From monotonous miles to ultramarathons: the changing face of women’s running

The Race to the Stones 2015

(Photo credit: Ais North)

In the year that Jasmin Paris became the first female winner of the 268-mile Montane Spine Race, smashing the course record while expressing milk for her baby daughter, it’s hard to imagine a time when women were restricted to racing the mile. Alison (Ais) North came to my Taunton workshop in January, and it was fascinating to hear her experience. Ais gave up on athletics in her early twenties, when running four laps of the track over and again became dull and monotonous. Drawn back to running in her mid-sixties, she’s discovered the joys of ultramarathoning, and is finding a new set of barriers to overcome. I hope you enjoy her story as much as I did.

After showing an early talent for running at school, Ais joined Aberdeen Athletics Club while at commercial college in her late teens. At AAC, she was inspired by long distance running greats and club athletes, such as Don ‘Stubborn Scotsman’ Ritchie and Steve Taylor.

This was around the time Kathrine Switzer started to break down the limits on women’s distance running by completing the Boston marathon, despite attempts by race marshals to stop her. But female runners still weren’t officially allowed to compete in the marathon, and as a woman, the longest distance Ais was allowed to race was a mile. She demonstrated a talent for fast finishing, winning events such as the “Ladies Mile” at local Highland Games.

In the late ’60s/early ’70s, it was unusual to run on the road – everyone trained on the track. Ais was dating one of the club athletes and he encouraged her to run further. She felt herself drawn to running long. She’d go out walking, and end up running, even without proper running shoes on. In her mind, it wasn’t training. She was just running.

Despite her track success, Ais still didn’t think of herself as a runner. And eventually, in her early twenties, she became fed up with the ‘monotonous miles’. She abandoned athletics, switching to other sports like climbing and skiing instead.

Several decades passed, during which she kept busy and active. A diagnosis of breast cancer and subsequent treatment in her late 40s led her to run occasionally to combat the chemo sickness, but never more than 5K and always for fun rather than to compete. Once the treatment was over, she returned to her business and rarely ran until, in 2014, she found herself working in San Francisco.

The Northern Californian lifestyle encouraged Ais to start early morning hill walking, and eventually to begin running again. When she returned home to the UK for Christmas, her eldest daughter Lorna mentioned she was training to walk the 100K Race to the Stones with a friend. Ais asked to join them. It was a chance to raise money for her favourite charity, the Friends of Charing Cross Hospital, and she felt confident that she could walk the distance.

She began her training with long walks along the local towpath and then the Ridgeway, which was close to home and part of the RTTS route. Somehow, walking turned into jogging. At this point, Ais had never run further than 8K in her life, but she starting following a 16-week programme to build up to the event. The further she ran, the happier she felt.

In the end, mum and daughter ran/walked the RTTS together. And despite the reaction from some people before the event that she was a “crazy woman” for attempting an ultra at the age of 64, Ais finished in 20 hours, raising £2,000 for charity. More importantly, she enjoyed it so much, she wanted more. Spurred on by her family and a young friend, British ultra-marathon runner Sophie Grant, she set her next goal for 2017 as the Fling Race along the West Highland Way in Scotland, a rugged and hilly course of 53 miles.

In between, she re-did the RTTS and tried a couple of road marathons, but realised that she just didn’t enjoy “shorter” events. In April 2017, she completed the Fling’s 53 miles and 6,000 feet of ascent in 15 hours.

Finishing the Fling Race 2017

(Photo credit: Ais North)

Ais was looking forward to applying for arguably one of the most prestigious ultra events in the world, the Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc (UTMB), when three months after the Fling, without warning, she suffered a heart attack. Her doctors declared her the fittest heart patient they’d seen, and theorised that it may have been caused by the radiotherapy treatment she’d undergone for her cancer twenty years earlier. But whatever the reason, it was a huge blow.

The after effects hit her emotionally as well as physically. While she was allowed to run, she felt very low and had no desire to do so. For the next year, she focused on her business and reduced her running significantly. She just couldn’t get going again. Everything was too hard and slow, a mental rather than physical block.

That all changed in 2019, and now she’s looking for ways to improve her running efficiency, working on technique and breathing, so she can build speed again. She’s still ambitious to compete in that first UTMB race before she celebrates her milestone 70th birthday.

(Photo credit: Ais North)

And entering her third stage of competitive running, Ais is struck by how women’s running has changed during her lifetime. Instead of being limited to four laps of the track, women are overtaking men in long distance events. It’s no longer seen as odd for a woman to run.

As the gender barriers disappear, she sees attitudes to age as the next obstacle to overcome. Already things are changing, since the reaction she experienced at the RTTS five years ago. But there’s more to do. She’s struggled to find programmes and advice geared for her age group. The rest and nutrition needs for a 30-something athlete are very different from a 60-something ultramarathoner, and she’s had to research, adapt and find what works for her through trial and error. “I’m a beginner, not an old experienced runner who knows all this stuff. I still want to compete and win. We need more races to encourage and reward the over 60s and 70s. We don’t lose our competitive spirit just because we aren’t young anymore.”

Ais is keen to use her experience to encourage more older people to overcome any nervousness about running, and to try ultramarathons. While the couch-to-5K programme and parkruns have been hugely successful in drawing more people into the sport, the shorter distances aren’t for everyone. “You don’t have to complete a 5K first. You can go straight from zero to ultra like I did. There’s a growing community of ‘silver striders’. Come and join us!”

9 Comments

  1. Thank you. I’m 57 doing St Cuthberts Way this year and am inspired by your story. I too hated the track and got told my hips were wrong for running. I was told grown up women didn’t run. Ha ha I run with my grandkids

    • Thanks so much for posting, Alison. Great to hear that your early experience hasn’t put you off running, and that you’re having fun with the grandkids. Glad that Ais’s story was an inspiration. Best of luck with St Cuthbert’s Way!

  2. I’m celebrating my 65 birthday this year by entering RTTS – double the distance I’ve done before. I started running at 50 and after problems with my knee began again using Chi and barefoot influences. I stick to trails and love it!

  3. It was great to meet Ais on your course in January – and at my tender age of 52 she was inspirational and I hope I can carry on for many more years, although maybe not quite over those distances, but I am planning on entering a trail race in the Alps for 2020 from where I can SEE Mont Blanc !!

  4. Hi Hannah, this is a great story. Thank you for sharing it. I’ve shared it on my Facebook page. It seems there is certainly a gap in the market for training advice for older female runners. They (we) are still in a small minority but their numbers will grow as all the women who’ve taken up running in their forties in the past few years move up the age categories. Katie (@RunYoung50)

    • Thanks so much for sharing, Katie. We’ve definitely still got a way to go in encouraging and supporting older women runners/ultrarunners. I love what you do through your blog to help champion and promote 50+ female athletes. And yes, we’re few in numbers now but that’ll change 🙂

  5. I started running for the first time at 50 and now over 14 years later, can’t imagine life without it. Have done 8 marathons and 6 or so lapped 12 or 24 hour events.

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