That time I represented my county

So, a few hours after representing Cambridgeshire for the first time at the Inter Regionals Cross Country event in Loughborough, I think my disappointment at my performance has finally settled enough for me to get my thoughts written down.

Holy mother forking shirtballs that was hard.

I knew stepping up to this level was going to be tough. I knew I would probably be near the back. I knew the terrain would be unlike anything I’ve ever done before. I knew, I knew, I knew. And yet I didn’t.

After a little over a 2-hour drive with my clubmate (and constant source of inspiration) Gemma, who would be running in the under 17s girls’ race, and her mum Sue, also an Ely Runner who is one of the most committed representatives (and cheerleaders!) for the club I know, we turned up about 90 minutes before my race and located the Cambridgeshire flag so that we could get our numbers. This was when the first disappointment struck – 2 of the women weren’t coming, which meant we didn’t have have enough senior women running to field a scoring team. We needed 6, but we only had 4. In some ways it felt like the pressure was off, but in another, I was so disappointed not to be able to score for my county. I had said to Gemma in the car that the worst thing that could happen was if someone bailed, as I was then travelling 80-odd miles each way, to do a race that was so far out of my comfort zone that it was practically a dot on the horizon, and for it not to make a difference.

But after chatting with my teammates Kayleigh, Elisabeth and Sarah, we all agreed that we could at least enjoy it and treat it as a training run. And I genuinely planned to do the former. Honestly. I really, truly wanted to.

But I hated nearly every second of it.

The course was unlike anything I had ever experienced. Half the course was deep, boggy mud that gripped onto my ankles like a drowning man grabbing at a buoy, sucking at my shoes and succeeding in taking one off a couple of miles from the end (I wasn’t the only victim of this judging by the abandoned spikes littering the course), losing me valuable time as I battled to shove it back on. The gaps we had between the boggiest sections offered little in the way of respite, and knowing that I had to do two laps meant that I wanted to quit time and time again, certain I couldn’t possibly make my legs fight through that mire again.  And I barely could. I lost count of the number of times I had to stop to walk up the inclines, the fight to keep tears back as I felt like I was letting myself and the county down by losing the mental battle cross country represents.

The worst part was when my watch buzzed the 6 mile mark and I realised that the run was going to be significantly more than the 10km it was meant to be. This is when the need for the RunEqual campaign really hit home. It’s hard enough to qualify at 5.8km for a 10km race but for a 11.25km race? That’s nearly double. At least if we had qualified at 10km that extra 1.25km may not have been so daunting (although how British Athletics over-measured by that much I’ll never know). Come on Cambridgeshire – how can you expect to field a strong senior women team if the discrepancy between what we’re doing at a local level and the county level is so huge? THIS is why we need to be equalising our distances.

I did at least manage to finish strong, but that’s what desperation to end a nightmare will do to you. After a successful Frostbite XC at Huntingdon last week I had honestly thought I might be able to do something special, but instead I crossed the line in 56:41, 205th runner out of a field of 254, managing an average pace of around 8.07 per mile. I was devastated.

BUT – this isn’t all doom and gloom. It takes a chat with your best friends/sister/partner to give things a bit of context. Firstly – I’ve never run 10km (or 11.25km!) of cross country before. I’m a 5km road runner through and through. Also, I was only 4 minutes behind Kayleigh and 2 minutes behind Sarah, both senior women while I’m (ahem) a veteran. And I didn’t quit. Despite EVERYTHING in my body telling me to, I made it to the finish. Not everyone did. I think the thing I’m most gutted about is the fact I had to stop and walk numerous times. I lost the mental battle, and I need to work out what I can do to stop that from happening again.

I may never compete for Cambridgeshire again. Let’s face it – the older I get the less likely I am to be considered. So I’m disappointed that possibly the one time I don that blue vest the result is not what I wanted or what I believe I’m capable of. But at least I was there, and at least I have that vest and a story to tell. And perhaps more importantly, a few lessons learned.

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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