Pop-punk, whippets and sudden races, running as a woman is about redefinition
Morning jogs and the big little lies we tell ourselves about what sort of woman runs
words Sophie Lou Wilson
I lace up my trainers and step out into the cold morning. It’s been a long winter, so I’ve been running to stay sane. I set up my running app and press play on the half marathon training playlist I made – it’s mostly ‘00s pop punk like Avril Lavigne and blink-182 because they’re usually running in their music videos for some reason; I hope it doesn’t show up on my Spotify Wrapped this year, but it probably will. There’s a light drizzle and, at first, it annoys me. If it's going to rain, it might as well do it properly. But soon, I don’t notice it. And then I feel free. Free from winter, from work stress, from any looming existential anxiety I might be carrying that day. And free from external pressures too, like the contradictory rules we’re told about being a woman in the world.
Granted, when I first started running as a teenager, it was partly out of some misguided idea about what a woman should be like. On screen, I watched successful female characters take important work calls on treadmills or head out for 5am jogs to start the day. This popular trope was often used to signify that these characters were focused and had their shit together. Think Charlotte in Sex and the City or Elle Woods studying for her law exams in Legally Blonde. It still proliferates to this day in shows like Big Little Lies and The Bold Type, where running is portrayed as part of a certain luxurious or career-driven lifestyle.
These shiny, cinematic American women seemed self-assured, like they had it all. I wanted to be like them but, like most teenage girls, I had a turbulent relationship with my body image, a struggle that sometimes manifested in overexercise. Thinking of running as something I do first and foremost for my mental health rather than to lose weight or achieve a certain physical appearance helped me change my mindset towards exercise.
Eventually, running gave me freedom from working out on gym machines that told me how many calories I had burnt. I stopped running to try and be someone I was not and started running for me.
The uninterrupted me-time that running provides was – and still is today – also a big attraction. At school, our team-led PE lessons were competitive and sometimes downright nasty. Friend group tensions raised the stakes of what were supposed to be fun games of rounders and the social politics of choosing team members could be particularly stomach churning. After joining the school’s early morning running group when I was 14, I was allowed to spend PE classes jogging round the field instead of running up and down a netball court. I jumped - or ran - at the chance. I’d run alone or with one other friend, talking things out in my head or to the person I was with. I’m naturally introverted, so time spent alone or with someone I’m close to is what I need to recharge. Now, running is sometimes the only proper me-time I get in a day. Between a full-time job, keeping up with friends and general neverending life admin, being in your twenties in London is busy.
Carving that time out of my schedule for running is an act of self-love. I work from home twice a week so on those days I run in the morning, using the time I save from not commuting to the office. I do a longer run at the weekend when I have more time, joining the cyclists, young families and North London couples with their pet whippets on the path that leads to Highgate.
When I run, it’s on my terms. It’s my choice when, where and how long I run for. I choose what I listen to, relishing my runs for the time they allow me to enjoy my so-called guilty pleasure music as much as for the runner’s high. I’m only ever competing with myself – except on those awkward moments where I enter the park at the exact same time as another runner and it turns into a race neither of us agreed to, ending only when I decisively speed up or slow down. Truly, all that matters is reaching the goal I set for myself which, unlike bigger, more general life goals, is (barring injury) entirely in my control.
Sometimes being a woman in the world can be a lot. Sure, being a person in the world is a lot, but sometimes it’s hard to ignore how certain gendered expectations and stereotypes make their way into our lives and the way we view ourselves. When it comes to representation of women running, the career woman with the treadmill desk is a cliché. And that’s not to mention the fact that she usually ends up getting ‘saved’ by a man who takes her away from her career and her expensive workout equipment, forcing her to see marriage as more important than all the other goals she had previously set for herself – ew.
My running journey might have started as a reflection of those very stereotypes but, since then, it’s given me freedom from them. When I run, I don’t worry about what I look like or what other people think of me. I don’t care about the Hinge date who didn’t text me back or that stupid thing I said at the pub last Saturday. Running makes me feel more confident in who I am. So, in its own way, , it did bring me closer to becoming the actual self-assured woman I aspired to be as a teenager, after all.
This article has been brought to you in partnership with New Balance, which is working to get people on the move with its 2023 TCS London Marathon range.
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