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21 Women Who Are Transforming The World Through Running

Kayleigh Williamson

Special-needs runner  |  Austin, TX

In February, then-26-year-old Kayleigh Williamson crossed the finish line of the Austin Half Marathon in 6:22:57—long after the aid stations had closed up, the roads had reopened and the spectators had headed home. She had a small entourage with her when she earned the distinction of being the first woman with Down syndrome to run in—and complete—the Texas race. Her decision not to get in the sweep van at the race (which happened around mile 4) and instead continue her race on the sidewalk revealed her unwavering spirit to do something few people with her condition have done—run.

Since her February finish, articles about Williamson have appeared on ESPNW and, and a group called Kayleigh’s Club was formed to help disabled runners reach their running dreams with the help of volunteers. “We hope to grow the Austin special-needs running community through Kayleigh’s Club,” says Kim Davis, D.C., the founder and CEO of RunLab in Austin who oversaw Williamson’s training. Through the group, volunteers from RunLab are paired with disabled runners to help them learn to run within a safe and fun environment.

Through this model, Williamson and her coach and family hope that she can pave the way for other special-needs runners throughout the country. “I would love to see nonprofit organizations with the ability to help support the [disabled] athletes in training for races,” says Sandy Williamson, Kayleigh’s mom. “Having a program that matches disabled runners with non-disabled runners helps them have a mentor in not only achieving their goal of a finish line, but also in becoming healthier.”

Kayleigh isn’t slowing down anytime soon: She and nine other special-needs runners competed in the Zilker Relay in September, she’ll be the ambassador for a local New Year’s Eve 10-miler and she’s already signed up for next February’s Austin Half Marathon.

Rayleen Hsu

Director of product marketing at Strava  |  San Francisco, CA

Reports of women being attacked during training runs or even during races (did you hear about that Ragnar runner in May?) highlight an important issue for which sports brands are trying to find solutions: safety on outdoor runs.

One such brand is Strava, a mobile app and website that serves as a “social network” for runners and cyclists by helping you track your training, analyze your workouts and connect with other athletes. In 2016, the brand launched its Beacon feature for Premium users, which allows them to send three safety contacts a link to track the athlete’s workouts in real time. “Beacon allows people to feel a little more carefree and relaxed while running and riding,” says Rayleen Hsu, Strava’s director of product marketing and one of the brains behind Beacon. “We knew that Beacon was something every athlete could use,” she says. “Once we started interviewing athletes, we confirmed our assumptions—our athletes were leaving notes and drawn-out maps for loved ones to let them know where they were going, when they’d be home.”

The feature gives not only runners peace of mind, but perhaps more importantly, their loved ones—Hsu, 37, is a runner and has used Beacon to keep both her and her husband worry-free when she goes out on solo runs. “If something goes awry, friends and family will know where you are and can send help if needed,” she says.

While safety is an important aspect of the feature, its more fun uses are things like meeting up with friends partway through runs or race tracking. And while the team at Strava will continue evolving to help athletes have the best running or riding experience possible, “safety is and will continue to be a top priority,” Hsu says.

Harriette Thompson

Oldest woman to complete a half marathon  |  Charlotte, N.C.

When the late Harriette Thompson ran the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Half Marathon in June at age 94, her family members had to shield her from other runners—not because they were trying to pass her, but because they were trying to sneak mid-race selfies with her. “It’s great inspiration for me to see how much people think I am an inspiration,” Thompson said after the race. “I am getting more attention because I am so old.” That day, she became the oldest woman to ever complete a half marathon, and that came two years after setting the record for the oldest woman to complete a full marathon.

The sweet, smiling grandma only started running marathons in her mid-70s, initially inspired to use the races as opportunities to raise funds for cancer research, something she continued to do for the rest of her life. “I am just happy that I am making a little difference by having fundraisers for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and raising funds for cancer research,” she said. “That’s my inspiration.”

Over the years, Thompson lost multiple family members to cancer, and she herself battled cancer since setting her marathon world record in 2015. For much of 2016, she underwent multiple surgeries to remove cancer and was put on bed rest for weeks. The medical issues forced her to scale down to 13.1 miles, but the cancer actually drove her: “I still had the same incentive of trying to help, and the cancer just made it stronger. I realized what it was like to have cancer, and that made me want to give back more and help this cause,” she said. “I want to be a good influence on other people. I want to make the last few years of my life worth something.”

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