Why we should all be Running Equal

Women being able to officially compete in longer distances is a surprisingly recent development. At the 1928 Olympics some women who competed in the 800m collapsed at the finish line (a not uncommon sight today), and the New York Times said that “even this distance makes too great a call on feminine strength”. It led to women not being allowed to compete at distances longer than 200m in the Olympics for the next 32 years.

Unbelievably, it then wasn’t until 1972 that women were allowed to “officially” run the Boston Marathon, after trailblazers like Bobbi Gibb and Kathrine Switzer were breaking the (ridiculous) rules by running without registering or entering using only their initials so that the male organisers wouldn’t realise they were female and start worrying about uteruses littering the course. The women’s marathon wasn’t introduced into the Olympics until 1984.

But it’s 2020, so this has all been consigned to the history books right? With people like Jasmin Paris winning the 268 mile Spine Race, there’s no way women would be running lesser distances than their male counterparts. We know our uteruses can cope (the plucky little blighters).

And on the whole, this is the case. Just not in the Cross-Country sphere. In XC, women are generally running shorter distances than men. Case in point at the recent Cambs AA XC Championships, where women run around 5.8km, and the men run 10km. This is even less than the National recommended standard of 8km for women (which is bad enough). But for those women who then get called up to run for the county at the Inter Regionals, they will find the distances equalised, and be expected to run 10km when they’ve qualified at only a little over half the required distance.

The IAAF have equalised the distances run in the World Cross-Country Championships, and Scottish Athletics have done the same for their national championships. So what gives for the English counties? My friend and clubmate Charlotte has been giving her all to the RunEqual movement for some time, including writing open letters to gather signatures from local clubs, and some of the reasons she’s been given by Cambs AA for not equalising the distances have been gobsmacking. They have tried to argue that the timetable won’t allow for the change (whilst ignoring the idea that everyone could perhaps be equalised to 8km – the time saved on the men’s race would allow for the extra time needed for the women’s) or that a longer distance race would mean fewer entries and would increase costs to participants.

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But what I saw in the lead up to the Cambs AA (where Charlotte was threatened with disqualification if she went through with her plan to peacefully run the men’s distance in protest with myself and some clubmates) and what happened at the County Championships race really showed how bad the attitudes of these associations can be. Charlotte had received confirmation ahead of the Championships that it had been agreed that from 2021, work would be done to ensure women are given the opportunity to run the same distance as men, should they wish. It felt like a huge step forward and we were looking forward to racing with this news in mind and our RunEqual ribbons pinned to our tops. But the attitude on the day did not give this impression at all.

It turned out that Cambs AA had done little to communicate to local running clubs that there was an intention to look at equalising the distances. So it was quite a surprise to the majority of the senior women who, as they lined up for the start of the race, heard one of the officials start telling them that at the end of the run, they would all be given a token to put in a pot to decide whether to keep running at 5.8km or step up to 10km. The tone of this announcement was very much along the lines of “you may be aware that the women’s race is going to be increased”, like it was a decision that had already been made thanks to a small number of “meddling women”. There was zero mention of equality.

Sad little voting pot

This goes massively against the RunEqual movement in so many ways. Firstly, it’s not necessarily about women running longer. It’s about either opening up both distances to both genders or choosing an equal distance. Maybe men run a little less. Maybe women run a little more. Maybe women run quite a bit more. On a fundamental level an open conversation needs to be had to see which option is the best for all concerned. Secondly, if there is going to be a vote, it should be opened up to all athletes, not just women. And thirdly, if you ask a bunch of women who have just given their everything on a tough, muddy XC race if they would like to run further, of course a lot of them in that moment will say no – they’re knackered and very few people would relish the idea of running further the second they’ve just busted a gut sprinting for a finish line.

And the icing on this misogynistic cake? The moment when the official, speaking about increasing the women’s race to 10km, uttered the immortal words:

“But you don’t want to do that, do you ladies?”

FFS.

