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

An Evening with Mara Yamauchi

First of all, apologies that it’s taken me so long to write about the evening I spent with marathon runner and Olympian Mara Yamauchi at Anglia Ruskin University – I blame the death cold from hell that has taken over my life and left me mostly sofa bound for a good few days. Never a happy situation for an athlete who likes to be on the move.

So, on the 18th January I – along with a handful of Ely Runners – went to a free talk organised by the Greater Cambridge Athletics Network (GCAN). For those of you who don’t know her (and there are a depressingly large number of those who don’t, given her achievements), Mara Yamauchi is the second-fastest British woman to run a marathon (I don’t think I need to tell you who the fastest is) in a time of 2:23:12. She also came in 6th at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2nd in the 2009 London Marathon. That’s a snapshot of a pretty impressive running resume.

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Photo of Mara thanks to the BBC

As I settled into a jam-packed lecture hall, the first thing I noticed about Mara was how petite she is – powerhouses can come in deceptively small packages sometimes. The second thing was just how she clearly lived and breathed running. On her own website she says “My life’s passion is running. From a very early age, growing up in Nairobi, Kenya, I loved doing sports and being outdoors. At age 11, inspired by the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, I decided that I was going to be an Olympian.” Her passion for her sport filled the room extremely quickly, and she quickly made her audience warm to her by threatening latecomers with 50 push ups!

For those of us who were hoping that there was some simple formula to becoming a world class runner, we were left unsurprisingly disappointed. It takes commitment, serious hard work, S&C, good nutrition, good recovery and the ability to really listen to your body. Mara admitted that she was extremely lucky that running could be her full time job, and sympathised with those of us having to fit our training around family lives and working hours. But she still managed to give us some tips that we could all take away with us, regardless of whether we planned to run 5k, 10k, 21k or 42k and beyond:

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Mara charms her audience

TRAINING

  • You need to steadily increase your training. If you increase the FIT – frequency, intensity and time (length) of your runs all at once you’re more likely to get injured.
  • Your runs should consist of three key sessions – a long run, a threshold run and long intervals (more than 4 minutes).
  • Hill training is great for strength bio-mechanics – increasing the amount of blood per beat of your heart. But she did admit that hill training is tricky around here – she favours San Moritz!
  • Strength training is an important part of any runner’s training schedule. It’s essential for injury prevention and ensuring you hold your form over long distances. The priority with this is glutes – think the clam and leg raises (some helpful images can be found here).
  • The pulling back motion of the arm is extremely important and will help make your running more efficient – work on it.
  • Always try and refuel within 20 minutes of training. A protein milkshake is ideal.
  • An elliptical is good for cross training.

RACES:

  • If you’re planning to run a marathon, you should aim for a 2o mile run 4 weeks before.
  • Races are excellent as part of a training schedule (i.e. a 10k if you’re training for a half.
  • Before a race, check the course and consider your logistics i.e. how you’re getting there. This gives you less to worry about on race day.
  • Nerves are a natural part of racing, and the adrenaline is useful so try and work with it.

These are just some of the tips I noted down in my slightly befuddled cold-y state, but hopefully you’ll find one or two of them useful. Mara also recommended a couple of books – Anatomy for Runners and Strength and Conditioning for Endurance Running – well worth a look if you’re a bookish type like me!

Also, if you get the chance, read up a bit more about Mara. She’s an inspirational lady who simply loves to run, but also isn’t afraid to speak her mind, especially on the recent scandals rocking athletics.