Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Women and ultrarunning - a few personal ramblings

When I was interviewed after my Montane Spine Challenger finish last month, a question I was asked near the end of the interview struck a chord. It was a question regarding the lack of women in the race, and ultra-running in general. It was a timely question given the current climate about equality and women's rights.  And just this evening I saw a very long thread of discussion on Facebook about giving women a higher percentage 'quota' in a race lottery to ensure more are racing.  In this case, whilst I'm not against the sentiment, I'm very much of the opinion that a lottery is a lottery - nobody should be getting special treatment in a lottery - we should all be entering a race with the equal chance of getting in, no special treatment.

I don't wish to repeat all the different ideas and opinions about what should be done to 'rectify' the lack of women represented in ultra-running; some ideas were constructive and positive, others were complete nonsense.

For race directors, I think their role is quite limited, but still important.  Prize money should be equal, prizes should be equal.  If the first 3 men are getting a 6 pack of beer, then do the same for women.  It's horrifying the number of races I have been to where women are given household appliances as prizes! Honestly if I was ever good enough to podium in a race and they had to cheek to give me an iron as a prize, I'd walk away leaving the iron on the table.  (I frickin hate ironing!)
Women need equal billing as men. Treat the results equally, the prize-giving equally, press conferences and advertising - create a sense of excitement about the women's field in the same manner as the men's field. In my mind, it's not a complicated thing. (I'm sure there will be those that disagree.)

One reason for women not entering is perhaps the lack of role models.  I am not referring to the elite field though.  There are fantastic women at the elite level who are inspiring to watch, and follow on Instagram and other social media, many of whom are giving the men's elite runners a run for their money.  I follow plenty of these women and men on social media and I'm amazed by what they can all do.  But the bottom line is they do not inspire me to go out and race.  They are elite, and by virtue of that, achieving things that probably feel impossible to most women (or men). But they are pushing boundaries and creating exposure which in itself is key in facilitating women's participation.

But when it comes down to it, what is really going to make 'normal' 'everyday' women runners want to run a 100 miler? I'm 'normal' and 'everyday.' (others may disagree - cheeky!) So what made me want to run a 100 miler? What made me want to get up at stupid o'clock in the morning to train, and head out in the dark and awful weather once my kids are in bed to get more miles in?

The answer came in the talk/interview with Fiona Outdoors. She said she loves to write about seemingly ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I replied to her, than I am just an ordinary working mum. "Seemingly ordinary" she interjected.

I am not an elite runner.  I am a middle (at best) to a back of the pack runner, whether it's 5km to 100 miles.  I don't even 'look' the I should be a runner (especially not since I had the kids).  I don't look like most of the women runners you see on Instagram and elsewhere.  These days when I go to a race (to run or support) I feel like I am 10 time larger than everyone else.  But I would imagine that's how a lot of women runners feel; massively self-conscious and lacking in self confidence and the belief that they could do something amazing.

I am that women.  I have spent my life battling insecurity and self-doubt. But somehow a seed was sown in my brain, a question; what could I do? My first ultra was not inspired by some distant elite runner on the cover of a magazine. I was on my way to my first marathon (which I entered due to the encouragement of a fellow female running club member - also not a front of the pack runner) and we travelled alongside the West Highland Way.  Apparently people ran the whole of this trail, in one go! And not only that, two members of my running club had done the race, one male and one female. Wow, I thought.  I wonder if I could do that? It looks such a beautiful place to run. I hadn't even run my first marathon at that point. And the people who had inspired me were friends.  I thought that if they could do it, maybe I could.  Not through any kind of arrogance, but seeing them as seemingly ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Back then I didn't have the belief, but I had a sense of wonder.  I had the work ethic and I had the support of my club. Crucially I also had the time!

Things are different now that I am a working mother of two young children. How are they different? Time.  I just don't have the time I used to have.  But I have to find ways to make the time.  I don't have an extensive network of childcare.  I can't run commute or run at lunchtime.  Some parents can  but these options are simply not available to me.  So I have to make sacrifices elsewhere. But how can a working mum do that? Through support.  So whilst I don't have the time I used to have I do still have the support.  I have a husband who can look after the kids when I am training (late at night or at silly o'clock in the morning), and I look after them when he is training, and sometime we all 'train' together. We have lots of adventures. We are a team.

I'm still not sure I have the belief, but my husband and my kids believe in me so I have to trust them and learn to believe in myself.  I am lucky.  I still have that sense of wonder, the work ethic and the support and belief of my friends.

We need more seemingly ordinary women doing extraordinary things.  Fight the feeling to shy away from what they have achieved and let people know what they have done. Shout about it, write about it. Blog about it. I recently read a social media post of a runner complaining about people writing blogs about their races.  If you ask me, I think more people should blog about their races.  Provide other runners with a resource to learn, to give them the knowledge and confidence to help them tackle an event.  I know I couldn't have tackled the Spine Challenger without all the knowledge I gained from previous racers blogs. (If you don't want to learn from blogs, don't read them, but they are a fantastic resource for learning and preparing.)  Let other seemingly ordinary people see what is possible.  Let's help each other do extraordinary things.

Whilst sitting at the finish checkpoint in Hardraw after finishing the Spine Challenger, feet soaking in a bucket of warm water to clean them for 'inspection' the final lady finisher came in, and it was reported that that was all the women in now, we were just waiting for male finishers. One of my fellow racers commented "What a fantastic bunch of women we have in this race, we just need more of you." I think roughly, the DNF rate for women in the race was on a par with the men's DNF rate.  So one could say that once we have the courage/'training'/support/belief to start, we have the same chance of finishing as the men.

I hope there are lot more women out there who may seem ordinary, just like me, but who can also do extraordinary things. We can do this.

(Apologies for being a bit rambling but time is limited and I needed to get a few thoughts down on something that is important to me: I speak as an ordinary women/mother/wife/daughter/sister/friend... I hope other women can speak out on the issue too, and preferably a lot more eloquently than me).

EDIT: On reflection perhaps we can look at it both ways:

seemingly ordinary people doing extraordinary things


ordinary people doing seemingly extraordinary things.


Jodie Laird said...

I love this Vicky. As a thoroughly ordinary runner who is really struggling at the moment with the pressures of work and family life, it really strikes a chord. Well done again on your Spine finish - certainly no ordinary achievement!

Anonymous said...

It is your work ethic and your resilience that makes you extraordinary. Your ability to get back up when you have been knocked down and the way you make it to the finish line through sheer willpower alone at times. You are the kind of woman who will inspire others. #thisgirlcan!