See Jane Run
WORDS BY SHERIDAN WILBUR
PHOTOS BY ANDREW CASTRO
Tania Fischer wanted people to look. In 2002, she bought five hot pink dance tops with bows and black bottoms for each athlete on her Santa Monica-based team to wear for cross country Club Nationals in Sacramento, California – herself included. At the time, most of the uniforms available to women were men’s uniforms; they’d tuck in any extra fabric. Fischer was done with that. Femininity isn’t mutually exclusive with athleticism and she wanted to look good and feel good. The freshly minted coach, founder and competitor, entered her inaugural squad in the race as See Jane Run. They were absolutely seen. One: the pink outfits; Two: they were the only team not coached by a man.
“Hey, we’re the Janes, we’re from LA and we’re gonna kick ass,” Fischer says retrospectively. “It’s crazy to think it was 20 years ago. At the time, there was never really a group of women that were coached by women. Now it seems that's a given, but not then.”
In the two decades that have passed, the attitude stays the same, but much has changed. In 2002, Fischer received a Cease and Desist letter from a company also called See Jane Run in San Francisco. The club shortened their name to The Janes in response. Since then they've expanded in other ways: The Janes extended their roster to 30 women, now with a wider range of ages represented, as young as 24 and as old as 56. They increased the club nationals squad size from five women to 15 women, entering three teams instead of just one. And now they’re established in size and reputation, The Janes have trademarked their name, too.
Fischer still coaches as the spunky, yet fierce leader. The team remains only one of two competitive women’s running clubs in Los Angeles. Recently partnering with Tracksmith, they continue to race in hot pink, but have substance underneath the splash. “We’re about women supporting women,” she says. Inviting women who have graduated college, looking for a new team as they start their first job, or are in grad school, the Janes support women athletes as they mature. In 2020, another elite women’s running club emerged on the local-LA scene. “If we weren't the predecessors, I don’t know where we would be,” she says.
Ten years ago, Ingrid Walters, a retired D1 swimmer for UCLA, was seeking a different physical challenge. With demanding hours on set as an actress, landing roles on popular shows like Grey's Anatomy and Baywatch, she needed a group that would understand her life outside of sport. She discovered the Janes, an amaetur group for women who rise before the sun to train hard then carry on with their lives during the day. They live balanced lives, but typically, athletes need to hit speedy open standards to join: 17:50 in the 5k to sub 3:00 in the marathon. Walters had never raced on land before.
At 6 a.m., Walters showed up to the Janes practice with a beginner’s mindset. She says, “You learn from them… It was a natural transition to be a part of the team." Part of why Walters could achieve those standards is because she enjoys that rigorous lifestyle and has lived it before. Fischer warned her that it’s the whole deal and that it's not for everyone: "It's not quite a fun club… You gotta make a commitment to racing because that's what we're about.”
A decade since joining, Walters’ optimism hasn’t grown stale, nor has her obvious sense of pride as a member. Showing up to morning practice six days a week, participating in a certain number of races and attending team meetings suits her groove of life, translating years of intense swimming to running. “If you don't want the commitment, then you're not on the team. There's nothing bad about it,” she says.
Initially, Fischer hesitated to form her own team. She’d been running competitively since she was six years old and had run fast enough in high school to earn a scholarship at UCLA. She became a professional in Germany for a few years and even raced in the 1996 Olympic Trials in the 5,000m. In 2002, when a group of women approached her and asked if she might coach them, Fischer stalled. Better qualified than most to lead, she was on the cusp of quitting the sport. Fischer imagined a more just future for women runners, but just gave them a few tips on the side. Cross Country Club Nationals were approaching quickly, and they required five women to field a team. Fischer thought, “Oh gosh, here we go.”
Fischer wasn’t a philosopher king. In reality, she was an art teacher at Santa Monica high school, with a degree in painting and sculpture, and ultimately agreed to take the role as a coach and a competitor. She wasn’t motivated out of self-interest to rule; they actually needed another athlete, too. She considered the team’s aesthetics, training and logistics before racing in their first Club Nationals meet.
“I’ve never looked back,” says the initially reluctant coach. Fischer’s secret to sustaining a lifelong love with running (that could end up being more of an unrequited romance), is by actually taking a break. Fischer takes three weeks off from running every summer and travels to Europe. “Some people think I'm crazy, but that works for me,” she says.