What does this sort of attitude tell our young female athletes? It’s bad enough that the senior male race is ALWAYS before the women’s race and treated as the main event. And it’s bad enough that the officials on the day forgot to give out or even announce the winners for the 2nd and 3rd place veteran women’s teams, and again treated me like a “meddling woman” when I asked about it. Both Norfolk and Suffolk counties have managed to equalise their distances, so we know it can be done. But sadly, many of the Athletics Associations are boys’ clubs, run by people who are set in their ways and have never been made to feel lesser because of their gender.

And it goes beyond counties too. The attitudes of the English Cross Country Association representatives on Facebook are fist-gnawingly bad on this matter. Speaking of the recent Home Countries International in Stirling they snarkily said that “the Senior Men ran a little shorter than most are used to, running 8K as the Senior Women also did” rather than perhaps just stating that the seniors ran the same distance. They then began to attack anyone who spoke of the RunEqual movement, with one choice comment saying “we would prefer that you did not use our posts to further your cause, which generally is a minority view, judging by all the research that has been undertaken.” All the research? Please, let’s see it. Because until 2 weeks ago I certainly hadn’t been asked my opinion on the matter, and the only reason my opinion was asked on the day is because Charlotte pushed for it. If this is the attitude coming from the national association, can we really expect things to change on a county level?

I’m not sure how things will look at the 2021 Cambs AA XC Championships, but I will continue to support Charlotte in everything she does to make change happen. She has already offered to lead a working group on the matter to no avail. And if that change doesn’t come, perhaps we’ll both be running the men’s distance in 2021 anyway, proudly wearing our RunEqual ribbons. It’s not quite on the same scale as Bobbi Gibb and Kathrine Switzer, but this is our Boston marathon.

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Sprinting to put my token in the 10k pot

Why Sport Needs Feminists

So last week I was watching the BBC 2 show Icons, which was celebrating the achievements of some of the greatest figures of the 20th century. The shortlist was made up of men, and Clare Balding made a really astute comment on why this might be the case. When asked if she was surprised no women made the shortlist, she said:

“I wasn’t surprised, disappointed but not surprised because I think you can’t be an icon unless you are allowed to have the limelight and I think the 20th century largely was the history of men told by men”.

I love Clare Balding, and so I tweeted a condensed version of her speech, saying “YASSSSSS ! Brilliant summary of why no women made the shortlist. The 20th century was a history of men as told by men.”

Clare Balding

And boy oh boy did that tweet get some attention (by my standards). I got accused of “moaning”,  was asked to name one woman who was worthy (ROSA FREAKING PARKS), got told that men are the reason my life is so good and was told that feminism is killing our culture. When I challenged this last point (made by someone who considers themselves an egalitarian rather than a feminist) I was told that women in the west “are vastly more privileged than men” and that feminists are “smashing western civilisation”.

I’m always interested in the opinions of others and so I did a bit of reading around feminism vs. egalitarianism (this article by Beth Turnbull was particularly useful), and after some research I still consider myself a feminist.  To quote Beth’s article:

“Egalitarianism is not an alternative to feminism. It’s like saying, “Why worry about exercise? Why not just worry about health?” You can’t really have one without the other. And don’t get me wrong—there’s nothing wrong with egalitarianism. It is simply a broader view of the fight for equality. Feminism is a narrower focus of that view; a focus on bringing women up to the same places men have been for years.”

So why am I mentioning all this in a fitness blog? Because a couple of days after this debate on Twitter, I saw a new petition on my timeline called #SeeSportyBeSporty by Totally Runable, calling for sports coverage in the media to be more gender equal. Despite the 2012 Olympics, where women won one third of all British medals, currently less than 3% of photographs of sport in the newspapers show women playing sport. and this article from 2014 shows that just 3% of sports articles at that time were about women as well. So this is where feminism comes in – not to tear down men, but to raise up the stories of women doing incredible things in sport (and all other sectors for that matter).

