For years, the elite women who run marathons have lived double lives as football players. They have ducked. They have weaved. They have looked for the open hole. They have done just about everything to avoid the pack of men that usually gets to start in front of them and then, as the race wears on, bleeds back into the pack of faster women to create an obstacle course within a race course.
Yet when the starting gun fires at the New York City Marathon on Sunday, for the first time it will be the elite women who will dash out ahead. The elite men will not start until 35 minutes later, with the amateur runners grouped behind them.
"It's going to make a big difference," said Irish track star Sonia O'Sullivan, who will make her New York debut. "When you have a mixed race, you can lose track of where the other girls are and get lost in a crowd. If it's women-only, then you have to run a real race. You can't tack onto one of the guys."
O'Sullivan is one of the competitors expected to shine in the new format, despite it being only her second marathon. An Olympic silver medallist who holds every Irish national record between the 800 and 10,000 meters, O'Sullivan decided two years ago to jump into the Dublin Marathon the night before it was run. She won it with a time of 2 hours 35 minutes 42 seconds.
"Now that I've really trained for this one, I'm looking forward to seeing what I can do," she said.
So is Joe Fenty, although the Alexandria-based Army colonel will be coming at the marathon from an opposite perspective.
Fenty is one of five members of the military who will start dead-last, behind the pack of approximately 30,000 general runners. For every runner he passes, JPMorgan Chase will make a $1 donation to a lung cancer research fund, so Fenty is determined to do a little ducking and weaving of his own.
"It'll be hard because you're at a disadvantage starting last, and until April I had almost no physical activity except for climbing mountains in Afghanistan," said Fenty, who was overseas for five months but has been training on the path along the George Washington Parkway since he returned in the late spring. "But it's a real honor to run for the U.S. Army. I can't wait."