At around 5pm on October 28th 2018, the day the clocks went back in Britain, I pulled on my running shoes and left the house. My usual route follows a seven-mile (11km) loop. It starts in the medieval walled city of York, going south on good, firm cycle paths, then on to boggier trails and through a small wood to the nearby village of Bishopthorpe, returning via a few suburban alleys, across a race-course and a paved riverside path. It is flat and untroubled by cars, and I do it once or twice each week, taking one hour and one, two, sometimes even three minutes. As long as it’s not my turn to put my children to bed and I get changed the minute I stop work, I can run and be home before sunset. But on the day the clocks changed, I misjudged things and at 5pm it was already dark. No matter. I shrugged myself into a high-viz vest, donned reflective arm- and ankle-bands, stretched my new head-torch around my forehead, and left the house.
I’ve run for over a decade, since my mid-20s. When I started it brought me little pleasure. I had been running for only a couple of weeks – short bursts, on treadmills – when I decided to jog eight miles along the road from a holiday cottage in the Yorkshire Dales to the nearest town. I wore an ancient pair of Converse and arrived in Pateley Bridge with acute achilles tendonitis.
But I kept running. It fed my tendency to link worth with quantification. I valued things that could be enumerated and their progress measured. I relished the data: the distances, personal bests, calories burnt. But I found running physically unpleasant. My hip and knee would hurt. I would take ever more ibuprofen to get through a half-marathon, until I could no longer run through the pain and had to stop. I ran because I felt like I should be a runner. But because it hurt and I was never as fast as I wanted to be, my runs were suffused with a sense of failure.
Only after having children in my mid-30s did running become something else. Unexpectedly, seven months of enforced rest during pregnancy, and physiotherapy for pelvic misalignment and pain, dealt with my niggles. Running again, I felt good as new. I swapped road running for softer paths to protect my pelvis. At first I ran around the muddy perimeter of our local London park, then delved into Epping Forest. When we moved up to York, I discovered the North York Moors and the delights of longer distances across flowering purple heather, through ancient woodlands, and along cliffs cascading down to apricot beaches. And running offered freedom. A day in the hills was rare, precious time in charge of my body and mind, when I could be alone without a child clamouring for sweets or bum-wiping or “Paw Patrol”.
I discovered that running up and down hills, vaulting tree roots and crunching along forest paths come with genuine, unquantifiable physical pleasures: clean, sharp air in hard-working lungs. A sudden downpour on parched salty skin. A cold pint in a lakeside pub after a summer run, and a cup of tea and toasted teacake in a village café in winter. The miraculous release from gravity’s pull at the top of a hill, followed by a childlike caper down the other side, with arms outstretched like a plane.
On October 28th the first mile took me along cycle paths, yellow in the glare of street lamps. It was the perfect temperature, just cold enough to slice through the torpor left by a day spent in a centrally heated, fluorescent-lit office. Running brought me back to my body, as if I possessed the liquid soul which the Greek Stoics called pneuma and it was trickling back into me, pushing up against the inside of my skin and inflating me with life. It felt wonderful.
After the first mile, my route diverged onto a track that banked onto empty fields below. A small aperture ahead turned silver in the light of my headtorch, but all around was unvariegated charcoal. My stomach lurched and my heart rate increased. I kicked up my heels faster, hurdling clods and tussocks to the next stile. “Am I an idiot”, I wondered, “to have come out here, in the dark, alone?”
When I run, I tend to meditate on uncomplicated things (paint colours for a room I’m decorating) or I work over mathematical puzzles (the time it will take me to finish an upcoming race, say). Sometimes these transmute into more fearful wonderings, like whether I will get home safely. I know that women are much more vulnerable to assault in their own homes than in dark alleys or parks. I know that by far the majority of rapes, assaults and murders of women are perpetrated by men known to them. I know that not all men are violent, but I also know that in 2017-18 in Britain 93% of those prosecuted for violence against women and girls were men. And I know of women attacked or murdered while running: among them Karina Vetrano, Mollie Tibbetts, Wendy Martinez, all since 2016. Women may be more at risk in the home, but they aren’t necessarily safe outside it, either.
