Today (March 8th) is International Women’s Day. Whilst out on my run this morning, I was mulling over some posts and discussions I had seen on this topic and I decided I would like to mark the occasion with a post about inspirational women in athletics.
So what exactly does it mean to be an inspiration? For me, it means someone who has strength of mind, who will work hard for what they want to achieve. It means someone who doesn’t give up but has determination and will fight for what they believe in. Most importantly, an inspirational person is someone others admire and aspire to be like. In running, we often need to draw on the examples set by our inspirational role models to help us through difficult times: our first tentative steps to becoming a runner; heading out for a run when it’s dark, cold and wet outside and we’d rather curl up on the sofa and hibernate; fighting through the last painful miles of a marathon to finally reach that finish line. When it comes to these role models, we all take our inspiration from different people ranging from elite athletes to ordinary people who have done extraordinary things. Here are some of mine:
Without Kathrine Switzer and others like her, women’s distance running is unlikely to be what it is today. In 1967, while a college student, 20 year old Switzer entered and completed the Boston Marathon. Nothing remarkable there, I hear you say, but in the 1960s women were not allowed to compete in long races such as marathons due to the misguided belief that we were not physically capable, that it would be dangerous and de-feminising for “fragile” women. Under the gender-neutral name “K.V. Switzer” (which she insists was not to mislead officials, but simply how she always signed her name) Switzer became the first woman to officially enter the race and completed it in an (unofficial) time of approximately 4:20. Unofficial? Well, early in the race an enraged official tried to forcibly remove her from the race, prevented only by Switzer’s boyfriend (who was running with her) shoving the official aside and sending him flying. Knowing that the official only tried to remove her because she was a woman, Switzer was spurred on not only to complete the race, but also to prove that women COULD do it. She subsequently tried, alongside other female runners, to convince the Boston Athletic Association to officially allow women to compete, which was finally allowed in 1972. Switzer also campaigned for the women’s marathon to be included in the Olympic Games, which happened in 1984. After her pivotal Boston run, Switzer went on to win the New York marathon in 1974 with a time of 3:07:29. Her personal best time for the distance is 2:51:37 set at Boston in 1975.
For blazing a trail in women’s marathon running, Kathrine Switzer is a definite inspiration.
What would a list of inspirational female athletes be without Paula Radcliffe? Easily Britain’s greatest female distance runner, her world record time of 2:15:25 set at the London Marathon in 2003 (Radcliffe only made her marathon debut in 2002) still stands after more than a decade. Not only that, but of the nine marathons she has run so far, she has won seven and set a record in five, in fact, she has run four out of the five fastest women’s marathon times in history – pretty impressive stuff! In recent years she has been plagued by injury, most notably the stress fracture in her foot which forced her to miss the 2012 Olympic Games and led her at one point to believe she may never run again, but Radcliffe recently announced that she is back in training and is determined to race one more marathon in London next year, saying she wants to finish on her terms. Clearly, she has unfinished business with the marathon and is not ready to give up just yet! Radcliffe is also a high-profile campaigner against the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sport and has never been afraid to go out on a limb to get her point across.
For showing us EXACTLY what women can do and striving to make sport fair for all, Paula Radcliffe definitely makes the list.
Two time Olympic marathon runner and Commonwealth Games medallist Liz Yelling has shown her fair share of grit and determination. She led the Beijing Olympic marathon for the first 10 miles before being tripped, falling and breaking a rib. Showing great courage and spirit, she carried on to finish the race in a time of 2:33 when many others would have pulled out. Now retired from international running, Yelling continues to inspire others through her coaching not just of aspiring Olympians, but runners of all abilities, including those just starting out. She visits schools to inspire the next generation and is a regular contributor to health, fitness and running magazines, fitting all this around a hectic schedule of being a mum of three.
For sheer guts and her work to prove that anyone can run, Liz Yelling is an inspiration.
As the poster girl for the 2012 Olympic Games, Jessica Ennis had a great deal of pressure on her to succeed, and succeed she did. Putting the disappointment of the injury which had prevented her competing in the Beijing Olympics in 2008 firmly behind her, this one-woman athletics team took gold in the heptathlon on “Super Saturday”, beating her nearest rival by over 300 points. Not only that, but she set a British and Commonwealth record with her score of 6995 points, set a personal best in the 100m hurdles (also a new British record), 200m and javelin. She has become a positive role model for young girls with many aspiring to be like her, indeed she was recently voted the most inspirational person in the UK in a poll among 16-24 year olds. Who knows, perhaps she has inspired a future Olympic star…
For keeping her cool under pressure and inspiring a generation, Jessica Ennis must be on my list.
She’s the amateur runner who shows us all that anything is possible. Although always sporty, like many of us McAndrew only took up running in her thirties, motivated not only by the desire to get fitter, but also to raise money for charity. Soon, she was running marathon times which would qualify her to compete in the elite field of the London Marathon – she even took part in the race in the spring of 2007 (albeit at a more sedate pace) following the birth of her son in August 2006! In 2012 McAndrew trained hard in order to beat her marathon PB of 3:08:25 and was hoping to crack the elusive 3 hour barrier. She went on to finish the London Marathon in a time of 2:54:39, making her the first celebrity to cross the line and beating her previous best by over 13 minutes! Like anyone else, she burst into tears after crossing the line, unafraid to show her emotions and be pictured looking less than her best, clearly both overjoyed and overcome by her achievement. At the time of the race, commentators noted that only 88 British women had run a sub-3 hour marathon during the previous calendar year, highlighting how impressive her achievement is. McAndrew achieved something most women couldn’t, whilst juggling her passion for running (and no doubt tough training schedule) around her family commitments. She also supports a number of charities, often through her running, as well as providing inspiration to other female runners through her website, regular magazine columns and other interviews.
For proving that anything is possible, Nell McAndrew is an inspiration.
These five are just some of the high-profile women I find inspiring, but inspiration doesn’t have to come from the elite or the famous, it can come from anyone in any walk of life. I have found inspiration from the women in my running club who proved to me that an ordinary person can complete a marathon. I have found inspiration from the ladies in the Zero to 5K (and 5K-10K) groups I have helped to coach who are starting from scratch, overcoming setbacks and making incredible progress. I have found inspiration from the running bloggers (or blogging runners?) whose writing encouraged me to start this blog in the first place and whose work to share the highs and lows of training, offer advice and engage with other runners continues to inspire. And the list could go on!
Inspiration can come from anyone and by setting a positive example, we all might be an inspiration to someone else some day. Today may be International Women’s Day, but strong women everywhere are an inspiration EVERY day.
What women inspire you?
Has anyone ever told you that you have inspired them to do something?