In 1967 Kathrine Switzer was the first woman in the world to officially register for a marathon, the one in Boston, which had been taking place for 70 years. The race director made a pathetic attempt to shove her out of the way, but he ended up in the gutter, knocked down by Kathrine's boyfriend, and she reached the finishing line. Nothing can stop a woman who runs. Kathrine may have been questioned, insulted and expelled from her federation, but the movement proved unstoppable. Five years later, thanks to new regulations, nine females registered for the marathon alongside 1,210 men. They were fewer than one per cent. Last year, 11,639 women finished, which was 43 per cent of the total.
But why are women not 50 per cent of the total? The Club Deportivo Fortuna asked itself that question ten years ago. It organises the 20km Behobia-San Sebastián race, which took place for the first time in 1919 and is now one of the biggest in Spain with 26,130 'finishers' last time. It organised women's training groups but realised something more was needed, a profound change which would take time. In November last year, it launched its challenge: to reach 50 per cent in seven years. Kathrine Switzer was there to support the initiative, which was registered as B/SS 50/50/25.
The 10K Valencia Ibercaja was the first to make a similar official commitment in 2015 and with its hashtag #lamitadmásuna it has raised female participation from 23 per cent to 31 per cent of around 11,000 competitors, says director Alejandro Aparicio. The strategy is to be more welcoming to female athletes, with measures such as setting up a marquee where they can change after the competition, opening a nursery for the children of couples who both compete and presenting them with a flower when they arrive.
It is easier to achieve parity in short races than half marathons (21.097 kms), marathons (42.195 kms) and the longer ultra-marathons. The physical demands and commitment are greater over long distances.
"It isn't that we want equal numbers of men and women," insists Arantza Rojo of CD Fortuna. "The idea isn't to establish quotas to increase female participation and leave men out. Women have naturally been taking up running and will continue to do so." What they are trying to do is make the Behobia a platform which speeds up social change and therefore, she says, it is not so essential that in 2025 there are exactly 50 per cent of girls at the starting line, but to have made progress.
At the time when Switzer challenged unwritten rules, many people thought women would not be able to run 42 kilometres, and that included her trainer. When they discovered that actually, they can, they said that doing so placed their reproductive ability at risk. That excuse then lost credibility and the sexist repertoire began, taking advantage of women's insecurity about their appearance: training would make women 'manly', too much muscle, less attractive...
Over the years, these crude arguments lost their capacity of persuasion and more and more women have started running and taking part in and winning races. "We have interiorised the fact that outdoor sport improves your life, is good for the health and for social relations," says Rojo, but there are still some invisible barriers.
Experts say girls tend to give up sport in their teenage years, either because they are less motivated or because they have been told from a young age that it's only boys who 'need' to do sport. Others stop when they become pregnant. For many couples it seems normal that in their free time he spends a few hours running, swimming, cycling or playing football while she looks after the children and maybe occasionally finds time to go to the gym. "It's great that women do zumba, but bad that they think they can only do zumba," says Rojo. Preparing for a marathon involves at least three or four training sessions a week, including long distance. "You have to be very determined to achieve that," she says.
Another factor mentioned by experts is that the Olympics - which were closed to women for decades - marked the organisation of modern sport, and in many ways they still reflect a 19th-century idea of male supremacy. It is difficult to know how far women can go, as they started competing later and there are still fewer of them. What would happen if 90 per cent of girls played football? Would there be the occasional female Messi? There have been women champions in several ultra-marathons (races of over 42 kms) and swimming competitions, but their achievements are less well-known and girls don't have as many role models to imitate. In Arantza Rojo's opinion, physical differences between males and females should not mean that popular sport or sport in schools should be so compartmented by gender, when the aim is to encourage good health and have a good time.
Visibility is one of the strategies to attract more women to the legendary race between the French border and the capital of Gipuzkoa. For example, women 'hares' (runners who set the pace for those who want to finish in a specific time), have been raising awareness on social media with videos showing women's experiences, inviting female sports influencers and the possiblity of the first group to leave the starting point being elite athletes, so they reach the finishing line at the same time as the fastest men, as in other major competitions. "What we need to do is give visibility to women who run, participate, compete or win," says Rojo.
The B/SS, which mirrors the Goteborg Varvet, the most popular half marathon in Europe (60,000 runners of whom 35 per cent are women) has also set an example for the Salto Systems Clásica 15K and the Zurich Maratón de San Sebastián, organised by Fly Group. Its president, Mikel Huarte, recalls that the first time he heard talk of sexism in running his response was "we are not chauvinists", but then he reviewed some aspects of his organisation. "Most of the workers were men, the publicity photos were of men, the men's classifications were published first, the prizes were higher for men. There were things we hadn't thought about," he says.
Sometimes the devil is in the detail. The London Marathon, one of the six biggest in the world, took place in April and women complained because the T-shirts they were given were designed for men, not only in terms of size but also the shape, even though 41 per cent of participants were female. "The world is designed around men," says Maud Hodson, spokeswoman for the Run Equal campaign. In Spain some races give away different T-shirts for men and women, including the Behobia-San Sebastián, the Clásica 15K, the Maratón Donostiarra and the 10K in Valencia. Perhaps that is the starting pistol for a long run ahead.