My fear is not all in my head. I have twice been chased by men as I ran. One jogged beside me with a cigarette for nearly a mile, falling away when I sped off. The second was more sinister, and I had to duck into a stranger’s driveway and pretend to knock at the door. I’ve been surrounded by men on mopeds chanting “Cunt! Cunt! Cunt!” I’ve had cigarette smoke deliberately blown into my face, been spat at, tripped up, lunged at, and received heckles, cat-calls and honks: “You look like a paedophile in those leggings!”; “Can’t you run faster than that?”; “Give us a smile, love!”
I am not alone. “Female runners,” I tweeted not long ago, “would you run alone in the dark?” Stories flooded in: a woman who runs at night only if her neighbours are home to watch for her return. Women who stopped running in the dark after being grabbed or followed or encouraged to get into strangers’ cars, then stopped running alone in the day after facing similar intimidation, and then stopped running altogether. Women who run alone only if accompanied by a dog or rape alarm or, in America, mace or even a gun carried in a sporty holster under a running skirt. Running’s emotional windfalls couple a sense of profound freedom with moments of euphoric joy. But for me they are always cut through with the fear that as I run alone, a man will abduct, rape, attack or murder me.
So, as the dark path spilled onto a nearby village’s high street, and propelled me through squares of light from pubs and fish-and-chip shops, I sighed, relieved. But soon I was back in the blackness, running through an alley onto an unlit cycle path bordering deep fields. In the distance, a small bright light swooped closer: a cyclist. “Thank god,” I thought, “a chaperone.” But then I doubled back: “Oh shit, no, maybe he’s a rapist?” Panicky, I tried to rationalise away my fear. From a distance, perhaps I was not distinguishable as a woman? But I’m not tall and the height of my head-torch probably gave me away. Perhaps I could outrun him? But I could not outrun a bike.
As we passed one another, I kept my gaze down, reluctant to make eye contact. My fear was disproportionate, but not groundless. How do you calibrate fear to a small but nonetheless existent risk? What is the appropriate level of fear to feel that you probably, but not certainly, won’t be attacked? How do you make yourself less afraid anyway?
The freedom that running promises is complicated for many women. It is often hard-won, limited in scope, perhaps squeezed into brief chinks in a week dominated by the second shift of child care or housework, or tinged with the guilt of temporarily abandoning those duties. The freedom of leaving the house unburdened by anything more than a key in the zip-pocket of your leggings is particularly meaningful for women used to the weight of handbags, buggies, changing bags stuffed with snacks and spare pants. And, as I had found when I was younger, running can be allied to social and psychological forces that inhibit and control us – anorexia, orthorexia, OCD – as much as it has the potential to free us from those forces.
On that particular run, I began to fantasise about a night-time male curfew. Without this fear, what would I do at night? Nothing very dramatic: simply allow my life to unfold into the full 24 hours of day and night. I’d run, anxiety-free, alone in a forest after dark. After a night out, I’d go straight to bed, without waiting up to hear that the female friends I’d been with were home safely. I wouldn’t double- and triple-check the locks on my windows and doors, as I’ve done every evening since I woke one night in my 20s to find an unknown man leaning over my bed, half-suspended through an unlocked window. I wouldn’t endlessly revisit memories of a childhood neighbour – a woman who lived alone – who was raped on the hottest night of the summer by a man who climbed onto her balcony and through her French windows. And I wouldn’t walk home with a makeshift weapon of keys wedged between my fingers, as I’ve done ever since, aged 14, we girls were taken aside at school and solemnly warned of the need to protect ourselves against rape – as if rape were an inevitable natural force, like black ice, and not the result of men’s decisions. (The boys were not subjected to cautionary sessions advising them not to rape women.)
In similar conversations on Twitter recently women have pondered what they would do if men disappeared for 24 hours. Thousands took part. Like me, many fantasised about wearing headphones or heels at night, leaving windows open, travelling home alone from gigs, forgoing bras under their clothes, booking Airbnbs in cheaper, less salubrious locations. But most often, women’s dreams were variations of being able to “walk alone at night, anywhere I wanted, and not be afraid” or “go for a run really late at night”. Their imaginings are striking in their banality.
After 12 more minutes running, the path I was on joined up with a road and then, home, safe! I stopped my watch: my average pace had been 15 seconds a kilometre faster than usual. I unlocked the front door. My heartbeat slowed and I sank on to the staircase’s bottom step. I thought that I probably wouldn’t run again off-road at night, on my own. Running, or rather not running, had become yet another adjustment that women make all year long in an attempt to avoid becoming victims of assault, adjustments that become more urgent in winter when our lives are constrained by the ever-shortening daylight hours. And look how I’m talking about this, as if what is wrong here is the shifting of the seasons, or the tilt of the Earth’s axis, or the decision in 1916 to move the clocks back in autumn to increase productivity in the morning – anything but the fact that some men deliberately intimidate and assault and kill women, and that one of the more minor but not insignificant outcomes of that fact is that so very many women do not run alone in the dark.
