Women on the Run
by Bethan Logan
In addition to her work with The Outdoor Partnership, Bethan Logan is an Instructor for Element Active, qualified Mountain Leader and also contributes to running journal Like The Wind; so we're very grateful for this, her first piece of writing for Dryad. Read about her beginnings in XC, journey into fell running, and questioning why female and male course differentiation still persists in organised events…
My love affair with running started in primary school, I was (and arguably still am) the dictionary definition of a geek, or a square, as it was in my day and my neck of the woods. So basically, the polar opposite of sporty. I always got the ‘A for effort’ badge in PE but the only time I ever actually won anything on sports day was when I tripped 2 metres from the finish line in the quoit race and my head was the third fastest body part over the finish line, earning me a questionable third place sticker. I had mixed feelings about my ‘victory’ even then. This wasn’t my running heyday though. I actually joined the burgeoning cross-country team in year 5, most probably because it had been set up by my favourite teacher and as previously mentioned, I was a huge geek, so impressing my teacher was basically the ultimate win. We spent a few lunchbreaks doing star jumps and running around the school grounds in white shorts and t-shirts getting stitches after 20 seconds but stuck with it and eventually felt like we were getting somewhere. That was, until we entered a school cross-country league and me and my running buddy struggled around the edges of a few muddy fields in some desolate location in the Welsh valleys, coming in 156th and 157th out of 200 or so gangly kids. After that I decided running probably wasn’t for me and hung up my trainers for another 7 years until some sort of teenage desire to keep fit re-surfaced.
This experience of coming near the bottom of the pack and not being good at sport has stuck with me pretty much up until now. Growing up, playing games like badminton were all about keeping a rally going and not about thrashing my opponent. But this was all about to change when I revisited the world of cross-country twenty years later, having been cajoled into it by a slightly eccentric and very enthusiastic member of the running club I’d just joined. If I am honest, I was surprised to hear that adults still ran around muddy fields in shorts and t-shirts even after they had graduated from PE. But I thought I’d get on board and give it a try - after all, I had nothing to lose. I made the necessary race preparations – got unexpectedly drunk the night before and missed the club rendezvous by going to the wrong car park. No matter, I managed to intercept some club runners later on the route, pick up my club t-shirt and race number and was talked through the ups and downs of the course during the car journey. Perfect. Somebody even lent me their naked belt so I could take my phone with me to record the route (no fancy watch for me back then) and we were away.
It was a bit more exciting than the muddy field route I remembered from primary school, some hills at least and a bit of scenery along the way. I had been warned about the squeeze at the start where the whole course filtered into a narrow muddy trough, with an icy pond on one side and gorse bushes on the other. There were even historic tales of unfortunate runners who chose the wrong line and ended up getting forced into the water by the throng of the pack. So, armed with the advice to get ahead before the squeeze and not be one of the unlucky ones, I found myself near the front as we all set off up the track. Soon I realised that there was only one ponytail bobbing up ahead and the owner was within striking distance. I looked around me and everybody else I saw looked distinctly male. As an A for Effort kind of sportswoman I doubted myself at first–they probably (definitely) knew something I didn’t about the course ahead. I am not sure whether it was the emerging hangover or blissful ignorance and inexperience, but either way I decided to throw caution to the wind and sidle past her as we all puffed on up the hill. Which put me in front. Of the women of course, a fact that became particularly significant in this race as, unbeknownst to me, the Herefordshire cross-country championships, until very recently, have held a tradition of running separate female and male courses. Regardless of age, the men were required to run longer courses on 2 out of the 5 races. This, the first in the series, was one such special race. Which meant that, as I hung on for dear life and completed a mere two laps of this ridiculously undulating course, I found myself leading the actual race going into the last climb. Which was horrendous. But I somehow gritted my teeth and stuck in there to cross the finish line first, with no ambiguous tripping incidents this time to sully my victory. It all felt completely surreal, especially then hanging out to watch the men complete another lap and, almost an hour later, cheer the male veterans in as they hobbled across the line, cursing their gender and wishing they had a more convincing cross-dressing game I imagine.
Because that’s the thing. I didn’t feel like a winner. We did a shorter course. So how do we know how we did compared to more than half of the field? There were women in the series who were training for ultras–our 5.2km course was barely enough for them to get warmed up on. Similarly there were men who had been running on those same knees for 60 odd years and I’m sure would have loved to save themselves a lap or two here and there! I was pleased to discover that the cross-country league later came to their senses and scrapped the female short course idea. Oh, and I’m not talking ancient history here, I won the women’s course in 2018. And as my love affair with running continues, with fluctuating levels of enthusiasm over the years and months, I am still grappling with how I feel about this female/male differentiation in running.
During Covid my partner and I focused on getting faster on as flat a course as we could find. We spent months doing interval training and fine tuning our 5k course on local roads to avoid any marginal bumps or inclines. We had the joy of running for running’s sake and not comparing ourselves to others or worrying about any finish lines. We set our own rules and courses and gender didn’t get a look in. We are both female but that was all by the by because we didn’t have any organisations imposing race rules or assumptions on us about what we could or couldn’t do. Since the world of racing has re-opened for business I have left cross country behind and joined my local fell running club. There is a real buzz around running in the club, with some really strong women leading the way and a sense of equality and respect which is refreshing, but unfortunately, the fell running community as a whole hasn’t been immune to gender marginalisation either and you don’t have to look far before you find people reeling from the scars of mistreatment, solely as a result of their gender. Some authorities, best not to mention, still believe that navigation courses and shorter courses for women are the answer to increased female participation and equality in the sport. The assumptions for some are still that women need short courses so they can get home and look after their children (Dads are clearly expected to finish the courses more quickly?) or perhaps that women are not able to run as far as men. We better tell Jasmine Paris. Also, let’s just have a go at the trumpet blowing for a second (not my forte): I’m not saying I’ve not led the occasional club run astray (we soon get back on track and nobody dies, they love it) but I’ve been a Mountain Leader for over 14 years, worked on probably thousands of DofE expeditions, and trained many adults to navigate and lead groups in the mountains. I am also female. I know that I am not alone because I have had the pleasure of meeting hundreds of other women and non-binary people who spend their days imparting their navigation skills on people of all genders. I have equally seen many men utterly and completely lost during mountain marathons and navigation fell races. I just don’t think gender has any bearing on navigation skills and experience, if you’ll excuse the pun. Also (macho) guys, if you see a woman using a map, that’s what they are for, please don’t assume we are lost and offer your in-built orientation skills, but if you need a hand getting off the hill, all you need to do is ask!
I live in the Black Mountains with my partner Sarah and our two whippets – Spider and Beanie - we all like to get lost on adventures in the woods, coast and hills before finding ourselves and coming home to jigsaws and hot chocolate. Rock and Roll.