I was 70K into an 80K ultramarathon in France. I was cold, hungry and tired. I’d been running on my own through dark woods for the past hour when I came up to the last aid station of the race. I approached a drinks table to fill up my water where five men stood around it doing the same. One asked me a question in French and I replied with a shrug: “Pardon, non parle Francais.” But he carried on talking to me, and as he did the four other men stared at me laughing.
Maybe it was because I was English. Maybe it was my pronunciation. Maybe it was any number of things. But in that moment I was a woman, on my own in the darkness with five men pointing at me and laughing. It was an intimidating experience.
I see that scene as a microcosm of running as a whole. Women are in the minority at most races with the gender split being more pronounced the longer the race. While, thankfully, there’s little pointing and laughing, some still see us as a novelty, and feel the need to comment on our presence as though they’ve just seen a giraffe casually strolling down Oxford Street. “Well, look at that, would you ever?”
My friend Cathy is a good runner with strong legs which are currently training to power her round an Iron distance triathlon. At the end of a local 10k, a guy who’d finished just behind her approached her in the queue for bananas for a chat. His opener: “You run fast on those little legs.”
Cathy is the same height as Haile Gebrselassie with quads the Emperor of Distance Running would envy. Would this guy have congratulated Haile on his 2:03 marathon the same way? I think it’s safe to assume he wouldn’t.
I know you men want to be encouraging of women who run, and want to encourage the non-running women in your lives – your wives, your girlfriends, your sisters and mothers – into running. We’re on the same side. But sometimes you muddle your words up and it comes out all wrong.
I don’t know if Socrates did much running, but his Triple Filter rule works quite well for communicating with runners of the opposite sex. Had the runner who told my friend Katie at mile 23 of the London marathon as she reached for a Jelly Baby “You’ll get fat eating that” applied Socrates’ principle of ‘Is it true, is it good and is it useful?’ he’d maybe have kept his mouth shut.
But I think there’s a much simpler rule for talking to women: ask yourself ‘Would I say this to a man?’ And just like that, a comment about little legs becomes “Good running.”