Women runners, hear them roar!

MARCH 12 ― Last early Sunday morning, almost 4,000 enthusiastic women (and a small number of men wearing running skirts with one in a pink tutu) gathered in Shah Alam for the fourth edition of the Malaysia Women Marathon.

I was privileged this year to run the full marathon (FM) as a participant despite not being a woman. Men wanting to participate in the MWM can only run in the marathon as a pacer to a female runner. The only imposed condition by the organiser: I had to wear a running skirt. It was my 10th full marathon and I wanted to do it in style and have fun, so I wore one. Best jugak. Very airy.

Start of the Etiqa half marathon run. ― Picture courtesy of MWM 2016
Start of the Etiqa half marathon run. ― Picture courtesy of MWM 2016

Despite a bit of a hectic start, with the firing of the starting pistol, the runners of the FM began their long journey into the darkness towards Kota Kemuning and Bandar Rimbayu.

Video of FM start: 

In comparison to previous years where the race course would involve running loopy loops around multiple roundabouts and Shah Alam roads, the new route along the Lebuhraya Kemuning Shah Alam (LKSA) presented itself as a welcome challenge for many of the participants, particularly those doing their third or fourth MWM.

Finding new routes each year, especially for such a distance and with good road conditions for running, can sometimes be tough for race organisers even in the Klang Valley with its plethora of highways and roads. MWM 2016’s relatively low elevation, straightforward direction and cool dawn weather helped make this road race an enjoyable experience and probably resulted in a number of runners making personal best (PBs) in their running times.

Me in a running skirt. ― Picture by Azrul Khalib
Me in a running skirt. ― Picture by Azrul Khalib

However, if you finished later like I did, the heat and humidity were really crushing and probably resulted in a few participants not finishing the race.

Race director Karen Loh made an interesting observation regarding the profile of some of the new runners participating in the race this year: an increase in the number of female runners who are covered up.

MWM has always been seen as a safe space for newbie female runners to get introduced to running or becoming comfortable with this activity. For many, the best place to start running and to do a race is to be with other women doing the 5k (I’m looking at you Dr Hartini Zainuddin!) or the 10k together.

Interestingly, this year saw a large enrolment of scarf- or hijab-wearing Muslim women who were doing a race for the first time. This is an important development in a country such as Malaysia which has a Muslim majority population.

The lack of sports clothing for women and girls who wish to cover up can present itself as a barrier or deterrent to their participation in activities such as running. Indeed, for a long time, the lack of suitable or comfortable sportswear was cited as a reason for Muslim women in this country not taking up active outdoor sports leading to more sedentary lifestyles and increased health complications such as obesity.

Traditional scarves used for everyday wear are simply not suitable attire for running and much that is worn by women who are into this activity and wish to cover up can be uncomfortable and sometimes even cause injury.

Eliza Noordin, founder of home-grown online label Nashata, saw this need and decided in 2013 to start meeting the demand for affordable and modest quality activewear catering primarily towards the Muslim women market.

Today, it has customers across the globe, and is a leading producer of modest sportswear worldwide. It designs and produces apparel to suit all types of body shapes and even caters to a person just starting out in running.

A supporter of the MWM from the very onset, Nashata could be seen in force this time around with so many women of all ages wearing the label. It might be just a change of clothes for some but it could inspire others to get out and be active.

This is a testimony to not only how much of a need there is for such attire, but also how addressing it actually enables women and girls to go out and engage in an activity which could very well change their lives.

The organisers of MWM really need to be commended for their emphasis on involving and promoting Malaysian labels within the context of the annual road race.

MWM pacers in Ash Be Nimble skirts!
MWM pacers in Ash Be Nimble skirts!

Foxy activewear Ash Be Nimble (as in “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick!”) is another of those Malaysian successes which you don’t get to hear about as often.

Focusing on making functional and fashionable sports attire affordable, trail runner Hui Matthews found that the current market for such clothing was currently dominated by expensive labels and out of reach of most Malaysians.

Her solution: develop and produce sports apparel for the discerning individual runner who loves a lifestyle of being fit, active and fashionable without it costing a bomb.

Runners in hijab sports gear. ― Picture by Nashata
Runners in hijab sports gear. ― Picture by Nashata

Looking at the prices of the apparel on sale during the MWM race kit collection and expo, and the response to Ash Be Nimble apparel which has gone beyond runners to cyclists, triathletes and yogis, I can tell that this label is going to be a force to be reckoned with.

MWM 2016 has been an amazing experience for everyone involved. For some, it has been life-changing. I can tell you from the expressions of joy, the smiles and many, many selfies I saw that morning that one thing is certain: most of these women will be back as participants of the next Malaysia Women Marathon.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.