International Women’s Day (internationalwomensday.com) is a call to action to celebrate the achievements of women, and to redouble our efforts in achieving gender parity with men.
The seeds for International Women’s Day (IWD) were sown in New York City, in 1908, when 15,000 women marched to demand voting rights, better pay and shorter working hours. It filtered through to Europe and Russia after that, and when, in 1911, a fire killed 140 women working in a clothing factory in New York, the focus of IWD events became working conditions and labour legislation. In 1913, the date of IWM was set as 8 March.
This year, the theme for International Women’s Day is Press For Progress, ‘…to motivate and unite friends, colleagues and whole communities to think, act and be gender inclusive.’
In the running community, this is happening. Anyone who takes an interest in running on social media cannot fail to notice how women are posting their club runs, fun runs and Run Mummy Run runs left, right and centre, and letting their sisters know how good and – yes – empowering that feels.
Women’s Running spoke to three extraordinary women whose love of running inspired them to espouse some powerful causes…
Celebrated runner and activist Kathrine Switzer chose International Women’s Day 2015 to organise her second 261 Women’s Marathon in Mallorca.
261 Fearless is the name of Kathrine’s international running network for women. It’s the number she was allocated in her first ever marathon, in Boston, in 1967.
Running a marathon is a huge achievement, whatever your gender. The scoop with Kathrine, however, was that no women were allowed to run the distance under the Amateur Athletic Union rules (the furthest women were allowed to run was 1.5 miles).
Kathrine Switzer filled in her Boston 1967 application form as ‘KV Switzer’, and trained hard. What happened after the starting gun is the stuff of legend. An outraged official tried to pull this female interloper off the course, then her boyfriend barged him out of the way.
Kathrine finished the marathon, attracted a barrage of publicity for her pains, campaigned for women to be allowed to run the marathon distance and went on to run Boston, eight years later, in 2:51.
Since then, Kathrine, 70, has been at the forefront of women’s athletics, most recently launching the 261 Fearless movement to establish clubs in which women could find the joy in running. After the UK launch, Kathrine talked about the fall-out from her 1967 debut:
“After the official attacked me, everything changed and I knew I had to finish the race no matter what, or people would just say once again that women can’t do it. I was so determined, I would have died trying. Still, it wasn’t until I saw the newspapers that night with all the photos, did I realise it was becoming political.”
That was a proud moment for Kathrine, and it has been followed by momentous achievements in running.
“In 1975, running a 2:51 marathon, after years of being told I was a no-talent, shut up a lot of my critics, but more importantly proved that with hard training, even not-so talented folks can do amazing things. In 1981, after lobbying hard up until the last moment, I was there when the International Olympic Committee voted the women’s marathon into the 1984 Olympic Games.
In April 2017, crossing the finish line of the Boston Marathon once more to celebrate 50 years of achievement in women’s opportunities and to pass the torch to 261 Fearless.
“261 Fearless acknowledges how running has changed women’s lives. International Women’s Day is a global acknowledgement that women matter. Most women in the world – MOST! – still live in a fearful situation. We need to reach them in a way that is kind, fun, a direct touch and 261 Fearless can do this. Running worked before, it will work again.”
Lucreta La Pierre MBE, 67, is a runner, poet, inexhaustible volunteer and one of those people that makes you feel better about the world. She started running when her marriage failed and to cope with grief after her daughter died, and it became the centre of her life. It was a poor performance at her local parkrun that first alerted her to the fact something wasn’t right with her health.
“I was moving so slowly! I felt like I was running backwards,” Lucreta recalls. A visit to the doctor and a blood test later, Lucreta was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia, and her prospects looked bleak. There followed a gruelling year of treatment.
“With the diagnosis, I thought my life had come to an end. As the treatment went on, I knew I had to think of ways to get through it.”
Lucreta imagined her chemotherapy, endless blood tests and other indignities that cancer treatment inflicts on a body, as a marathon – something to be powered through. She vowed she’d be back at parkrun as soon as she could. “I need to run – running is my medicine,” she laughs.
It had been the tonic that saw her through her family problems, and was now going to help her through this. She took small steps. “First, I was counting my progress along the corridors of the hospital. When I finally got home, I went for walks to the front door, the front gate, the end of the pavement at the corner, round the block…I had a stick. I rested, then I walked. I listened carefully to the advice of my consultant about resting and eating. I told my consultant I was going to do parkrun.”
Lucreta inspired her consultant to join her for parkrun. The day she made it round that 5K course was a breakthrough. Now in remission, she walk/runs the course when she’s not too tired, or volunteers if she is. Her tireless fundraising earned her an MBE in 2004. She is now raising money for the Anthony Nolan Trust (anthonynolan.org) and she keeps running, writing and helping other people:
“I say to them, there’s always a way through, don’t feel shame, just tell yourself, ‘I’m going to do it!’ and be inspired on International Women’s Day!”
Running has worked in mysterious ways for Vanessa Cain-Tait, 30, who runs a successful tour-guiding business, Secret London Runs (secretlondonruns.com). She had no idea where her running habit would lead her when she decided to take herself in hand after the wine-soaked university years had left her feeling unfit.
“To begin with, I had to walk/run to get round a daily 5K route, but quickly I got the bug and would go out running for hours!” she says. “I learned about running tours in Budapest and thought to myself, I love running, I love history and I love meeting new people. I should do that.”
At the time, Vanessa had a full-time job, so she set up Secret London Runs with a friend as a sideline; they were both surprised that a ‘Murder Mystery’ event they organised as a launch party attracted 90 runners.
As more tours were planned and the workload took its toll, Vanessa realised she was going to have to make a decision about making the business her own. So she kissed goodbye to her day job – and financial security.
“There’s always a danger of turning things you love into your livelihood,” she says. “Over the past decade, running has been my happy place. I love the therapeutic aspect of it. Now I only seem to run as a guide.
“I never expected Secret London Runs to take off how it did, but the enjoyment I get from researching and delivering a new tour is like nothing I’ve experienced. The best thing has been the support from my husband, family and friends. They’re regularly my guinea pigs for new tours, dress up as various people from London’s past and stand on street corners, or run at the back of my tour when it’s too big. They’re incredible!”
“The Power Women Tour is my favourite of our running tours. Only 13 per cent of the blue plaques in London are for women and statues of women are sparse. This tour picks out 10 amazing women. Telling people about them feels like it’s doing good in the world – we need to know what women have achieved in the past to progress forwards, rather than have it played down.
“Violette Szabo and Eleanor Marx are the most inspiring women I’ve researched – I feel emotional every time I talk about them. Violette Szabo parachuted into German-occupied France when she was 21 years old, as part of the Special Operations Executive F unit, to disrupt the communications around the Normandy Day landings. Eleanor Marx had so much heartbreak in her life, but still changed working conditions in factories and worked for women’s rights.
“I’ve just written a new tour, ‘Power Women of the East End’ because it’s high time we gave more women a bit of attention.
“We’re running London’s Power Women tours four days a week for Women’s History Month.”
Words: Ronnie Haydon
Join us this March for our International Women’s Day Virtual Run!
You can run anywhere, at whatever pace and cover whatever distance you fancy. You don’t have to be fast and you don’t have to go far, simply sign up, go for a run between International Women’s Day on Thursday 8th March, and Friday 16th March and we’ll send you a beautiful medal to commemorate the achievement.
The team at WR will be out in force and we’d love for you to join us in celebration of what is becoming and an evermore-iconic day for women.
Entry is £12 and includes a £2 donation to the amazing women’s rights charity Womankind Worldwide (womankind.org.uk)