By Florence Sargent
As a teenager in competitive running, I was never preoccupied with the idea of male attention. Probably because I was never catcalled whilst running. I naturally wear longer shorts and tops suitable for my body shape and so I don't get sunburnt during the summer (something which I've always hated).
As I've grown older and developed, however, I've noticed changes in male reactions. When tying up my shoelaces, I've been approached by men asking ‘where I'm from’ and ‘what languages I speak’. Those are days I’ve been forced to pick up the pace, purely terrified by the thought of being followed.
Although it has become a notorious piece of advice to ‘never talk to strangers’, particularly older men, male scrutiny and inappropriate comments are becoming unavoidable, seeping down the age brackets. Boys as young as thirteen are yelling crude statements, with one in particular asking me if he 'should get his dick out', before proceeding to run to his dad's car. Do their parents know that their children say these things? Are they hearing it in the school playground, or at home?
The tragic deaths of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa have proved that violence against women is evidently on the rise in today's society. As women, we've been taught to ignore unwanted comments because it's simpler; because talking means involving those men in a conversation and then being blamed for how we were the ones who 'asked for it'.
The fear of running past seven o'clock in my neighbourhood has resulted in my dad waiting in the car whilst I train on a stretch of flat pavement. Dark alleys, abandoned trails or places where I could end up exploring whilst running, are off bounds; too dangerous, too cliché. No wonder dropout rate in this sport for girls is six times the rate for boys in teenagers! In a competitive running environment, it is difficult enough to keep up with our ever-changing bodies, and the arrival of periods, extreme growth and increased hunger. It takes its toll on the mind - especially when the existing expectation to peak at eighteen in time for university is still prevalent.
The gendered issues in approaches to long-distance running, in particular, extend back to a traditional mindset of ‘a skinny body means faster times’. The three coaches I have worked with have all been men, and periods were never discussed. It is not surprising that 3.5 to 66 percent of female athletes suffer from amenorrhea (loss of periods because of high stress and under-fuelling), compared with only 2 to 5 percent of non-athletes. The training for female athletes should be scrutinised more. The basics should be equal to males, but our bodies’ reactions to higher mileage is significantly different. Clearly periods are still a ‘taboo’ topic, something I experienced when I openly discussed my periods during a zoom call and the boys were advised to "cover their ears!". The normality of suppressing this topic leads to a feeling of humiliation and discomfort in our own bodies.
Periods and growth have a symbiotic relationship. The mental strain of missing training due to knee pain or shin splints, the frustration of feeling like your legs weigh two tonnes, the demotivation of feeling winded running one kilometre, it all impacts how we respond to the sport. The decline usually occurs around fourteen: the athlete tails off, injuries occur more often, and this results in teens frequently choosing to stop sport. A lack of support and awareness surrounding the impact of growth on female bodies is apparent. Our bodies aren't machines, and it's taken me three years of experience to understand this.
Reframing is all about mindset. Some days will feel easier when the strength starts to return, whilst other days will feel emotional when you need to stop during a run to cry, but, at the end of the day, we’re in a stage of development and it’s our human reaction to follow the body’s signals. Finding a spiritual connection has provided huge benefits to me, along with sticky notes on my mirror to remind me of my strength and courage. You can be as good as the naturally talented runner who has trained since they were five, even if you started when you were fourteen. You define your limits and even if you're not where you want to be at this moment, think of how much you've achieved in such a short space of time.
There was a time when running became my life, when I would base my happiness on my racing results, which ultimately led to a cycle of underachieving because I adopted this mindset. Now that I've matured, I know that running is an important yet small part of my life and that my achievements in running will always be balanced by focusing on the other academic or social opportunities I'm presented with. I have now created a healthy lifestyle that allows me to succeed in all areas of my life and not solely define myself by my running commitments. It’s a long, and constantly-evolving journey, but one that has allowed me to become a better athlete, friend, sister, and woman.