Gender Equality is a human right, not a female fight.Frieda Pinto
This article was originally written in 2019 for the Trail Running Association‘s publication, Trailrunner. I have made some edits and updates. The original title was Picking up the Run Equal baton. It is not my intention to exclude non-cis and non-binary people from this conversation and genuinely welcome discourse with any runners willing to chat.
I organised my first protest against sexism when I was 9. The boys at school wouldn’t let the girls join in with their game of football at playtime yet were allowed to take up the entire school field. I persuaded a group of my friends to stand in one of the goals until the teachers listened and made the boys play across the pitch. At the time, I saw it as a victory; now I wonder why we just didn’t insist on being allowed to play.
30 years later and I’m still protesting. Sigh. Many runners laugh when I tell them that there are events where women aren’t permitted to run as far as men: some laugh nervously, some with incredulity and some just think it’s a joke. (I suspect that most club runners will probably be surprised by this: yes, there are plenty of runners who don’t run as part of a club and yes, many of those runners think that your rules are ridiculous.)
I didn’t start running until 2007 and, when I found out about unequal race distances, I didn’t think much of it: a damning indictment of the sexism I’ve come to accept, indeed expect, in life. My earliest experience with organised sport was as a football referee in the late 1990s, where, ‘Isn’t it lovely that a woman can referee men’s football?’ was seen as the height of political correctness. The FA seems to be dragging itself out of the dark ages, but it’s tectonically slow progress.
As I became more involved with my local running club, and started coaching, I soon realised that unequal distances weren’t just an over-hang of a male-led administration, but down-right nonsense. Women had been competing in marathons for years and more and more were giving good showings in ultra-distance races. The IAAF even ruled that the World Cross Country (senior) events should be 10km for both men and women.
I can’t remember precisely how or when I came across the excellent band of Run Equal supporters. Very quickly, however, I realised that there was something I could do in order to address this very local wrong. The joy that is social media became a rich ground for finding like-minded (male and female) folk, engaging with the campaign and coming up with practical ideas to bring about change.
Then there were the doubters: men feeling affronted that women might ‘mess up’ their races; men who thought that equalising race distances was going to diminish the spectacle of their competition; women who didn’t want to run further. I even encountered a female runner at my club who told me that aiming for equality in running was ‘just silly’ but still, I ploughed on: ‘Lest our wombs fall out!’ became my mantra.
This group is for everyone who believes that men & women, and girls & boys should have equal status in athletics.Run Equal Facebook group description
The Run Equal team (which consists of Run Equal supporters – there is no hierarchy) provided resources for clubs to use at their AGMs, to encourage them to support the Run Equal ethos. It was with this toolkit that I gained support at my club AGM in March 2019.
Like all good activists, I did my homework and tried to find out from my club-mates how they felt about the disparity in distances. Most, it seemed, hadn’t really thought about it as an equality issue and, when they did, realised how daft it was. Yes, many of the women didn’t want to run further through the mud and hills and men didn’t want to have their races cut short, but the issue of equality became important and I took the motion to the AGM.
Armed with the Run Equal resources and that long-held fire in my belly, I spoke at the AGM and took questions from the floor. The club agreed to support the aims of Run Equal, by first addressing our own events and competitions. Although the Club Championship had started for the year, the General Secretary retrospectively changed the competition rules and all of the age categories were set equally. The races organised by the club equalised their age-group categories and the number of prizes for men and women. Our representatives at Cross-Country League AGMs took the motion forward and had some impact. Thanks to the support of the Run Equal campaigners, not to mention my club-mates having conversations both online and in person, change started to happen and we found allies in other local clubs.
More recently, UK Athletics has put out a statement: “…there could be greater equality in some Cross Country races and competitions by enabling all athletes access to the same opportunities through the race distances available to them.” The Run Equal community is thrilled that there has at last been acknowledgement of these historic disparities; the English Cross Country Association less-so. The issue raised its head again amongst my team mates: the online conversation was shut down by an admin before I had a chance to address some of their concerns. To be honest, their feelings about equality are just as deeply held as mine, so the chance of any of us changing the others’ minds are non-existent!
I understand that women are GENERALLY less-strong than men. Because of the strength demands of cross country, I understand that there might be some women who wouldn’t feel strong enough to complete a longer distance. I wonder how many men would be more likely to join a shorter race? I also understand that there are male runners who don’t want their race shortened. What I don’t understand though, is why it’s not possible to have different races of different distances and then runners can choose which one they want to do. As a coach, runners could choose a distance which would best suit their aims, regardless of their reproductive (or not) biology. As a runner, I would say, “To hell with the time it takes – more mud and hills!”
For me, Run Equal isn’t about the actual distance of the races but the messages that inequality sends out: not all women are less strong than all men and not all women want to be told that they’re not allowed to run further.
Race distances will be equalised and then we can all have the choice.