Men have long tried to control women’s running. In the 18th century thousands of spectators gawped at women running in “smock-races” (the prize was often a smock) at village fairs. In the 19th century men bet on female speed-walkers traipsing around tracks in pub gardens. Some running women – such as Greek mythology’s Atalanta, who killed the male suitors she outran – rejected the trappings of femininity. They challenged everything that kept them sexually submissive, physically dependent and domestically servile. No wonder men tried to control and limit them.
Some men would try to sabotage the female athletes’ feats. At a pub in Bradford in 1864, Emma Sharp, who was attempting to cover 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours, defended herself with pistols against men trying to win their bets by pressing chloroform-soaked cloths into her face. Others fared even worse. In 1874 a Wolverhampton farmer called James Alcock was convicted of assaulting Rebecca Richards, a competitive female runner.
Criticism came from other quarters too but the intent was the same: to stop women in their tracks. Journalists derided women’s foot-racing as “unnatural” and “dangerous”. This mirrored the rise of pseudo-scientific medical claims about women’s physiological and psychological frailty. As early as 1827, a medic warned that vigorous “exertion” in post-pubescent women threatened their reproductive health “by wearing out the powers of the body”. In 1928 newspapers reported the apparent collapse of female athletes on the finish line of the 800 metres at the Amsterdam Olympics: one journalist concluded that “women are not built physically to undergo the strain of races. Nature made them to bear children” – as if childbirth were a walk in the park. Women were then banned from Olympic events longer than 100 metres, roughly the length of a football pitch. As late as the 1970s, officials justified this exclusion on the basis that “women are too weak and fragile” and their “reproductive organs would get damaged.”
In 1967 Kathrine Switzer entered the male-only Boston Marathon under her initials, K.V. Switzer. Once the starting gun had been fired, race official Jock Semple realised that a woman was running and tried to manhandle her off the course, bellowing “Get the hell out of my race,” before Switzer’s male running partner shoved him aside. Switzer completed the run in 4 hours 20 minutes, disproving claims that women were too frail to run long distances. Boston Athletic Association director Will Cloney reacted by threatening “if that girl were my daughter, I would spank her.” But in 1972 the Boston Marathon directors capitulated and formally permitted women to run. Other marathons followed suit but change has been slow. Women’s distance-running events – those longer than 1,500 metres – were not included in the Olympics until 1984.
The history of women’s exclusion still hangs over the running world. Books on running typically feature a silhouette of a single, sleek male physique on the cover. Women are mostly invisible in the stories of bestsellers such as Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run”, a macho account of ultra-runners in Mexico and America. Those who do appear are scrutinised with the male gaze. In his memoir, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”, novelist Haruki Murakami depicts long-distance running as a serious test of mental and physical endurance closely aligned with novel writing. But only the men in his book are up to the task. Its women, with their “blonde hair in a ponytail, and brand-new iPods” are “more mentally cut out for brief runs at high speed.” “Still,” Murakami consoles himself, “it’s pretty wonderful to watch these pretty girls run.”
Women’s exclusion from running played on my mind in July last year in the Ultimate Trails race, a 55km route around England’s Lake District. Compared with other races in which I’ve participated, the number of women on the start line was unusually high. Female participation in running has steadily risen at all distances and levels since the 1980s. Women’s presence in ultra-distance trail races increased from about 5% of all contestants in the 1990s to around 20-25% today, but it is still well short of parity.
The cause and consequence of this imbalance is that most races are designed with men in mind. Rules and regulations are often based on the assumption that runners have male bodies. The 106-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) is one of the most famous and popular trail races in the world. Runners who achieve a rare, hard-won place and then develop an injury can defer to a later year. But female competitors who become pregnant or give birth are not offered a deferral and can obtain a refund only if the race occurs within 15 days of giving birth, after which women are considered to have returned to race form.
