In Her Nature is a blog about women and running. Specifically, it is about women and trail-running across beautiful landscapes. The blog is related to research I’m doing for my book In Her Nature, which will be published by Chatto & Windus in 2022, and which will explore myriad examples of women’s interactions with the natural world, from the eighteenth century to the present day. But this blog will also be a more informal record of my thoughts and experiences as a female long-distance trail-runner.
Women are increasingly visible and present and impressive at running events from 5Ks to ultras, at elite and amateur levels. 43% of UK parkrunners are female. In the 1990s, women represented only around 5% of participants in ultras, but today we’re up to around 20-25%. Some sports scientists and ultra-runners even claim that, over longer ultra races, women have the capacity to consistently beat their male competitors.
But women are still drastically under-represented in the running world. Women’s bodies and lives are under-represented in terms of kit provision, sports science and medical research, running books, and public awareness of women’s presence in the history of the sport. Women constantly have to adapt to ‘unisex’ kit that is really cut for a man’s body. Most women who have run organised events will have had the experience of being handed, on the finish line, a voluminous boxy t-shirt cut to male proportions. Many races have regulations that, intentionally or otherwise, exclude or deter women runners: deferral policies that don’t apply to pregnant women (UTMB, I’m looking at you) or off-puttingly strict cut-offs. Sports science research is rarely carried out on women, so there is a woeful lack of research about the way that female bodies respond to various conditions, training or supplements.
Women runners’ voices frequently go unheard. Look at the front cover of any number of best-selling memoirs, essays or manuals about running. So many feature a single silhouette of a unmistakeably male body. These front covers tell us that the generic runner is a man. And this assumption often continues inside those books too: in sexist, macho representations of running women, or in information about runners’ physiology that ignores female biology and pretends that the male body represents us all. I have rarely read a running book by a man that describes key aspects of my running experiences: the fear that accompanies running on my own in the dark, for example. Or how it feels to run with a butchered pelvic floor, after the birth of children.
This applies to the history of the sport too: women’s experiences, women’s participation, women’s achievements, are often left out of official histories. Running histories bear titles or sub-titles like ‘100-Metre Men’ and ‘The Running Man’ and ‘The Fastest Men on Earth’ and ‘At Last He Comes’. For much of the twentieth century, women were not allowed to race distances further than 400m at the Olympics, only gaining recognition for their achievements over longer mileages thanks to a number of determined female campaigners in the late 1970s and 1980s. There’s a huge gap in public knowledge of women’s running participation for much of the twentieth century.
And women’s histories of running and hiking prior to the twentieth century have been all but forgotten too. We hear so little about eighteenth-century women racing in ‘smock-races’, or nineteenth-century female competitive ‘pedestriennes’, who ran and speed-walked phenomenal distances over equally phenomenal amounts of time (1000 miles in 1000 hours). Such women were determined athletes who engaged in rigorous training, but it’s important to remember, too, that they were often coerced into competing by avaricious fathers or husbands, and that their ventures made them vulnerable: there were numerous court cases for sexual and physical assaults of these female athletes. A lot of people know about the ancient history of men’s running, and the birth of the modern marathon in a myth about the messenger Pheidippides’ 26-mile run from the Athenian army’s triumph in the plain of Marathon back to Athens. But I suspect that far fewer people have heard of Atalanta: a female hunter who, upon being reluctantly pushed towards marriage by her father, stipulated that she would only marry a suitor who could outrun her, and that losers would be killed.
The In Her Nature blog will add its voice to the other women who are writing compellingly about running, in order to play a part in rectifying this historical imbalance, this predominance of men’s voices and bodies and experiences in the running world. As well as writing about the historical, real and fictional, women runners, hikers and naturalists I discover in the course of my research, I also want to write about my experiences of long-distance running, as a woman. This involves telling the stories of how my gender shapes my running experience. For a long time, the running world proceeded on the basis that ‘a runner’ = ‘a man’, and this has meant that many aspects of women’s specific bodies, lives, and requirements are not necessarily catered for by races, kit designers and so on.
These experiences of running as a woman are gendered: that is, they are shaped by a social imbalance of power between men and women. But as well as writing about how gender affects my encounters with running, I also want to write about my sex, my body; about the experiences of my female body during the course of very long, hilly runs. It’s often claimed that ultra-running depends on ‘mind over body’, and many (not all!) adventure memoirs downplay the body in order to depict long-distance challenges primarily as opportunities for emotional transformation. Experiences that are specific to the female body do not often get a look-in, in such narratives. It’s very rare that running memoirs describe what it’s like to run while you’re on your period, or during/after pregnancy, or how to deal with the chafing caused by sports bras or tena pads. But these are hugely important elements in my running life, and it feels strange not to talk about them.
So I hope that this blog will, for female readers, strike a chord and articulate some experiences of women’s running that have not traditionally been granted the same amount of airtime as men’s experiences. And for male readers, I hope it will shine a light on aspects of running that you might not always be alert to, but which affect a large proportion of the running community. Maybe it will show you running in a new light.
And the blog’s not just for runners, either. It’s really about women, and about how running is one context in which women’s lives are often overshadowed by the predominance of men’s bodies and experiences. But it’s also about pleasure and joy. I firmly believe that running offers something extraordinary, and joyful, and liberating to women, specifically. In the face of all the obstacles that the running world might sometimes present to women, that joy is the most important thing to keep hold of and nurture.