An all-women running club is a trove of wisdom as much as competition. The Janes are a close bunch and have role models that young women can turn to about anything – from raising kids to finding a new job or how they like their hairdresser. Fischer, who has been with the Janes through her own pregnancy and early days of motherhood, says, “It's not just about running, it's about the emotional support you’re going through.” Walters concurs. She says, “If something's wrong, they will be there for you.” Walters has been on the team for 10 years. The team has grown up together, connected by what you can’t see.
In 2019, Walters felt a lump under her armpit a few weeks before running the LA Marathon. At 47, she’d just had the best training cycle of her life. She didn’t think anything of the lump and went on to win the women's open marathon in a lifetime PR of 2:48. A few weeks later, she noticed something was off. She was very tired. The lump had gotten bigger. Walters had it checked out and the doctors told her it was cancer. She told the doctors, “You don't understand, I just won a marathon.” The doctor told her cancer is insidious, that it’s not a marker of her health. “No, it's impossible,” she said, shocked, in denial.
Walters had to get a double mastectomy and have 18 lymph nodes removed. As Walters sat in her oncologist’s office and looked at the scans of her breasts on the screen, she viewed the diagnosis through the lens of an athlete. She compares cancer to when you race poorly, see a time on the results sheet you don't like. Walters says, “There's always things you could do differently. You figure it out.” Doctors told her that she should expect not to run though. And the only thing she knew about cancer treatment was from movies like Terms of Endearment. Chemotherapy seemed like it would be awful. Walters looked for examples of athletes who’d trained through cancer: Lance Armstrong (“obviously,” she says) and Olympian Chaunte Lowe. She said, “Well, if they can do it, I can do it.”
In September 2020, Walters finished her first chemotherapy session and immediately went for a five mile run. They gave her a drug before treatment, so that her body wasn’t inflamed. “No inflammation for a runner is amazing. I was on this high,” she says. Walters sweated out some of the toxins and ran as many as 50 miles a week during chemotherapy. Her doctors couldn't believe it, as cancer can drain people of their energy and dampen their spirit. Walters couldn’t believe how hard it was to find stories of athletes who ran through cancer.
Running has a reputation as an activity for solitude seekers, but the Santa Monica running community was vital to Walters's recovery. She didn’t run fast, but she showed up. She ran with The Janes until the day before her surgery, taking five weeks to heal and ran the day after she got her draining tubes out, running ever since. Walters wants the process to be more visible, whether that means writing a book, or blogging, or even making Instagram posts. “Everybody who's going through cancer could benefit from knowing you don't have to sit at home and be sick and sad,” she says.
She, along with Fischer, have developed strong relationships across LA through the running scene. Fischer recognized she has a lot of experience that she can transfer to others. “I want to share it,” she says. Racing is an undeniable part of The Janes coach’s zany nature. In 1989, Fischer ran the LA marathon as a favor; her friend couldn’t run so Fischer completed a spontaneous marathon in 3hrs in her bib, on what she calls, “hardly any training.” She also owns a Master’s record in 4x800. “I train so that I can still compete. I'm always gonna be a competitor. That has never stopped since day one,” she says.
Today, Fischer continues to run for a few reasons. She has a really high energy level – if she doesn’t run in the morning, she’s scattered. “I have done something good for my body. I've done something good for my mind. I've built my community,” says Fischer. “For sanity, you know?” She doesn’t make judgments on the pace. Fischer focuses on what she already has, which is “a body that's functioning.” This attitude of appreciation has carried over to the team.
Walters has to take medication for the next five years, which isn’t exactly conducive to marathon running. One of the common side effects is shortness of breath. “It’s not always fun to run when you feel the effects of it,” she says. With lighthearted gratitude, and a focus on shorter distances like the 5K, she celebrates being alive and running. Walters has even taken up cross country and trail races. “I found a new thing in our sport that I never thought that I'd ever do,” she says. Walters has learned she loves running for more than the PRs, but admits, she still reminisces over old times on her Garmin when she’s bored. “I shouldn't do that. Comparing my old self to my new self,” she says. “There's no comparison.”
Near Ocean Park Boulevard, Fischer and Walters run up the same hill almost every day. Unlike the futility of Sisyphus, the women each have to run up a huge hill to get home. Walters remembers getting up the hill during chemotherapy and having to walk. “I just thought if I can't make it up this hill, how am I gonna…” But all forward movement, of any kind, matters. Now when Walters runs beside Fischer, she’s not even out of breath. Walters says, “It makes me emotional because I remember I couldn't even do it before.”
She sees where she was, where she wants to go and how she’ll get there. That’s how Fischer built her team. That’s how Walters will make an epic return to racing. And it’s how they both arrive home. Every step counts.