‘Go for it,” shouted one of the pair of middle-aged men strolling around the park as I dashed past in my running shorts. “Feck off,” was my reaction, out of earshot. Bruce Springsteen was blasting out through my earphones and I was seething. How dare they? Did I invite comment? Would they have shouted out at a male runner? Would the man have shouted if accompanied by a woman rather than another man? Only children, I concluded, would receive the admonitions of unknown adults in this way. But to some men, women, like children, are fair game for running commentary.
The VHI Women’s Mini Marathon is the biggest women’s event of its kind in the world. It has grown from its beginnings in 1983 with almost 9,000 participants to more than 40,000 every year since 2007. In 1983 many women were too self-conscious to be seen running in public. Yet even today, it seems, we cannot run with the freedom of men.
Male sport is so predominant it does not attract comment. It’s what men do – while women watch, or get the dinner ready, or mind the children. This might seem outdated, but yesterday, perusing the sports section of a leading Irish newspaper, I saw on the inside back page just one column inch each on ladies’ football and camogie with two tiny pictures, this after page after page of football, rugby, hurling and soccer with half-page photos of glorious men.
My interest in running started with park runs early last year. I joined a running club in October and started racing this year. Women’s athletics receive little mainstream coverage. And Women Master’s athletics receive even less, even though 379 runners in last year’s mini marathon were over 70.
Few will know that Carmel Parnell won two gold medals for Ireland at the World Masters Championships in Lyon last summer. She took the women's over-60s 10,000m in 40:29 and the W60 8,000m in 32:10. In April she won the Great Ireland Run, 10km in Phoenix Park, in 39:57. I came second – a good five minutes later.
Parnell has been an athlete most of her life. The UK's Angela Copson, on the other hand, ran her first race at the age of 59 as a fund-raiser for the cardiac ward that treated her husband. She went on to run the London Marathon in less than three hours, 15 minutes. Angela's times at 3,000m and 5,000m on the track are World Masters W60 records. Park runners might be interested to learn that her 5km road time as a W60 was 19 hours, 24 minutes. In February Parnell ran a 5km road race in 19 minutes. Angela is now in the W65 category and still breaking records, namely: 1,500m in 5:30.70 minutes; 3,000m in 11:48.20 minutes; 5,000m in 20:13.23 minutes, and marathon in three hours and 17 minutes.
Certainly a lot to write home about – or even include in a national newspaper. That sort of attention would be welcome. Being shouted at in a park? Maybe not.
After getting better at park runs, I joined Dundrum South Dublin Athletic Club, which has a long and prestigious heritage. I am in the meet-and-train group, of whom no great things are expected. We run around Marlay Park and do the occasional road race. Some, whom I greatly look up to, have done marathons. As we jog and chat around the park, we are sometimes overtaken in a whoosh of air by a streamlined flock of gazelles, fleet of foot and perfectly formed – the younger members of the club, some of whom compete for their country.
They and their like, from rival clubs, thronged Irishtown Stadium for a graded track-and-field event on the evening I decided to turn up and have a go. I desperately scanned the sea of young faces for someone even vaguely wrinkly. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a grey-haired woman in a tracksuit. I started to walk over to her when she was mobbed by the girls she was training. I spotted a blond Adonis-like boy wearing a Dundrum South Dublin sweatshirt and asked him where I should sign up. I had never raced on a track before. He said, “But you’ve trained on one?” I shook my head.
Proceedings were brisk, with lots of races to get through. My fear was that I would scupper the timings of subsequent races by being so slow. For a full five minutes I was about to turn on my heel. Then a thought that accompanies me a lot these days goaded me on. If I don’t do it now, when will I? And I stayed. As their races drew near, runners put on their club singlets. I dashed to the toilets and changed back into mine.
I had picked the 800m event, an in-between distance. Apparently many consider it the hardest, as it’s a sprint that also requires stamina. As we lined up, I asked the girl next to me if we had to stay in our lanes all the way around, and then the shot was fired and I was off.
I came last. But not by much. In so doing I took nearly three seconds off the Irish W60 800m record, set in 1999. I didn’t know this as I left. I was simply thrilled I had done it and hadn’t held up the other races too much.
- The VHI Women's Mini Marathon is on June 6th at 2pm