Run, girl, run

This International Women’s Day, I have been thinking about my experiences as a female runner.

It was only 50 years ago that Kathrine Switzer grabbed headlines by entering and completing the Boston Marathon. What stunned the world was that race officials tried to physically stop her and force her off course 2 miles in, but her teammates from Syracuse fought them off and she completed the race.

She ran the marathon at a time when it was thought that women were too fragile to run long distances, that they would suddenly acquire male features such as big legs and facial hair, and that their uterus would fall out should they attempt to train for and run an event such as the marathon. Switzer was a catalyst in challenging the ridiculous perception that women were physically incapable of running long distances.

It would take another 5 years for women to be allowed to compete in the Boston Marathon, and another 17 years before the first women’s Olympic Marathon event took place. In between, some extraordinary work was done to drive a change in attitudes towards women’s long-distance running for the better.

When I realise this, I feel immensely grateful and lucky to be able to enter and run a marathon with no disadvantage based on my gender today. The tireless effort inspiring individuals like Switzer have put into giving me and other women the right to run alongside men in races is enough to make me get out of bed at 6 a.m., lace up, brave the cold and the dark, and run.

We still have a long way to go. In some parts of the world, women are still battling for that same right.

Progress is also slow to come by in other aspects of running for women. A survey of 1,036 Runner’s World magazine readers has uncovered some disturbing statistics about harassment while running, and women are experiencing it more than men by a long mile.

On several occasions while out running, I have experienced unwelcome and unwarranted comments from groups of men, stares, car horns beeping as they drive by… I was even followed a couple of weeks ago. These all constitute ways of making a woman feel as though the public space in which she chooses to carry out the *outrageous* act of running – a space in which she is as entitled as anyone else to feel secure and free to use  – will always be unsafe to a certain degree. As much as I will myself not to allow them to get to me, I can never fully focus on my running. Instead, my attention has to drift to think of ways in which I can avoid the harassment.

A book I recently ordered about running routes in London opened my eyes to just how backward some people still are when it comes to women’s running. The book has an introductory section on safety for women running in London. It offers the ever-popular tip of running in a group or at least with a running buddy. As helpful as this would be, I feel I am hard-pressed to find someone who lives in my area, who is willing to wake up at a stupid hour, and who runs at roughly the same pace as I do. Besides, I prefer training alone.

The next golden rule to avoid potentially unsafe situations: ‘Wear loose-fitting clothing’. Words fail me when I read rubbish like this, especially in a book that was published – wait for it – in 2015! For the umpteenth time: why are we still blaming disgusting behaviour against women on women’s clothing?! I wear leggings when I run because it is comfortable – not because I’m looking to impress anyone. And the author’s final words of advice for women who run: ‘Interpret whistles as compliments’. I’ll be the judge of what I deem complimentary, thanks, and I shall not accept unwanted and uninvited attention.

Today and every day, women should be allowed to run as, when and where they please. Not just in London or Boston, but all over the world. It is vital to recognise the work that has been done and the work that remains to be done in challenging the setbacks women face when they make the choice to run. What the pioneers of women’s distance running have taught us is that forcing the wider public to rethink the status quo is a powerful thing. Powerful enough, sometimes, to spark tangible change.