SeeSportyBeSporty

So we need to push for change – for more coverage of women in sport (you can sign the #SeeSportyBeSporty petition here) so that young girls can see themselves represented across the board. We need to keep shouting about the achievements of women like Jasmin Paris, Desi Linden, Dina Asher-Smith, Laura Muir, Jo Pavey and countless others (I’m focusing on runners here as that’s my passion but there are so many women doing incredible things in sport). When I google “Boston Marathon winner” I want the first result to name both Yuki Kawauchi (who I think is brilliant BTW) AND Desi Linden. We need to push for equal coverage and call out aging white men who write articles for crappy newspapers claiming that women’s sport is not as good as men’s and that’s why they don’t deserve equal coverage. And we need to keep telling the stories of female 20th century sporting icons like Tanni Gray-Thompson, Kathrine Switzer, Bobbi Gibb, Joan Benoit and many more. Because their stories are incredible, exciting and inspirational, just like the men’s stories are.

And I know this is ever so slightly off-topic, but this is a good time to shout out to Dr Jess Wade, who has written literally hundreds of Wikipedia entries for women in science (as well as other underrepresented groups) whose achievements have been overlooked in the past, in the hope of attracting more girls in to STEM in the future. Awesome stuff.

My Running Heroes

So after watching Paula Radcliffe run her final London Marathon last month (in a frankly ridiculous time after her foot surgery three years ago that had her in a mobility scooter worrying that she would never run again) I’ve been thinking about the people who inspire me in my running. It’s not easy for me to whittle it down to just five at this point in time, but that seems like a sensible number so let’s go with it for now.

PAULA RADCLIFFE

Since Paula is the inspiration behind this blog post it’s only right that I start with her. Chances are you know as much about Paula as I do, but the thing I love about her is that when you hear her in interviews she seems like the most unassuming, sweet, quiet person you could ever meet, but underneath it all this woman is pure steel and a running legend. How else could she do her London Marathon swansong amongst the muggles (deciding not to run with the “elite” athletes) at age 41 in 2:36:55, finishing in a time that was just 5 minutes slower than the leading British female runner Sonia Samuels? And she called herself “unprepared”. What an absolute machine.

Amazing PaulaPaula won the London Marathon in 2002, 2003 and 2005, and her 2003 winning time of 2:15:25 remains the world record. The 2015 winner, Tigist Tufa, finished in 2:23:22, 8 minutes off Paula’s record time. So 12 years later, and people still aren’t coming close to beating her. Astounding.

KATHRINE SWITZER

Now if you haven’t heard of the awesome Kathrine Switzer, I’m here to educate you on her brilliance, namely her being the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as a numbered runner in 1967, 5 years before women were officially allowed to run it. What a badass.

To press the importance of this on you, did you know that as recently as the 1960s, it was claimed that women couldn’t run a distance of 26.2 miles because their uterus might fall out and their (gasp!) legs might get big? Anything over 800m was considered de-feminising, and this gives you an idea of the kind of crap women like Kathrine had to put up with. The women’s marathon didn’t even become part of the Olympic games until 1984, (the men’s featured in the first Olympic games in 1896).

For the 1967 Boston Marathon, the rulebook didn’t state “no women”; it was just assumed that no woman would want to run it. So she signed up as K.V. Switzer, and ran as number 261. As she was running, her “ruse” (if it can even be called that) was discovered, and race official Jock Semple tried to drag her off the course, allegedly shouting “get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!” Her boyfriend, Tom Miller, who was running with her, shoved Semple aside and sent him flying, allowing her to proceed. You can read her full account of the event here.

Switzer Warrior 1  Switzer Warrior 2

Kathrine went on to finish the race in 4:20 (her PB is 2:51:37), and spent the next five years alongside other runners convincing the Boston Athletic Association to allow women to participate in the marathon, succeeding in 1972. Most surprisingly, Semple (the angry bald fella in the dark clothing in the photos) had a change of heart, and was instrumental in this formal admission of female runners.

Kathrine published a book called Marathon Woman which went on to win the Billie Award for journalism for its inspiring portrayal of women in sports. She was also inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2011 for creating a social revolution by empowering women around the world through running.

