The more I thought about 2023, the more I realised that lots happened this year. My sports history research in particular has led to new experiences and opportunities. I’ve made enriching connections with other people with an interest in women’s history and sports history. 2023 has also been a year of loss and absence. I have lost someone who was very dear to me and almost lost my sense of being a runner. These are three of my 2023 reflections.
2023 reflections - getting a postcard
I used to send lots of postcards, often when I was travelling on holiday. Postcards used to be cheaper to send than letters and were sometimes a convenient way to send a short message to a friend. This was before letter writing and postcard writing were largely made redundant by mobile phones. I like using WhatsApp to share pictures of my experiences with my family and friends in the moment. But getting a postcard also brings a moment of joy. I was delighted to receive this postcard from Nikki Love during her 4000km run across Australia. I had contributed to her crowdfunding page for the trip and one of the rewards was to be a postcard sent from the Nullarbor Plain on her route.
The postcard shows a mural called “Aussie Whale Map” created by Pam Armstrong at the Nullarbor Roadhouse on the Eyre Highway. When I turned the postcard over, to my surprise, I found that Nikki had written me a personal message thanking me for my support. Nikki was running more than a marathon each day. I hadn’t thought she would have either the time or the energy to write more than a few words of greeting. The postcard now sits on my desk, reminding me to “think big” as Nikki would say.
"Grief is not rational"
Rachel Hewitt wrote these words in the final chapter of “In Her Nature – How Women Break Boundaries in the Great Outdoors” which was published this year. In Her Nature is a book about Hewitt’s research into the Victorian female mountaineers and alpine sportswomen who asserted their right to be outdoors and on the mountains. Hewitt reflects on the ways in which women’s access to outdoor activities today is still constrained and shaped by social expectations and, sometimes, by male hostility to their presence. In Her Nature is also a memoir, in which Hewitt documents the process of research, the impact of Covid-19, and her personal running journey.
Having lost several family members, Hewitt hopes that running will help her to live with and recover from grief. She links this keening grief to the loss of freedom to be in the outdoors that many women have experienced and continue to experience, framing it as another kind of grief. The narrative structure includes races and long runs as Hewitt attempts “to both run and write my way through grief.” She concludes that whilst running could not remove her sense of loss, it has helped to restore her sense of self.
I read Rachel Hewitt’s book when my partner and I went on holiday to Lanzarote in May. We knew that his mother, Alma, was nearing the end of her life. This was not the devastasting, sudden loss which Hewitt described. After a lifetime of good health and activity, Alma had been diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumour in March 2022. She lived for fourteen months after her diagnosis, far outliving the medical team’s prognosis.
We said a long goodbye over many months. That time was full of moments, some of intimacy, some of frustration, some of sadness and many of love, fun and joy. I felt, and still feel, that we were lucky to have this time together. But, it sometimes feels as if those months are the only ones I can remember of the thirty years we knew each other.
Running has not helped me to cope with grief and loss. I developed a hamstring injury in April 2022 which I am still recovering from. It felt like a physical manifestation of my sadness. I’ve had a few periods where I completely stopped running and, eventually, I stopped going to Iyengar yoga classes. I’m still having physiotherapy appointments at the hospital sports clinic. These have been excellent, but I have struggled to motivate myself to return to fitness and to rediscover my love of running. I have almost lost the sense of myself as a runner.
Alma was someone who believed in getting on with things and her final words in a letter to us were not to dwell on her passing. In 2024, I’m going to do some things which will help me to feel less sad. Writing this is the first of them. And I have a plan for regaining my fitness. I’ve always run on my own a lot, but this year I want to run mostly with other people as being part of a community of runners helps all of us to feel happier.
Being in print
In February, Steve Chilton very kindly sent me a copy of his new book, “Voices from the Hills – Pioneering Women Fell and Mountain Runners”. The voices in the book are those of the women who broke the barriers to women’s participation in fell racing. Often this was by racing unofficially. Voices from the Hills also tells the stories of the first women to participate officially in races once the athletics governing body rules changed and some of the challenges they faced to get proper recognition. Chilton profiles over 35 female athletes and sets each woman’s story within the context of the development of fell running from the 1950s to the 1990s. Most of the profiles draw on interviews Chilton conducted with the women as part of his research. The many direct quotations from these women really bring the history to life.
Steve Chilton had sent me a pre-publication copy of Voices from the Hills to review. I was very pleased to do this and to provide some quotations about the book. My ambition is to have the book I am writing about the history of women’s distance running in the UK published. This still feels a long way off. However, I know the steps I need to take and it’s up to me to make it happen in 2024. It was a lovely surprise to find that the publishers had chosen one of my quotations to feature on the front cover. I really value the recognition of my research work and knowledge. And I got my name on the front cover of a book!
Towards the end of the year, my name appeared in print in a different way. I subscribe to a magazine for women writers, “Mslexia”. I submitted a short article about RunYoung50 for their “Blogability” feature and was delighted when it was accepted. It was printed in the 100th issue of the magzine which came out in December. I publish thousands of words each year on here, but getting my copy of Mslexia in the post reminded me how special it feels to see, and hold, your words in print.
I’d be interested to hear what memories stand out for you from 2023. Which books have made an impression on you?
Nikki Love’s website
“In Her Nature – How Women Break Boundaries in the Great Outdoors“, Rachel Hewitt, Chatto & Windus, 2023
“Voices from the Hills – Pioneering Women Fell and Mountain Runners“, Steve Chilton, Sandstone Press, 2023