Women keep on running though the history books

Mara Yamauchi (right) in the Women's Elite race as the leading pack run over the Tyne Bridge during the Great North Run, Newcastle.
Mara Yamauchi (right) in the Women's Elite race as the leading pack run over the Tyne Bridge during the Great North Run, Newcastle.
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1984. The year that Band Aid released Do They Know It’s Christmas? (Feed The World) and the year the Thames Barrier was opened.

1984 was also the year Joan Benoit finally laid to rest the idea long-distance running was unsuitable for women, when she scooped the gold medal at the first ever Olympics women’s marathon, in Los Angeles, making history with every step.

And you only have to stretch back a further 10 years to the 70s to see how far we’ve come.

It was in this decade, women were finally allowed to compete in the Boston Marathon, but before that, trailblazer Roberta Gibb was forced to hide in the bushes near the start of the race and mask her body in oversized sweaters, so she could take part without being found out.

Now, far from being rarities, 42 per cent of the runners who ran the 2013 Edinburgh Marathon were women, 41 per cent of team relay runners taking part in the Belfast City Marathon were women, and 37 per cent of runners in the London Marathon.

On the streets of the Fylde coast, you see women running on their way to work, perhaps training for a charity run, fun runs, ultra-runs, or simply for the joy of it.

Every year, thousands of women take part in the Cancer Research UK women-
only Race for Life series up and down the country.

But Wendy Sly, Olympic medallist and non-executive director at England Athletics, remembers a time when female distance running was unique.

“I grew up when girls and young women weren’t really given the opportunity to run further than 1500m.

“While that probably helped my running, because I had to run fast, there weren’t really the events available to me for my skill set.

“When it came to the 
Olympics in 1988, I qualified for the 3000m and the 1000m. But they wouldn’t let me do both because they felt it would be too much for me.

“That was the mentality, which is now gone – and quite rightly so.

“Yes, women are different to men, but it doesn’t mean they can’t deal with extremes in sport. There are many 
examples now, fortunately, of women who are as tough mentally and physically as their male counterparts.”

Looking back, Sly can see what a change the inclusion of the women’s marathon and 3000m in the 1984 Olympics brought for women’s running.

“The marathon really allowed people like Joan Benoit and Grete Waitz to showcase what amazing runners they were.

“It opened up the opportunity for women to take part in big events such as London and New York, and before you know it you’ve got a Paula Radcliffe world record that many of our men today couldn’t touch.”

And Tricia Ellis, who started over 50s running group, The Goal-den Girls, on the Fylde coast – to show even the more mature lady could run a marathon in the Olympic year 2012 – couldn’t agree more. And she is pleased to see the change in attitude.

Tricia, who organises an annual women-only 10k fun run in aid of good causes, said: “There are many reasons why thousands of women take their place at the start line and run a marathon.

“The benefits of running have been well-publicised – including reducing the risk of heart disease and cancer, preventing early-ageing and helping prevent a premature death.

“However, today’s women are looking for more. They want to discover inner strengths and find their true selves and a marathon takes you beyond the bounds of 
human endurance and puts you to the test. Role models can play a very important part in getting you involved in running. Paula Ratcliffe is 
inspiring and when you see 
celebrities running, you think ‘if they can, then I can’.

“The first time I thought about running in 1982, I was laughed at and told I was nuts. Now, as a runner, people 
admire and hopefully I inspire and encourage other women of all ages to take up running.

“Training for an event like a marathon keeps you focused, which helps with everyday life too. You earn admiration and respect from others, which gives you more self confidence. It is also a great way of meeting new people.

“Running is the only sport where you compete side-by-side with your heroes.

“It is highly unlikely you will win, but the sense of achievement when you cross the finish line makes you a winner every time.”