JO PAVEY

In my opinion, Jo is quite frankly the Queen of showing the kids how it’s done. After 26 years on the track and being an excellent athlete who never quite managed to get to the top of her game on an international stage (although with a hefty national medal haul under her belt), she is now bringing home Gold medals in her early forties, beating women who are literally half her age, at a time when plenty of other women would be winding down their exercise regime as their lives – and indeed their bodies – change.

Jo Pavey

In 2014, Jo unexpectedly (her words, not mine) won Gold in the 10,000m at the European championships, making her the oldest female European champion in history at the age of 40 years and 325 days. Writing for Runner’s World UK, she said “I now find myself looking ahead to 2015 with no thoughts of retirement. It’s pleasing, as I’m enjoying running and there are still things I would like to achieve.” And this is Jo in a nutshell. Humble but determined, knowing that there is a lot of hard work ahead of her but completely prepared for the challenge.  This is why I (and many others) voted for her in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. I never usually vote for things like that, but she inspired me into picking up the phone for her, and I was so delighted when she came third.

Plus I should add that she’s also a bit of a sugar junkie like me. Not something to be proud of (I’m working on reducing my intake!) but good to know I have something in common with her. Haribo anyone?

MO FARAH

Now I’m not going to waste your time or mine telling you about Mo’s amazing London 2012 Olympic successes as part of Super Saturday. That isn’t the reason Mo is on my list. The reason he’s here is because rather than resting on his laurels and saying “yup, I’m the best at the 5,000m and the 10,000, that’ll do” he instead went “NO! I WANT MORE!”. He’s basically the Veruca Salt of running.

Veruca Salt

So even though he had his naysayers who thought he should stick to what he knows best, Mo decided to focus more on half marathon and marathon distances. Along comes 2014 and in April he finished the London Marathon in eighth place in a time of 2:08.21, setting a new English national record, and then in August he successfully defended his 5,000m title and won a gold in the 10,000m in Zürich at the 2014 European Athletics Championships. Just another major championship double then. Then to cap it all off, in September he won the Great North Run in a personal best time of 1:00:00, exactly. What. A. Legend. I’ll even forgive him those Quorn ads because I like him and actually, I rather like Quorn too. Plus he has the best winning face ever. Fact.

Mo Farah Wins

STACY McGIVERN (AKA MY BIG SISTER)

First of all, she’s going to kill me for this, but I provide her with cake so I reckon I can placate her with a hefty wedge of tiffin.

Stacy has been an athlete roughly since the age of 14 or so. I remember when I used to accompany her on Sunday evenings to Comberton Village College Sports Hall to train with George Hibberd, and I would have a bash at the hurdles whilst Stace would nail the high jump on the other side of the hall. She was always willing to have her annoying little sister tag along (basically I wanted to hang out with her and this was the best way despite the fact that I was utterly useless) whilst she did her serious training, becoming an expert across so many disciplines (Triple Jump being her speciality). Her medal haul is ridiculous, and now as a (cough) veteran woman, she is still at the top of her game. This is exhibited by her result in the Cambs County Championships on Saturday afternoon, where after joking that she would at least get a medal as there were only 3 athletes in her 400m race, she went on to beast her opponents, finishing in 61.97 (which was only 2.3 seconds behind the 18 year old won her race).

Stacy Power

If you Google Stacy’s name or check her out on the Power of 10 website, you’ll get an idea of how much she’s won over the years (and how many times they’ve spelt her name wrong – there’s no “e” FYI). Last year, she also won the Peterborough Athletic Club Senior Woman award for Field. And on a personal level, having tried 400m and 800m distances myself recently, my respect for Stacy has gone through the roof, because those distances are tough. I just wish I’d done a better job of supporting her in the past, but hopefully I can make up for it now, even if she did say “Oh for God’s sake!” when she saw me turn up to watch her this weekend. I’m going to assume it was a pleasant surprise.

Stacy is one of the most modest athletes you’ll ever meet, and she probably has no idea how much she inspires me (more so than the other four athletes on this list), but I hope I can continue to improve and to share those experiences with her, as we talk about our races, most likely over cake.