Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Review of Alexandra Heminsley, ‘Running Like a Girl’ (2014).

Running and feminism are not often brought together, and indeed this book does not mention the f-word. But it does give a woman’s perspective as she enters the male-dominated world of distance running. Heminsley reminds us that it is easy to forget the pioneering figures who overturned bans on women’s participation that lasted into the 1980s (Julia Chase-Brand, Roberta Gibb, Katherine Switzer, Joan Benoit Samuelson). In my own running club, I myself have seen old events programmes which relegated women over 25 years old to the egg-and-spoon race. 

The book is organised as a personal narrative of someone who loved sports as a child, then as an adolescent was made to feel her body was unsuited for sport. This led to years of not being taken seriously, off the sports field as well as on it, and eventually to a desire to kick back against it. Sections address how to choose a sports bra, running institutions such as the Sweaty Betty chain and the San Francisco women’s marathon, and feelings of insecurity. 

These feelings are evident in the blow-by-blow accounts given of several marathons, and how much the author relied on support networks during them. Her iphone allowed whole conversations by text and email to take place during these races, and she stops on multiple occasions for support from her family. This breaks some important unwritten rules in running culture: don’t stop, but also don’t interrupt the loneliness of the long distance runner.

Readers here are being asked to position themselves on several issues. The first is whether the unwritten rules being broken – those of solitude, self-sufficiency, understatement – are first of all male characteristics, or first of all runners’ characteristics. Second, can we apply the controversial point recently made (here), about underrepresented women authors in the London Review of Books being ‘newly arrived in the country’? In other words, does Heminsley’s reliance on support networks represent, rather than the anxiety of the neophyte, something more radical and collaborative?

Whatever our answers, those who inhabit that ‘country’ must welcome the growth in its demography. Let’s keep those eggs and spoons safely out of mind (until the time is right for an all-gender egg-and-spoon 10k, perhaps?).