Women Who Run

Girl running in Kensington, London (22nd June 1906)

If you know me, you probably know I’m training for a marathon. For the last four months or so I’ve been lacing up trainers with numb fingers and shivering my way around icy paths, drinking winter to its dregs as spring suddenly clothed the trees, occasionally glowing with the adrenalin and endorphins harvested on a 10 mile run. There’s something very empowering about running. Once you get past the puffing, panting stage and suddenly it dawns on you that your legs, your body, your lungs, are carrying you for MILES, overtaking families on sluggish walks, cars stuck in traffic, and laidback bicycles. You can synchronise with the rhythm of the breeze, and your eyes snatch moments of colour barely processed, as your legs drive on like a separate machine.

Yet it’s taken me a while to weed out some more pernicious aspects of running — two in particular.

The first is an all-pervasive mindset that constantly tells us (women especially) that running is for losing weight, losing weight is for looking beautiful, and looking beautiful is for being valuable. Running culture is full of this narrative, linking strength and fitness to an idealized thinness. This doesn’t only perpetuate false and damaging perceptions of value and appearance, but it takes away our agency as women who run. It thieves us of the notion of running for the sheer joy of it, whether that’s for 10 seconds or 10 miles, and tells us we need to quantify it in terms of weight lost and calories burned.

This is complete hogwash.

There is no correlation between a person’s weight, their fitness, and their beauty (it has genuinely taken me about 10 years of adult life to work this out) and the motivation to run is completely irrelevant to both. I don’t run to make myself thin. I run because it allows my head to clear and enables my feet to make to contact with the earth more times than usual, over more distance.

Secondly, I need to say something brief about catcalling, heckling, street harassment — whatever you want to call it, if you are a woman you will have experienced it. Because for some people (sadly more often than not, those of the male persuasion…) choosing to run in the public sphere is similar to wearing a t-shirt that says PLEASE SHOUT AT ME. And again, this takes away my agency as a runner, because it tells me that my body is not my own when I run, it becomes yours to shout at and objectify. I mean, what do guys think is going to happen if they yell at me? Instant Marriage? Long-lasting Friendship? Sincere Love? In case anyone reading this is secretly thinking that this is what will happen, please trust me on this one and just don’t do it. Thanks.

As a woman who runs in 21st century Britain, I feel that these two negative parts of my running experience are quite gendered — so if you don’t identify as female and have also experienced these things, please get in touch and let me know, I’d be very interested!

Also in my capacity as a woman who runs in 21st century Britain and loves reading, I’ve been fascinated for some time now with women who run in English novels of the 17–19th centuries. Somehow the act of vigorous exercise being socially unacceptable or dubious or remarkable highlights its power and strength even more, and feeds into retaining a sense of agency as a woman who runs today.

The first character to spring to mind is Jane Austen’s Lizzie Bennet, who strides between 3–5 miles across fields to visit her ailing sister in Pride and Prejudice, incurring the disapproval of people like Caroline Bingley, but ultimately winning the admiration of both the reader and Mr. Darcy with her ‘wildness’ and untidy ‘blowsy’ hair. She makes walking long distances instantly more daring and exciting, defying expectations with each muddy footstep. She’s determined and energetic and she doesn’t care what anyone thinks think of her — and these qualities make her easily likeable as a Strong Woman in the highly manicured garden of Austen’s world. And of course Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (my favourite heroine of all time) introduces herself to us with “there was no possibility of taking a walk that day” — the miserable oppression of her childhood epitomised by the lack of freedom to stride about outdoors, which she later indulges in to her heart’s content.

Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journals, written between 1800–1803, are full of descriptions of physical exercise. The one that sticks in my memory the most is a sentence from an entry written one snowy February — “I was obliged to run all the way to the foot of the White Moss, to get the least bit of warmth into me”. Running to get warm is such a relatable feeling, and I love the idea that 200 years ago I might have passed Dorothy on a run — perhaps we would have nodded at each other, or even stopped and had a chat about how cold it was. Or perhaps she would have ignored me altogether. Either way, I’ve looked at a map and it seems that the distance from Dove Cottage (where William and Dorothy Wordsworth lived) to White Moss Common is some 4km or so — a respectable Get Warm Run distance.

Over in ‘Wessex’ (southwest England), the landscape is dominated by women who run in Thomas Hardy novels. Some are not very successful — for example the not so aptly named Paula Power in A Laodicean (1881) who attempts a one mile run up a hill thinking it will only be 200 yards or so, and struggles (both with the distance and the ensuing attentions of De Stancey, another character who follows her and takes advantage of her lack of running fitness). Elfride is the ultimate runner though, charging through A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) with plenty of graceful strength and no lycra in sight. She’s described as looking “…so intensely living and full of movement” and despite the voyeuristic tendencies of some of Hardy’s characters (no doubt they would be the kind of people who lean out of moving cars to shout at women today), nothing can take away the spark that running gives her.

And to all women who run, whether you’re running a marathon in 3 hours, or completing a couch-5k plan, or doing a 5 second sprint for the hell of it — don’t let anyone or anything take that spark away. The word ‘run’ derives from the Old English ryne which means “a flowing” or “a water course” — run like a force of nature, for the empowerment it offers, the freedom of moving fast on your own breath, the alignment of all things, the feeling of caring less about what doesn’t matter and more about what does.

I’m going to be running the London Marathon on April 23rd for Oxfam’s Syria Appeal, and doing my damnedest to feel like Elfride or Lizzie Bennet.

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