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The sharp end

18 September 2018

This Saturday, at parkrun, shifting from foot to foot about three rows from the front, checking out the Helpston Harriers vests ahead, a fellow runner said to his friend, “Woah, we really are at the sharp end!”

I was standing there too. A quick blast on the horn, a broken chord of garmin beeps, and we were running. Sprinting kids, grizzled guys gurning by the first turn, sharp elbowed men cursing the plodders in search of a pb. And me, failing not to go out too fast, again.

There are not many women at the sharp end. I knew a couple were ahead of me but I couldn’t spot them – too small, too slight, to be noticed in amongst the sea of men.

At that parkrun, 7 out of the first 100 to finish were women or girls, but we made up nearly half (48%) of everyone who walked, jogged or ran around Nene Park that morning.

Parkrun is not a race. Our local cross-country league, on the other hand, is. It starts in three weeks’ time (oh god), and I just received this message about it from my club:

More often than not“? This guidance is new, I think. I’ve always understood it to be fastest 7 men, and 3 women. And that’s what it will be. In the first race of 2017/18 season, 5 women finished in the top 100, and only 20 in the first 200.

So why not 5 men and 5 women to score? What is the argument against it? I guess the rules originally reflected the number of runners of each gender a team could field. And they do still mirror them – in that first race last year 38% of runners were women, 62% men. But there were 195 women, more than enough to score. If the teams have the runners, why isn’t the scoring equal?

Could it be elitism, rather than sexism, that drives this choice to hold onto old rules? Elitism is what competitive sport is built on. Rewarding the performance of the very best – who push themselves to their limit – over the mid-pack runners who’d rather hold onto their breakfast and not break their ankles. Prioritising the sharp end, over the fun-runners.

How do we get more women at the sharp end, though? Maybe by not treating them as fun-runners, and giving them an equal chance to score.

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