Friday, 20 April 2012

A Is for April; B Is for Boston; Why Is C for Women?

The day before the 2012 Boston Marathon, I went for a training run on the Toronto lake shore. I’m still recovering from a serious injury and was feeling jubilant that I had sustained about 13 km of moderately fast running without pain. I had reached Coronation Park on the return leg of my run when my mood soured. A man walking in the opposite direction had seen me from a distance and felt the need to accompany my approach with a barrage of sexually-based obscenities. As our paths intersected, I had a few choice words for him in return; based on his physical dilapidation, I was confident that I could, if necessary, outrun him.

I didn’t enjoy the confrontation but neither do I enjoy having the C-word applied. I don’t like the one you’re thinking of, and I don't like another one, peculiar, in my experience, to the world of running and endurance sports. As I’ve become a more competitive runner, I realize that I must have “chicked” quite a number of male runners. I didn’t set out to do so, merely to run as fast as I could and pass as many people, of any kind, as possible. But there is for some (mostly, but not exclusively, men), something uniquely humiliating about a female athlete beating a male one, about “being chicked”.

Why this should be so, I don’t know. I don’t know why my lake shore friend had nothing to say to the male runners ahead of and behind me on Sunday night. I do know what it means to run/throw/fight, etc. like a girl, but I don’t know why  “girl” should still be a synonym for incompetence.

Forty-five years ago this month, race director Jock Semple tried to manhandle Kathrine Switzer off the Boston Marathon course. Switzer was Boston’s first official female entrant and while we rightly laud her courage and persistence in completing the race, and the momentum her actions gave to women’s distance running, we should not forget that men helped: Switzer’s coach, Arnie Briggs; Tom Miller, who body-checked Semple to free his then-girlfriend; and not least the dozens of male marathoners who simply, silently kept running.

In tribute to those men, I issue this challenge. To gentlemen, on behalf of the many women who, like me, are sick and tired of being treated like a freak show when we run:

    If I beat you to the finish during training or a race,
    Can you firmly shake my hand, can you look me in the face,
    Can you tell me I was better, not forever, just today,
    Can you keep from hurling insults, in the spirit of fair play?

    If you can, then welcome sportsman, my win is not your shame,
    We can say that I’ve been Switzered, and I’m proud to own the name.