I have taken many things for granted in my life. I have been lucky – I have been able to vote, to run – when and where I want. I went to University – the first woman in my family to do so. And I have trained and worked in a job where I received equal pay to others (men or women) doing the same job – although very few women actually reached the most senior jobs if they chose to work part time to accommodate the demands of a family.
One of the things that I have always loved about running and the running community is its friendliness and inclusivity. In how many sports is it possible, for novices and amateurs, to line up and compete in the same race as elite athletes? I can say that I have run with Kelly Holmes – on more than one occasion. And those taking part in the London Marathon last week (they may have started in a slightly different place) ran with Mo Farrah. However it is worth reflecting that this has not always been the case. Last week in London the marathon was started by Katherine Switzer (who also ran the race herself) – the first woman to ever to run the Boston Marathon as a registered entrant 50 years ago. So – well within my lifetime – women were not allowed to compete in the world’s oldest annual marathon. There was nothing in the rule book about it being a men only race – but it was certainly a tradition – and the entry form did not ask a person’s gender. So K. Switzer signed her form and ran. The rest is history……………….. Four miles into the race she was tackled by an official shouting “get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers”. Despite this she completed the race – but was then disqualified and expelled from the athletics federation – for a number of reasons – running more than a mile and a half – fraudulently entering the race (although she hadn’t) and – worst of all – running without a chaperone!
But there was no going back! There ensued a clamour for equality and 5 years later women were admitted to the Boston Marathon. So when I ran my first ever race – the Pendle Half Marathon in 1984 aged 26 – I had no idea what a relatively new experience this was. Looking back I have no idea why I did it – I did not belong to a running club, had no advice about training or nutrition and had never run more than 6 miles – but I just wanted to run. I was the 8th woman to finish in 2 hours and 8 mins – out of a field of about 20 women and a few hundred men.
When Katherine was interviewed about running London she reflected on being delighted to be here to mark the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote. This one is not in my lifetime although the anniversary of universal suffrage for women in 1928 – was within my mother’s. And this week saw the unveiling of the first female statue in Parliament square – Millicent Fawcett – the suffragist. Her movement sought to obtain votes for women by logical argument, challenge and debate whilst Emmeline Pankhurt’s suffragettes used a more strident approach. We have a great deal to thank these women for and I for one, however disillusioned with politics I might feel at times, will always be there – casting my vote with gratitude to the women who have gone before and fought for my rights.
And so back to running to finish. The London Marathon was one of the hottest on record and the running community has been moved by the sudden death of one of its own – Matt Campbell aged 29 – running in memory of his father. He collapsed and died at 22.5 miles and since this tragedy the whole of the running community has been running his final 3.7 miles and donating £5 to his charity page to #finishformatt. Runners form a real community – when I last looked at the page it was showing a total of over £300,000. Both men and women want to run – and to run together. In Heathfield our couch to 5k programme attracts men and women – but for some reason the women out number the men about 7 to 1. Anecdotally I hear of friendships formed and cemented through these groups and the support people find from running together. There is some competition – but usually to do better than their last run rather than better than other people.
Last year – a half century on from Katherine’s historic race – Boston retired bib number 261 as a mark of respect to her. She wore the number again this year in London. “It’s about equality, it’s about inclusion and it’s also about peace” she says.