. The running and training is not always glamorous, it’s a commitment to put one foot in front of the other no matter the obstacles. I’m just an ordinary person, like everyone else, who makes a conscious decision every morning to stand up for what I believe in”.
Park herself is inspired by her late mother, Chong Kyung Park, who sadly passed away from cancer in 2006. Her mother told her as a young girl that she was destined to make an impact on the world, and she was right.
“My greatest memories as a young girl were walking home from school hand in hand with my mom, seeing her sewing during the day to make extra money for our family, and watching her sing at church. When she did these things, she did them with so much joy. To me, it was as if she had a glow around her no matter where she was or what she was doing. She always encouraged me, telling me that one day I will be doing great things, even traveling around the world to help others”.
Park initially started running as a way to cope with the passing of her mother, drawing strength from the many life lessons she passed on.
“She showed me and others around her that even in the most difficult times, even as she received news of her cancer, there is always hope and a reason to smile. As she fought her battle with cancer for 6 months, there was a peace surrounding her. One morning she had tears in her eyes and told me she didn’t want to die, she will miss us, our family and friends, but assured me that she wasn’t afraid. She wasn’t fearful of death because she knew exactly where she was going when her physical body would eventually fail”.
As someone who inspires so many of those around her, not just with her running achievements but also her sense of community and ability to connect people, I’m eager to get Park’s thoughts and reflections on International Women’s Day.
“It’s a global day of celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity, calling for a better working, more gender inclusive world. Work gives us a sense of purpose and dignity, and each of us has the right to this freedom- to take care of ourselves, build our future and our kids futures”.
Esther Park images courtesy of Duy Nguyen
Ayşe Nur Sari Kaygisiz, Izmir, Turkey
Izmir, a beautiful city on the west coast of Turkey, is known for some of the best beaches in the region. It’s also the nation’s third biggest city behind the capital Istanbul, and Ankara.
Volt Floyd was actually started in Istanbul, but after Ayşe Nur discovered there was no running crew in Izmir, she reached out to the founders and created her own branch in her city. Starting a run crew as a non professional runner in a city like Izmir is not an easy feat, and Ayşe Nur had significant societal pressure to overcome.
“When I started the crew here in Izmir I was 28 years old, and people expect me to be doing other things, not starting a run crew (Ed: Ayşe Nur is also doing her PhD in Bacterial Genetics).
“In my opinion, some long held expectations of society can put limits on us, especially for women. For instance there’s an expectation that you should make some money at your job but not more than your husband, and of course you should get married and have children before your thirties.
As long as you aspire to something different than these expectations, you will face more negativity than encouragement.
This just means you have to work harder and expect to struggle for your goals. You have to ignore other people’s judgements”.
12 months later, and Volt Floyd Izmir is going strong. Ayşe Nur has just completed her first marathon, and just like starting the crew, it's an achievement rooted in determination and persistence.
“As a runner I think I am far from being a role model. I know how hard I need to work to become a better runner, and I am very stubborn about getting what I want”
Humble as she may be, there’s no doubt many in her community look up to Ayşe Nur. I’m curious to learn where she draws her inspiration from.
“Definitely my mom and some of my graduate teachers, but also since I’m interested in literature I admire some women writers who bravely shared their feelings and thoughts. Women such as Sylvia Plath and Virgnia Woolf”.
Ayşe Nur acknowledges the state of women’s affairs in Turkey and remains hopeful that society will continue to evolve.
“Women in Turkey have had so many rights, thanks to founder of our republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and I’m proud that women have the right to elect and be elected before a lot of European countries. The biggest issue is still access to quality education for girls. I haven’t seen a lot of improvements in the last decade, however it is pleasing to see more people using tools like social media to speak up about women’s rights”.
With women like Ayşe Nur fostering new communities and building culture in Izmir, the future is bright.
"Running makes me so happy and helps me discover sides of myself I didn’t know about. The crew has given me a lot of new friends and inspiring role models”.
Eliza Curnow and Hayley Tomlinson, Melbourne, Australia
Eliza Curnow and Hayley Tomlinson are two of the founding members of Melbourne based club Hunter Athletics and Recreation.
The pair both come from competitive running backgrounds, each running at a number of national championships.
For now, they’re both content racing locally and building the huge female community that runs with Hunter Athletics.
“There’s just more of a community feel about Hunter. Everyone’s trying to better themselves, and even though we do get competitive and push each other in the sessions, it’s about lifting the whole group up” says Curnow, 26.
“When you’re feeling a bit flat and not wanting to do the session, there’s always other girls there that can put a smile on your face and motivate you to get it done, and you feel better afterwards” adds Tomlinson, 29.
The girls are leaders in the figurative and literal sense at Hunter, mixing it up with the guys and pace leading several of the weekly workouts, while also encouraging other girls in the group to be fearless with their running ambitions.
Curnow has a blistering turn of speed and happily sits elbow-to-elbow with the fastest guys in the track workouts, while Tomlinson loves the weekend long run to balance out her week.
“The Sunday long run is the perfect reset button to whatever you’ve done during the week. If I’m not feeling good about myself or I’ve had a big night out or skipped a session during the week, sitting on the front for 20km on a Sunday washes all that away” explains Tomlinson.
The theme of balance is important for both of the girls. When asked about their role models, the conversation quickly turns to those that are able to live a full and balanced life, and for Tomlinson that means her friend, athlete Madeline Hills (Heiner).
“My role model is Madeline. She quit the sport for 10 years and still came back and went to the Olympics. She has a masters degree, she planned her own wedding. She’s incredible!”