A photograph of a runner called Sophie Power at a checkpoint during the 2018 race, breast-feeding her three-month-old son while also expressing milk, went viral as a “powerful and positive” image of a mother’s autonomous identity and strength. Yet it also encapsulated the sexist inconsistency of the UTMB’s deferral policy. Power went to extraordinary lengths to compete: she put aside extra time for expressing; arranged to meet and feed her son during a long, often remote event; and raced that distance in the wake of a lighter training load during pregnancy, the physical exertion of childbirth, and the sleep deprivation that follows.
Long-distance races usually set “cut-offs”, deadlines by which runners must have passed certain points or finished. Cut-offs allow organisers and marshalls to pack up and re-open roads, but they also filter slower runners from the competition. At all levels, from amateur to elite, and at all distances, from 100 metres to 1,000 miles, men’s higher aerobic capacity, lower body fat, greater haemoglobin content and muscle mass, bigger hearts and larger proportion of fast-twitch muscles, make the average male runner around 10% quicker than the average female competitor (although this varies according to distance). So the more stringent the cut-off, the more disproportionately will female competitors be timed out or deterred from entering.
This phenomenon is visible in the annual Lakeland Trails marathon around Coniston in the Lake District. There are two versions: both are the same length, but one, the Challenge, has a liberal cut-off of eight hours, and the other, the Race, ends after only six. Female participation in the Challenge is high at around 50%. But it is only 25% in the Race, even though around half of female Challenge finishers typically complete in under six hours anyway. Sports-science studies confirm the obvious implication: men tend to overestimate their speediness but women do the opposite and underestimate their own abilities.
When women are included in competitions, it’s often grudging. Women’s races are frequently accorded less time and space than men’s. The English Cross Country Association – the governing body of cross-country running in England – still allows women in the national championships to run only 8km, two-thirds of the length of the men’s race. In the South of England Championships, men run almost twice as far as women. The World Mountain Running Association had the same rules – senior women raced 8km compared with men’s 12km – until January 2017, when they responded positively to a campaign to equalise men’s and women’s distances to 10km each.
Preventing women from running as far as men is partly the legacy of Victorian anxiety about women’s lack of endurance, and partly based on “traditionalists’” argument that “women are not as fast” and require a shorter race “so that it takes the same amount of time”. But, as campaigner Maud Hodson points out, women are not a third or half as slow as men, as the cropping of their races might suggest. And, in any case, the South of England Championship doesn’t actually equalise the time spent on the men’s and women’s races. Male runners are granted twice the time women are – 90 minutes to women’s 45 – which assumes that they are in fact running at the same speed. With double the time and almost double the distance of the women, are men considered “twice as important”?
This matters. It’s important that women are included in running events, that the specificities of our bodies and lives are considered. The presence of other women in a run can offer a kind of solidarity, a diminished embarrassment derived from shared bodily experience, especially when it comes to the more intimate aspects of ultra-running, such as going to the toilet out in the open. Most importantly, running offers specific joys that are often missing from women’s lives: a focus on strength and health and pleasure rather than thinness and acquiescence. We should not be denied these opportunities.
On the morning of the Ultimate Trails race, the unusually hot weather forecast led the race directors to revise the mandatory kit list. Warm hats and waterproof trousers were struck off. Instead we were advised to carry two litres of water. I was conscious of the extra weight in my running pack as soon as we left Ambleside. The burning ache in my lower back gradually bore down into my thighs. By the time we reached a short section of road that rises steeply – aptly named “The Struggle” – each lift of a leg was immediately suckered back down again by gravity, and my pack was starting to rub against the edges of my breasts. The bag had been advertised as unisex. In reality it was cut for the planes of a man’s body.
Women’s running kit has been improving steadily since the 1980s. Shoes, for example, are now fitted to women’s physiology. But women still have far less choice than men. The Ultramarathon Running Store currently sells four times as many unisex – that is to say, male – running packs, as those cut for women. I have never found a running cap or pair of gloves tight enough to fit my only-slightly-smaller-than-average female body. At races, the smallest size of finishers’ T-shirt is often still way too big.
The lack of specific provision undoubtedly reflects women’s lesser participation in running. But it works both ways. Bras with insufficient support, running packs chafing our breasts, hats and head-torches slipping down over our eyes are all irritants that disfigure our pleasure and discourage women from taking part. This discomfort starts young. Sports clothing advertised for girls is consistently less durable, less waterproof and less accommodating of movement than the equivalent for young boys.
