Women and running

On Sunday 9 June, South Africa sat glued to their TVs watching Gerda Steyn obliterate the Comrades Up Run record, becoming the only woman to run the event under 6 hours and finish well within the top 20 overall. 

There is little doubt that the scope of women’s running has changed. The podiums at trail events regularly feature women in top spots overall, begging the question of including a truly “open” category in coming years. Gender in athletics seems a hotly debated entity right now, but a fascinating history of the inequality and subsequent evolution of women in running has paved an interesting journey to date, with no lack of controversy.

In a recent article in The Economist, Rachel Hewitt writes that as early as 1827, a medic warned that vigorous “exertion” in post-pubescent women threatened their reproductive health “by wearing out the powers of the body”. In 1928 newspapers reported the apparent collapse of female athletes on the finish line of the 800 metres at the Amsterdam Olympics: one journalist concluded that “women are not built physically to undergo the strain of races. Nature made them to bear children” – as if childbirth were a walk in the park. Women were then banned from Olympic events longer than 100 metres, roughly the length of a football pitch. As late as the 1970s, officials justified this exclusion on the basis that “women are too weak and fragile” and their “reproductive organs would get damaged.”

The first woman to run Comrades was Frances Hayward in 1923, but her entry was refused, so she was an unofficial entrant. She completed the event in 11:35 and although she was not awarded a Comrades medal, fellow runners presented her with a silver tea service and a rose bowl. In 1975 Ulla Paul became the first woman to officially enter the Two Oceans Marathon. The year before, Theresa Stadler had run unofficially.

In 1967 Kathrine Switzer entered the male-only Boston Marathon under her initials, K.V. Switzer. Once the starting gun had been fired, race official Jock Semple realised that a woman was running and tried to manhandle her off the course, bellowing “Get the hell out of my race,” before Switzer’s male running partner shoved him aside. Switzer completed the run in 4 hours 20 minutes, disproving claims that women were too frail to run long distances. Boston Athletic Association director Will Cloney reacted by threatening “if that girl were my daughter, I would spank her.” But in 1972 the Boston Marathon directors capitulated and formally permitted women to run. Other marathons followed suit but change has been slow. Women’s distance-running events – those longer than 1,500 metres – were not included in the Olympics until 1984.

Women’s running kit was equally slow to evolve.  In 1977, fed up with feeling uncomfortable while exercising, runners Lisa Lindahl, Polly Smith and Hinda Schreiber fashioned a top out of two jockstraps sewn together. The sports bra, dubbed Jogbra, was born. Moving Comfort was founded the same year, and released the first women-specific running shorts. Take a moment to commend the many women runners pre-1977 who got out there without a Jogbra in place!

Traditionalists hung on to the male dominated Olympic arena, and only in 1984, after years of hard work and lobbying by passionate female and male athletes alike, the women's Olympic Marathon made its debut in the Los Angeles Summer Olympics. American runner Joan Benoit was the first female gold medalist in the event. She later says of running the final leg into the Olympic stadium: "Once I passed through that tunnel, I knew things would never be the same."

It took until 1987 for Jackie Joyner-Kersee to become the first female athlete to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, three years after her silver medal win in the 1984 Olympic heptathlon.

Of course, many race organisers have moved forward in their thinking, although Hewitt goes on to describe a current day scenario that has come about as a direct result of the historical imbalance.

“Women’s presence in ultra-distance trail races increased from about 5% of all contestants in the 1990s to around 20-25% today, but it is still well short of parity.

The cause and consequence of this imbalance is that most races are designed with men in mind. Rules and regulations are often based on the assumption that runners have male bodies. The 106-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) is one of the most famous and popular trail races in the world. Runners who achieve a rare, hard-won place and then develop an injury can defer to a later year. But female competitors who become pregnant or give birth are not offered a deferral and can obtain a refund only if the race occurs within 15 days of giving birth, after which women are considered to have returned to race form.

A photograph of a runner called Sophie Power at a checkpoint during the 2018 race, breast-feeding her three-month-old son while also expressing milk, went viral as a “powerful and positive” image of a mother’s autonomous identity and strength. Yet it also encapsulated the sexist inconsistency of the UTMB’s deferral policy. Power went to extraordinary lengths to compete: she put aside extra time for expressing; arranged to meet and feed her son during a long, often remote event; and raced that distance in the wake of a lighter training load during pregnancy, the physical exertion of childbirth, and the sleep deprivation that follows.”

Sponsors are equally under pressure to evolve. Last month, global super-brand Nike reviewed its performance pay after several female athletes revealed they suffered pay cuts, or contract termination from the company due to pregnancy and early maternity.

The 2019 world marathon statistics were presented after a 6 month research project, to conduct the largest study of race results ever. It contains 19,614,975 marathon results from 2008 to 2018 from more than 32,335 races across the globe. The study was conducted by statistician Jens Jakob Andersen and Vania Nikolova Ph.D. in Mathematical Analysis. Globally, 68.08% of marathon runners were men, with 31.92% women. In South Africa, only 26% of our marathon runners are women.

As with any journey of change, the unfolding of a new era brings with it exciting opportunities for growth and progress. We salute the many brands, athletes and event organisers who have soldiered ahead of the curve, and we thank the change makers like Frances Hayward. 2019 is a vastly different landscape for women who run, but there is certainly still room for improvement.

Words: Kim Stephens