“I’ve always had my mum and my sister up on a pedestal. I always wanted to be like my sister growing up, and I’ve always looked at mum like she had it all”
Curnow acknowledges how hard it is to spread her attention between competing priorities.
“The women I aspire to be like are those who live a truly balanced life, they have time for everyone and still manage to follow their own passions along the way, which more often than not involve helping others.
Having been a very competitive junior runner, it has felt impossible since then to achieve balance in life. Finding time to follow my running dreams and also have a professional career has been one of life’s greatest challenges. However, since Hunter started I’ve felt closer than ever to getting it right”.
Speaking with Tomlinson and Curnow about International Women’s Day and the challenges some women face around the world, Tomlinson has a refreshing perspective on issues facing women in Melbourne.
“We’re aware that we live with so much privilege, we are very lucky here in Australia, but choice too can be a burden. Am I making the right career choices, should I do more, train harder, eat less, volunteer more? The simplicity of running with great people has been a solace from societal pressure and the pressure we often put on ourselves”.
Julie Hyld, Copenhagen, Denmark
Running with NBRO in Copenhagen, Hyld is surrounded equally by women and men, as the crew has grown to have an even gender split.
“The men in NBRO have a deep respect of the women, and I can’t even count how many times they have cheered me on during the runs on the track – and they help at the races.
Being able to run with men that respect you is something I often take for granted. But as a woman that likes to be pushed, and to seek barriers to break, I feel like I need strong women around me. We grow as a group; solo runners never evolve”.
“I’m lucky to have some women around me in NBRO running that all work towards the same goal on a daily basis; get even better”
When Hyld and her two friends Clemence Cornac and Nanna Munnecke started Voltwomen over cider and crepes, they set out to motivate and inspire women around the world through sharing the stories of those doing the everyday and the extraordinary.
“Since we started the platform I’ve been pushed physically and mentally many times. We’ve set goals, we’ve broken barriers, we’ve shared stories of different women, and we’ve seen how life and sports can collide in different ways”.
Perspective and a positive mindset can go a long way, and the great thing about Voltwomen is the digital nature of it. City based groups are fantastic for connecting on the run, but voices like Voltwomen have the power to reach people around the world.
“Voltwomen is a constant reminder to not be ashamed or shy, but to stand up and speak about what I believe – to be my own voice as a strong individual. I am no super human, and I get injured, I doubt myself – I feel ugly and I feel beautiful.
But when we share the stories of women battling equality in Saudi Arabia, or Hannah McFadden winning yet another gold medal, I see myself with this force of women that break barriers, and they remind me how stupid negative thoughts can be".
Asked if she recognises herself as a leader in the women's running community, Hyld prefers to focus on what she's doing, not the label that gets put on it.
"I think it would be too much pressure if I thought I was a leader. But I hope that I can help to bring power to the female voice”.
“Do the best you can, push your barriers, go where you thought you couldn’t go! Dare to run faster than you thought was possible”
As someone so driven to make positive changes, I'm curious where Hyld looks to when she needs motivation.
“I’m inspired by the women around me. They keep working towards their goals, and no matter the goal, it inspires me to keep going too!
I also love to learn from athletes, I don’t compare myself to athletes, but I like their routines and their attitude. Allie Kieffer is one I really love to follow. She has a really positive body image – and she is fast as hell!”
Julie Hyld images courtesy of Polino Vinogradova
Lydia O'Donnell, Auckland, New Zealand
You won’t meet many people more dedicated to growing the athletics community in their city than Lydia O’Donnell. Living in Auckland, Lydia is much more than a multiple New Zealand national champ on the track.
She’s a coach and mentor to a group of high school girls, a community leader with her crew Cloud Runners Society, and a mental health advocate through her work with One Step, a group she co-created to help people use exercise to fight mental health issues. She’s also an elite marathoner with an eye on the 2018 Berlin Marathon.
O’Donnell’s work with junior girls is not only preparing them to be better athletes, it’s teaching them about life and helping them avoid the pitfalls that teenage girls can fall into.
“I love seeing them as athletes but it’s just as much about inspiring them. It’s so important they have good mentors and role models, especially with other influences like social media playing such a big part in their lives.
A lot of these new social media influences we see are aspiring bikini models or fitspo bloggers who are weight obsessed. It’s really hard for young girls, they see this and say ‘I want to grow up and be a social media influencer and to do that I have to post heaps of photos in my bikini’”.
O’Donnell is quick to point out alternate role models, of which New Zealand has plenty. As the first self governed nation to allow women to vote, New Zealand has had three female prime minister’s, including current PM Jacinda Ardern, who was elected in late 2017.
“I really Jacinda Ardern for believing in herself and doing what she thinks is right, she’s leading the country the way she thinks is best. I think that’s inspiring for all women in NZ”.
Ardern, a 37 year old amateur DJ from Hamilton on the North Island, is a leader that young girls can relate to.
“I live in a country with a female prime minister who is pregnant to a man she isn’t married to, and he’s going to be a stay at home dad while she runs the country, so I’m aware that we’re quite far ahead of other nations in that regard. I feel lucky to be in a country that is like this”.
O’Donnell hopes that the success of Ardern will inspire women to lift each other up, and says too often there’s a lack of women supporting each other on the way to the top.
“If you look at successful men, often they’re surrounded by other men who have helped them get there and who support them. Whereas for women it’s a bit different. Success and likeability don’t seem to go together. Successful women tend to get judged by other women, and this creates a culture where we’re scared to stand out and go for our dreams, because it’s going to lead to getting judged or cut down”.
Read our full feature with Lydia O’Donnell and learn about the amazing community work she’s doing. READ NOW.
Lydia O'Donnell images courtesy of Alisha Lovrich