This morning, out jogging down the Chesterfield canal, I saw a man running ahead of me with his headphones on. He was going more slowly than me, so soon I’d caught him up. I jogged by, giving him plenty of space. A few minutes later, the man sprinted past me, barging me with his shoulder (accidentally, I guess):
“WE CAN’T HAVE THAT,” he shouted. “WE CAN’T HAVE THAT.”
He legged it down the towpath, only to slow down as he got to the bridge.
I’ve been running for athletics clubs since I was twelve years old, so this kind of behaviour is nothing new to me. When I was a teenager, I won a fell race and watched as the winner of the men’s category was presented with money while I was ceremoniously handed a set of casserole dishes. A few years ago in the gruelling 21 mile Red Bull steeplechase across the Peak District, I was running beside one of the other top ten runners in the women’s race and as we passed a male runner he yelled: “do you know how embarrassing it is being ‘chicked’?”
(From http://www.chicked.com: CHICKED: -verb. The act of getting passed by a. female athlete. CHICK: -noun. The female who just passed you.)
At a speed session in Sheffield once, I overheard a man I was training with say that he wished he was a woman so that he would place higher in races and get prizes. He seemed to assume that he’d transfer exactly the same physiognomy to his new running category. Presumably, he’d also enjoy racing a marathon on a day when he was almost doubled up with period pain, worrying about whether he’d need to stop and change a tampon in a race he wanted to win. He’d relish training with sore breasts. And he’d love going out and routinely getting heckled – a survey of 2,000 female runners recently showed that one third have received some kind of sexual harassment while running alone. When I’ve been out training, I’ve been beeped at my vans and faced taunts of ‘get your legs out’ and ‘you’ve got no tits’ (which was at least original). This is very mild compared to other women’s experiences.
As someone who has often put running at the centre of my life, I’ve been guilty of responding to this everyday, low level sexism in athletics with an unhealthy streak of competitiveness. In the past, abuse has just made me determined to run faster than men, prove myself. The trouble is, I take it out on my body and start punishing myself. The more competitive I become as a runner, the more I convince myself I’m too fat, that I won’t run faster unless I eat less, lose weight, attain a mythical, perfect physique.
That kind of response just doesn’t interest me any more. I want to enjoy running for its own sake and for the places it takes me to. This morning, I could very easily have caught up with the man who shouldered me out of the way. I could have sailed past him without breaking a sweat. But what would be the point? After two decades in the sport, these instances are so commonplace they just leave me a bit resigned.
My last collection ‘No Map Could Show Them’ contains a poem dedicated to trail-blazing Katherine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston marathon. Here’s to inspirational female runners like her, whatever speed they run at.
What Will Happen
for Katherine Switzer
If I run too far, too quickly, my breasts
will drop to my kneecaps and my uterus will fall out.
My light hair will grow heavy,
My hips will drag along the floor.
Don’t I know the rules of gravity?
Didn’t they teach me what my body was
at school? I should be stowed
away from direct sunlight, saved from rain.
Who told me it was possible
to run out of my skin,
outsprint the stewards,
on the Boston sidewalk
for the world to catch up?