This Saturday, the fastest men in the world will assemble in Kingsport, Tenn., to compete for a $15,008 payday. But it's only the men—the fastest women in the world don't compete. The fastest women in the world don't even show up, because at the Crazy 8s race, it pays to be a man, but there is no prize money for a woman.
Hank Brown, race director and owner of We Run Events, started the eight-kilometer race (approximately five miles) in 1990 in the small, 51,000-person town near the borders of Virginia and North Carolina. Now 59, Brown says in his day he was a pretty decent runner. He wanted to see the best athletes in the world run his race, and he was willing to pay for it.
"I was the one that just kept pushing for more and more prize money because I wanted to see these guys come in," Brown says. He became the man behind the money for both sexes, with the men and women's winners each receiving a $5,000 paycheck, with the kicker of a $10,008 world-record bonus. Besides the winners, the next seven men and the next seven women also received money, creating a purse so lucrative that it drew talent from as far as Kenya, Ethiopia, and Morocco.
But it wasn't until 1996 that the investment paid off and the mania for times began. That year Kenya's Peter Githuka ran a world record 22 minutes, 2.2 seconds "totally out of the blue," Brown says. The time caught him completely unprepared. Spectators moseying across the road were nearly trampled as Githuka screamed by.
The electricity in the small town signaled a sea change. "In a place like Atlanta or New York or something like that, they [the community] probably wouldn't care so much," Brown says. "But in a little town like this, where things like that don't happen, it's a big deal.
"It's totally reshaped the race," he adds. "It has become our m.o.: Let's go after this world record. Let's keep trying to break it."
When Asmae Leghzaoui, a Morrocan Olympian, set the still-standing women's course record of 24:27.8 in 2002, the transformation was complete: The race held both world records, which became both an obsession and a definition.
But then the setbacks came. Less than year after her record, Leghzaoui tested positive for EPO, a blood-booster used to increase endurance. Her world record was wiped off the books, but her course record remained. In 2010, the women's race sponsor, which supplied the prize money, ended its relationship with the race. With the record put artificially out of reach and without the necessary funds to entice the athletes to pursue it, Brown made the decision to cut all women's prize money.
"I can promise you that we don't dislike women," Brown says. "It was purely a financial decision."
Splitting the prize money would have lowered the quality of the field, he says, and he's probably right—without as lucrative incentive, it's hard to say if the best wouldn't have looked elsewhere for larger prize purses, the race devolving from world class to regional.
"We decided to go with the men," he says. "We're always trying to break the world record again, and we felt like the men's record was more attainable."
Financial reasons may be a legitimate excuse, but the result is the squirmy irony of a race becoming an exclusive boys club, in an effort not to seem parochial. This is a particularly tricky proposition in a sport that is trending female.
Since 2011, women have surpassed men in numbers of runners in the U.S., and in 2013 there were almost 2 million more women than men, according to a survey compiled by Running USA. It's ironic, CEO Rich Harshbarger says, that a race wouldn't offer equal money to women, seeing as how it's women who are mostly running the races. "The sport comes from a place of inclusiveness. Races that do offer prize money should strive to offer it equally."
Competitor Group, owner of the popular nationwide Rock 'n' Roll Marathon series, reports that 65 percent of its participants are women. Responding to this trend, they created the Women's Running Series, which includes four half marathons in 2014. The series is a twist on the relatively recent phenomenon of the women-only race, which dates back to 1972 and the launching of the New York Mini 10K. Unlike the Mini 10K, the Women's Running Series actually allow men in the races, and according to runner Chris Duncan, third overall at the 2013 Nashville race, they often recruit men to lead groups at designated paces. Men can run and they can lead; the only thing they can't do is win.
"We suggest that men participate only in support of a woman or a charity," the series website says. "If a male is interested in participating in this event to win, get an award, or PR we would be happy to suggest some other events."
"Everyone is welcome to participate: men, women, kids, everybody. But this is a race to celebrate women and to celebrate women's accomplishments," says Dana Allen, senior vice president of business development at Competitor Group International and WRS's former director. "Men can find five other races on the same weekend. We haven't had any complaints."
Well, almost. In February of last year, Alejandro Belmares ran the WRS event in San Diego, crossing the finish line first. It created a national debate about the merits of men in women's races. "If they didn't want a man to win, then they shouldn't have allowed us to race," Belmares told Shape Magazine. But he did not win. It was right there in the rules.
In Kingsport, the issue isn't so much a front in the culture wars as it is a matter of race economics. The Crazy 8s results tell the tale: In 2009, six of the top eight women were East African. In 2010, the first year without the money, only one was, and she didn't return the following year. The times have slowed markedly: In 2013 the women's winning time was more than three minutes off the record, while the men's results are often within 15 seconds. There is the incentive to win for both men and women but not money, and with it go the times.
"If it looked like the women's record was more attainable, maybe that's the way we would have gone," Brown says. "Ever since that record was set no one ever came close."
And so it goes: Pursuing times, Crazy 8s is working at cross purposes with itself. Bent on chasing records, it has cut its chances in half.
"Every so often someone in the media will call me and ask me about it. Once in a blue moon an elite female athlete will call and ask why, ask me to explain it," he says. "But no, it's not an embarrassment.
"The men just made more sense."