Things are slowly changing. The standard approach to designing women’s garments has been to “shrink and pink” the male version, says Helen Stuart, a designer at Inov-8, which makes running gear. Stuart starts with the women’s design, then adapts it for men. Making products for female bodies is harder so it makes sense to begin with them, she argues. Innovative firms such as EVB Sport are producing active wear specifically to support women’s perineum, pelvic floor and core muscles. But they are still the exception.
At the race’s first checkpoint, at the top of Kirkstone Pass, I needed to ease the pain caused by my poorly fitting hydration pack. I decided to reduce its weight, by emptying the reservoir and relying on the water in my flasks. Relieved of a kilo, my feet began to accelerate happily down the path towards Brothers Water, a long downhill trail, peppered with large unstable stones that require nimble legs to sail over without injury. Within a mile, I was not only returned to mental and physical wellbeing, but leapt beyond it to what is often called “runner’s high”: the joy of efficiently working muscles and lungs, oblivion to pain or fatigue and sensory bliss; sun on my face, mountains mirrored in still water, shady paths quenching the skin.
Teetering down a rocky, ankle-imperilling descent into Grasmere, I had to brake suddenly and veer behind a hedge. Since giving birth to twins in 2014, my pelvic floor – the sling of muscles running from the back to the front of the body – has been shot to pieces. I’m one of around 35% of women in Britain who are affected by pelvic-floor disorders (compared with around 4% of men), a propensity that is hugely increased by pregnancy and birth, especially instrumental deliveries, and exacerbated by a lack of post-natal care. In France, pelvic-floor physiotherapy is offered to post-partum women as standard; not so in Britain. Many go back to high-impact sports, such as running, that strain the pelvic floor, without adequate physical checks or advice, resulting in even greater damage.
Childbirth has left me with a cystocele and rectocele (when the bladder and rectum respectively collapse into the vaginal wall) and a uterine prolapse (when the uterus drops into the vagina). These affect my running in different ways. The uterine prolapse is painful; an aching sensation, like a ball of descending pressure. But I wear a vaginal pessary, a sturdy silicone ring, slightly smaller than my palm, which sits neatly under my cervix as a crutch for my sagging uterus. Because of the cystocele, I also need to wear incontinence pads when I run. They need changing frequently, and during the Ultimate Trails race, I carried five, which took up more than half of my running pack.
It’s embarrassing, too. Trail races rarely pass public toilets, and many are unusable anyway. In Britain, since 2010 councils have given up the maintenance of 13% of public facilities, and as many as a third have closed entirely. When I’m out running, I have to duck behind a bush or wall to change my pad every 12km or so. I’m particularly leaky running downhill. If I don’t stop in time, my pad overflows, shadowing my shorts with urine, and it chafes too, rubbing my thighs sore. During my period, the whole procedure becomes even messier and I carry a small pack of wet-wipes to clean my hands of blood. It’s no surprise that a survey of female runners showed that many are deterred from long-distance running by the lack of toilet provision. The paucity of loos on a mountain or moor is unavoidable, and to an extent one becomes inured to pulling down your pants in the countryside. But city races present a much higher level of exposure and embarrassment. There is some hope, though. Louise Greenwood, race director of the Canalathon ultra in Rochdale, has secured permission from pubs en route for competitors to use their toilets. Nevertheless, there’s scope for urban races – where most runners start, and many consequently stop – to make much better provision for women.
Trail-running is as much about caring for your body as it is about revelling in the scenery. Every runner’s body has a series of eloquent “tells”. I’ve learned that I’m adequately hydrated, salted and fed when my inner voice exclaims with pleasant surprise, “I feel fine. I really do.” Or when I’m able to greet marshalls and other runners with chirpiness. Or when I can sigh happily at the top of a steep ascent, as gravity shifts from encumbrance to emancipation. But I know I’m getting closer to hitting the wall when I panic about mild physical niggles; when I feel bored or obsessed with the finish line; or when I’m grumpy and suffused with nausea. It has taken me years not only to develop this listening habit but to learn to act on it. Women are not supposed to care for our bodies. We’re supposed to beat them into submission instead.
As I approached the final two miles of the race, I knew I’d got it right. I had enough energy to speed up, hurtling down the final paved slope, swooping over the footbridge and around the cricket pitch, and over the finish line in 10 hours 12 minutes. The finish-line photograph shows me sweaty, dusty, spots emerging across my face after spending a day doused in salt, hair matted against my head, and utterly triumphant and proud and strong and happy.•