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Pathways into long-distance running

Pathways into long-distance running

Posted on Mar 7, 2017 in Blog, Interviews with women runners over 50

Women over fifty are not often in the public eye, and we don’t know much about older women’s experience of participating in sport or their attitudes to exercise. Through interviewing women runners for my blog I want to share and give value to their stories. For the first four interviews I chose women of different ages (50s to 70s) who had different running biographies. I am interested to see if common themes emerge from these initial interviews. This article looks at pathways into long-distance running: how did they become runners? It is the first in a series of three. Subsequent posts will look at the motivations for starting running, and how these have changed; and the development of the runner’s identity.

Running in Later LifeCover of Running in Later Life

I’ve recently finished reading “Ageing, the Body and Social Change, Running in Later Life” by Emmanuelle Tulle (2008). The introduction to the book opens with the words “Can we really change the world through running?” She examines social attitudes to ageing, how these devalue older people, and can encourage people to pursue youthfulness in a bid to avoid cultural marginalisation.

Using interviews with 21 veteran runners, aged 48 to 86, Tulle investigates whether their experiences provide a model for how older people can disrupt dominant cultural narratives of ageing: narratives of inevitable decline and enfeeblement.

Tulle argues that the veteran running movement has provided a structure within which older runners can develop and maintain their identity as athletes, describing it as “a pioneer movement seeking to change the social and cultural status of older people.“. Through becoming expert at understanding and managing their bodies, older runners are able to continue running. They are not denying ageing, they are managing its impact in a way which allows them to maintain their status as runners, and to keep control of their life stories. Theirs are disruptive biographies which have the power to change attitudes towards older people.

Tulle’s book has influenced my thinking about how I want to develop my informal research. Finally finishing the book, after reading it and taking notes over a period of several months, has acted as a catalyst to develop a schema for documenting the running biographies of the women I’ve interviewed. The schema draws on some of the ideas and arguments in Tulle’s book. The first part of it shows pathways into running. It is imperfect, but a starting point for this article.

The women I interviewed and their age at the time of interview were:

Schema of pathways into running

Schema of pathways into running for the four women I interviewed

Participation in sport before taking up running

Sandy and Christine both started running in their forties, Karen started at 50 and Madeleine was in her sixties. Christine and Madeleine both emphasised that they were not sporty. The defining factor for sportiness for them seemed to be participation in school sport. In Madeleine’s case she had a vivid memory of coming last in a race aged five, and a subsequent conversation with her mother, who told her it wasn’t possible to be both brainy and good at sport.

“After that I was not interested in sport. I really struggled to swim and once I went to senior school, the only sport we did was netball and hockey, and I hated them.”

Christine described herself as “very unsporty at school” and “the duffer that was picked last in all the teams.”

The wider cultural context is that in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, there was little expectation that girls would be sporty or even physically fit.

I have ascribed the term “sporty” to Karen and Sandy. Neither of them described herself this way. On reflection, I think that “active” might be a more appropriate adjective. Sandy talked about how much she loved running games in the playground at school, and as a teenager she started cycling, undertaking long-distance rides. Her family were active: they went for walks every weekend; but the opportunity to participate in organised sport wasn’t readily available to Sandy.

Karen described herself as “quite active” until about 25 or 30, when work and family commitments led to her giving up most fitness activities. She is the only one of the four women to have participated in organised sport after school. Karen played football for Notts County Ladies for two seasons and described herself as “football mad. I love football: playing and watching.”

Starting running: disrupted biographies

For Christine, Karen and Madeleine, the trigger for starting running was a major change in their lives. Christine had stopped teaching and started working for her husband. This meant she had more free time. Karen had been caring for her parents, who had recently passed away. “I thought, ‘Well it’s my life now, my time and I want to go for it.” Madeleine and her husband, Steve, were looking for ways to get fit as part of Steve’s recovery from bowel cancer.

Starting running: the 1980s running boom

For Sandy it was the 1980s running boom that provided the opportunity to run which had been absent in her youth.

Television coverage of the first London Marathon in 1981 led to a huge growth in interest in long distance running. The Nottingham Robin Hood Marathon was also held for the first time in 1981. Many new running clubs were established around this time, including Holme Pierrepont Running Club in 1982, which Sandy and her husband Derek later joined. With the first women’s Olympic Marathon in Los Angeles in 1984, long-distance running also became a sport which was more open to women.

Derek had started running in 1984, and it was whilst watching him run his first marathon in 1986 that Sandy decided to take up running.

Schema of pathways into running

Schema of pathways into running for the 4 women I interviewed

Support structures

Where did the initial support for taking up running come from? For Karen it was a Learn2Run beginners course being offered by a local running club. Madeleine was encouraged to go to parkrun by her son, Mike, who had started going along with his sons. Mike also went for runs with her, and helped her to improve her running technique.

Christine found a running partner in her neighbour. Sandy preferred to run alone but Derek’s participation in the sport gave her the opportunity to enter races, and running became a shared activity.

Running clubs provided the next level of support for Karen, Christine and Sandy. Karen joined Woodthorpe Huffers and Puffers, the club that had provided the beginners course. Christine and Sandy became members of Holme Pierrepont Running Club. Christine joined after a year of running, and Sandy after two years. Clubs gave a structure to their running, friendships and a sense of community, as well as opportunities to race. For Madeleine parkrun provided the opportunity to run regularly, and to run with members of her family.

Sandy also went on to participate in veterans athletics events, competing in national and European Veterans Athletics Championships. These offer opportunities to compete in track and field events, as well as road races. Through participating in these events she was able to discover her ability as a track runner.

Closing thoughts

For Christine, Karen and Madeleine it was a disruption in their lives which created the opportunity to take up running. The major changes they experienced were linked to serious ill health and bereavement. As such, they could be seen as negative events. However, these changes also gave them time to reflect, and reassess what they wanted to do. The disruption led to a positive outcome for all of them.

By starting running over the age of forty, and continuing running into their fifties, sixties and seventies, all four women could be said to be exceptional. They were not conforming to the social expectations of older women. They were not becoming less active and enfeebled by ageing. Instead they were becoming more active and stronger. They were also making themselves visible by running at parkrun, at races, on the track and on the streets.

All four women have made good use of the support structures available to them to develop their running:

“…once in the field, these women can use the structures, which they have helped to construct through their participation in competition and in the organisation of Veteran athletics, to attain levels of bodily competence not normally associated with those of older women.” (Tulle)

They are exceptional, and yet they are also ordinary. This is why I have chosen to interview women with diverse running biographies, rather than focus solely on performance. Exceptional stories can alienate the reader, who may feel that they can never aspire to the same level of achievement. I believe that “ordinary” stories hold just as much value and we can learn just as much, if not more, from them.


I am grateful to Dr Dave Hindley, author of the Running the Line blog, for lending me his copy of Emmanuelle Tulle’s book.

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