Last Friday evening, in Birmingham, at the UK Athletics championships, Alyson Dixon won the women's 10k track race in 34m 46s. She also came last: she was the only entrant. Rather than have her do 25 laps of the track on her own, they put her in with the men's race.
One single runner. It's staggering. Yes, the decline has been going on for some years, with the 10k race often featuring runners in the single figures: Eight last year, five in 2011, 11 in 2010 etc. But just one? One solitary woman? Is that really all we can muster for our national championships?
Compare with how many woman ran a UK 10km road race this weekend. I would guess thousands (I will offer a small prize to whoever actually can be bothered to add up those Power of 10 numbers). So, what's going on here?
It's unfair, really, to compare the two types of race. The track race was invitational (clearly a few invitations went astray …) and road races are usually open to all. But it does reflect a two-tier system that is puzzling, to say the least.
Is there a profound lack of interest in track running generally? My colleague Adharanand Finn recently entered an open-mile track race, and reported only three other runners in the men's race, while no one turned up to the women's race. Perhaps there is a perception that track races are purely for the top athletes – have any readers ever looked into one? Entered one themselves?
But the lack of runners at the women's 10k also mirrors something that has been bothering me for a while. As keen runners will know, one way to get a spot for the London marathon (other races, of course, run the same system, with slightly different figures) is to qualify for a "good for age" place. That is, use a decent result from another marathon to ensure a place on this one. For men, in the age group 18-40, that time is 3h 05m or better. For women it is 3h 45m.
The discrepancy between those times speaks volumes. You'd expect the women's time to be slower, sure, but 40 minutes slower? That's not a reflection of the potential of your average decent female runner, it's a result of simple maths. The good-for-age times are based on the number of people who ran under that time in a previous year. For men, a certain percentage (the organisers don't release the exact figure) go below 3h 05m, for women, the same percentage dip under 3h 45m.
Why? Why aren't there more women running quicker times? 3h 45m is clearly a very good time – I'm not claiming it's easy – but it does seem to suggest there are a lot less "serious" female runners out there. There seems to be no evidence that there are fewer female runners generally. So do women tend to take it less seriously? Have less interest in pushing themselves? Tend to be less competitive?
Of course, there are plenty of women and men who have no interest in competitiveness, rankings or pushing themselves to get faster and faster times – and that's a great thing. Everyone who runs should do it for whatever reason they want, or whatever pleasure they get out of it. But the question remains, why is there this discrepancy between the genders when it comes to the percentage who do want to nab the top spots?
I started running about 16 months ago, from a (literally) standing start of barely being able to run a block. I'm now, according to Power of 10, in the top 150 (well, OK, number 150) of half marathons run this year in my age group. I say this not as a boast (OK, I am a little proud) but because it baffles me – I shouldn't be that high up the list. I put in a lot of miles and I train hard, yes. But why aren't there more women doing the same – in local races, road races, or bringing those good-for-age times down? Why aren't more interested in seeing what their potential really is?
[Note to self: next year, wangle yourself an invitation to the British Athletics championships. Sure, you'll get lapped several times and still be running when the winner has had a shower and a snack, but you'll probably get silver nonetheless …]