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Helen Mort: Casserole dishes and karma

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

A view worth stopping for: Cummock Water on an August Day. @ Jan Bella

The sporting world lags behind the times when it comes to gender equality. It was 2012 before women were allowed to participate in every event in the Olympic Games, 2014 before they could play professional cricket in England and 2016 before they were finally permitted to join Muirfield golf club (The Guardian). Baffling when you consider women have been governing lands for centuries.

With gender equality hitting the headlines on an almost daily basis at the moment – not to mention Cycling Weekly’s ‘token attractive women’ gaff late last week – we spoke to trail runner and climber Helen Mort to get her take on the issue. In this blog, she tells us what inspires her love of the outdoors, the sexism she has encountered and the advice she’d give to women thinking about taking up an outdoor sport. 

Do you think that there are enough magazines, articles and films etc., which help promote female participation in outdoor sports? 

I think there are a lot more positive role models in the fell running and trail running world featured in articles and films and books than there used to be – I remember reading about Helene Diamantides in Feet In The Clouds when I was a teenager, then picking up Heather Dawe's book a few years ago and feeling equally inspired. But we could always do with more!

Have you experienced any gender-biased treatment while running or climbing and do you feel that sexism exists within these sports? 

I guess I've experienced plenty of low-level sexism in the world of competitive running – snide comments from men in races, male runners being extra-competitive with me or implying that women have it easier ... I once received a set of casserole dishes as a prize for winning a fell race while the male winner got a cash prize! Then of course you have the usual heckling on the streets that I'm sure most female runners have endured: comments about my body, that kind of thing. I try to laugh most of it off. Once, I got jeered at by a group of men in a van while I was out running, then they immediately got flashed by a speed camera: I thought of it as instant karma. 

Do you think that outdoor retailers encourage women to participate in sport? 

I think they do these days, yes – you're just as likely to see women in their advertising as you are men and there's so much choice for women when it comes to outdoor gear these days. It still slightly annoys me that the colours used in outdoor clothing can be a bit gender biased though: I don't like bright pink and purple waterproofs!

What were the boundaries that you faced when you began running or climbing, if any? What advice would you give to women wanting to begin an outdoor pursuit? 

I was never a skinny kid and when I started competitive running at school, so I don't think anyone thought I'd be any good. I'm not naturally slim, my weight fluctuates and over the years people have suggested to me that I've not quite got the 'right build' to be a runner. I think this translated to an obsession about my weight when I was a teenager competing on the fells and track. I'd encourage any woman taking up an outdoor pursuit to celebrate their bodies through sport rather than seeing it as a means of control or punishment.

Has writing Lake District Trail Running impacted your athletic career or made you view any part of running differently? 

It has made me much more confident in my ability to navigate when out running. Before, I tended to leave the route-finding to running companions (usually men!) but now I trust my own judgement a lot more. Not long after finishing the book, I took part in my first mountain marathon.

What would you say to people who find the thought of taking up running a daunting/nerve-racking prospect? 

Everybody else out there running is worrying about something too. You're only 'competing' against yourself most of the time. There's no shame in running at a speed you might think is slow.

Where is your all-time favourite place to run, and do you have any up-coming competitions or personal targets you’d like to accomplish?

My favourite run is over White Edge, Curbar and Frogatt in the Peak District. I never tire of it, especially when I see deer on the horizon. These days, my target is to enjoy my running and be kind to myself. I ran a sub three-hour marathon a couple of years ago, which was a big goal for me and for now I'm not interested in competitions or race targets.


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