Find Your Start Line
Olympian helps Idaho women find their own path to joy through fitness
By Chereen Langrill
Anne Audain has spent most of her life paving the way for future generations of women.
Audain was a professional runner originally from Auckland, New Zealand, when she began training in Boise in the 1980s. She fell in love with the city, and soon it felt like a second home to her. In September, Audain will be here for the St. Luke’s Women’s Fitness Celebration, and it will be a milestone moment for the founder of this popular women’s 5K: It will be the 20th Celebration and thousands of women and children will line up in downtown Boise to participate in the 3.1-mile run/walk.
When Audain launched the Celebration in 1993 there was nothing like it in the community. There were other road races, but nothing created especially for women and children. Audain wanted to create a women’s-only event to encourage women to stay active and to influence their children to do the same thing. Audain also wanted to give women a gift: To experience something Audain cherished as an athlete.
“I wanted to give women the chance to know what it feels like to stand at a start line,” she says. “And I wanted women to find their own start line.”
That start line is a metaphor for how Audain has lived her life. She found her start line as a young girl who was born with foot deformities. She would wait until the age of 13 for relief, when doctors finally decided her bones were strong enough to operate on her feet. And then one day she had a realization that would change the course of her life.
“It hurt more to walk than it did to run, so I just started running,” she says.
Audain was reborn, and by the time she was 17 she was one of the best athletes in New Zealand. She is a six-time Olympic qualifier. She is a two-time medalist in the Commonwealth Games (gold and silver), where she also set the world record in 5,000 meters, and she became the first woman to receive an endorsement deal from Nike. Audain earned the title of the winningest road racer in running history during what she calls her “perfect year” in 1982, when she won every race she entered, breaking and setting records along the way.
Her drive as an athlete developed during those early years before surgery. Audain credits her parents for teaching her how to face adversity. “They told me one day (my feet) would get fixed and that I needed to just focus on school and keeping my grades up,” Audain says. “I think that really took me a long way when I became an athlete because you need to be an independent person and not let outside influences influence you and affect your goal. To this day that independence is something I use. I don’t let my life suffer with influences that will affect me negatively.”
Despite Audain’s natural ability to be a fierce competitor, in many ways she is a girly girl. One of her favorite pieces of jewelry is a specially-made gold necklace featuring an early mascot of the Celebration, known as the “wild woman.” Although she is more at ease running than walking, Audain doesn’t live in workout clothes and running shoes (unless she is running). Instead she chooses dresses, skirts and slacks that flatter her still-fit athletic figure. And if there is still any doubt about her femininity, there is her laugh: Audain has a delightfully girlish giggle.
Like Audain herself, the Celebration has been a groundbreaker and widely successful. Before the women’s running movement spurred phrases such as “I run like a girl” that can be found on T-shirts and license plate frames, before the red-hot commercial success of female athlete-focused marketing trends such as running skirts, and long before women’s only events like the Nike Women’s Marathon were drawing women from around the country, the Celebration (originally called the Women’s Fitness Celebration) had a quiet beginning in Boise.
Audain remembers trying to persuade city officials to shut down the streets for the 5K course. “They had nothing to compare it to,” she says. “They just didn’t know what to expect.”
That first Celebration drew 2,400 women. It started at Capitol and Bannock (the location of the current Celebration start line), and continued up Capitol until reaching the Boise State campus. City officials agreed to close a portion of the street – up to BSU – but the race had to continue along the Greenbelt after reaching that point.
“We told people, ‘If you had a good time, come back next year and bring a friend,’” Audain remembers.
The following year attendance doubled. By 2007 the Celebration had more than 15,000 participants, earning the title of the largest all-women’s race in the United States. It continues to log attendance totals in the five figure range, and some of best female athletes in the country have been in the Celebration, including Shirley Reilly, who won the women’s wheelchair division of the 2012 Boston Marathon, and Cori Mooney, a Boise-based runner who is likely best-known for capturing multiple wins in the women’s division of the grueling Race to Robie Creek Half-Marathon. Although elite athletes compete in the Celebration, the core of the Celebration is to welcome all ages and all abilities.
The Celebration is all about heart. Women cry when they cross the finish line. Some overcome tremendous challenges to reach their goal of completing a 5K. After the 2011 Celebration, one woman approached a Celebration staff member in tears and proudly told her she had Multiple Sclerosis and struggled to walk the entire course the previous year. In 2011 she ran the course. It was a defining moment in that woman’s life. Other women do the event to celebrate personal victories such as weight loss or overcoming addiction. Some participate as part of an annual family tradition, sharing the experience with multiple generations in their family. Others do it for fun, dressing up in feather boas, fairy wings or tiaras. The event’s slogan is “What do you celebrate?” and every participant has a different answer.
Audain continues to find her joy in running. She typically runs daily near her home in Evansville, Ill. (unless her routine is disrupted by travel) and logs 5 or 6 miles on a run. Her pace remains swift, even though she no longer competes in the sport, and completes her runs in about 40 minutes. It’s woven so deeply into her life that she can have a phone conversation while she is running, and has been known to answer her cell while out on a run to discuss business matters. But she prefers to run in silence, because that is her time to recharge.
“I never listen to music when I run,” Audain says. “I use that time to clear my head.”
Whether women choose to run or walk doesn’t concern Audain. She just wants them to move. Try it once and it will change your life, she says. Audain’s husband, Chuck Whobrey, is also a runner (they met at a running event) and continues to find time to run on a regular basis even though he has a grueling travel schedule as part of his job. Whobrey often wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to run, and Audain is grateful.
“It scares me to think how he would be now if he didn’t run,” Audain says.
Audain’s mother-in-law (Whobrey’s mother) is another example of fitness and longevity. She was a sedentary woman until the age of 65, when she began walking three miles a day to lose weight. Audain’s mother-in-law discovered her own start line that year. She is now in her 80s, and she begins each morning with a 12-mile bicycle ride.
When Audain watches women line up on the start line at the Celebration in September, she will have many reasons to celebrate. But thousands of women joining Audain on that morning will be celebrating something of their own: the gift of fitness, the beauty of being alive, and the possibilities that exist once somebody has the courage to find a start line of their own.
St. Luke’s Women’s Fitness Celebration:
5K Run, Walk & Stroll: Sept. 22, Idaho Capitol
St. Luke’s Celebration Women’s Show, Presented by the Idaho Dairy Council: Sept. 21 and 22, Boise Centre.
5K registration: Registration starts at $20 for adults for non-competitive (untimed) walkers.
For complete registration information, visit www.celebrateall.org.