‘Oh, why can’t a woman be more like a man?’ Obviously ‘Enry ‘Iggins’s ironically intended plaint in the musical ‘My Fair Lady’, offends every feminist fibre of my weak and feeble body but the song often runs through my head when I’m in the tailwind of the sinewy blokes at my running club. When we’re out for hill running sessions, most of them leave me puffing in their wake.
Usually this wouldn’t bother me, but I fear it will make me the runt of an otherwise gazelle-like team during the Adidas Thunder Run 24 Hour Race at 12pm on 26 July. A new editorial directive ‘to shake things up a bit’ means that I will be the token Women’s Running representative on the Men’s Running Team.
Girls who beat boys
Check the results at any gender-neutral athletic event, from the humblest Parkrun to the Boston Marathon, and you’ll see a pretty large number of men’s names before the first female runner, and she and her fellow women in the top three might be separated from the rest of the girls by a great slew of masculinity. Male runners run faster than female runners. We girls have a lower aerobic capacity because of our lower blood haemoglobin. Our arm and leg muscles cannot extract enough oxygen to move at the speed of men’s. That’s the science bit. The embarrassing bit is that it’ll be my oxygen-depleted limbs pumping frantically, trying not to let the blokes down.
When Paula Radcliffe astounded the distance running world in 2003’s London Marathon, pundits started talking excitedly about the possibility of women outstripping men in distance running. The huge gains that women made at marathon and ultra distance over a few years seemed so dramatic that it looked to be only a matter of years until a woman could knock the top bloke off the podium. Since then, though, no woman has bettered Radcliffe’s time. The rapid improvement was not sustainable: it was down to the fact that women were so new to marathon running. Nonetheless, there are some female ultra runners out there who can show most men who’s boss, and the number of elite female runners that exist in a field that’s mostly populated by men demonstrates how healthy women’s distance running is.
Pace like Thunder
I’m no Paula Radcliffe, but The Adidas Thunder Run 10K relay race is an old favourite of mine. Both Women’s and Men’s Running magazines have fielded teams for the past three years. We run a competition for our readers: the reward for eight lucky winners being a place on the teams (many would find the chance to run numerous laps of a cross country course, sometimes in the dark, a prize they could do without, but we always have plenty of entrants).
Up until now I have always been a proud WR representative, dredging up my best team captain spirit, supporting ‘my gels’ (and worrying a bit in case their 10K times are better than mine). We’re usually more interested in the camaraderie than the competition on team Women’s Running; it’s important to us to have a grand weekend camping in the countryside, eating home-made cakes and chatting about how flattering our lovely Adidas kit is.
The boys, I have observed, are different. For a start, the Men’s Running selection panel seem to hand pick them for speed, wiriness and the ability to run a sub 40-minute 10K. At least that’s the profile of the chaps I have met at past events, perhaps it’s just the luck of the draw. Fact is, winning seems to be important to them; cakes and the cut of their capris less so.
So how is the Men’s Running Team going to respond to this middle-aged female scotching their bid for glory? Will they even let me run, or might they suggest I take on the role of mum (one I have performed with aplomb for the past 25 years), plying them with caffeinated sports drinks and manly steak sandwiches between runs. Do I have the grit and determination to run my share of the 10Ks and watch the team’s corresponding plummet down the scoreboard?
I’m sure the boys won’t bully me and will be chivalrous in the defeat I will visit upon them, but the panic is setting in. And that ‘Enry ‘Iggins song is playing on a loop inside my head.
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