Review: “Running Like a Girl” by Alexandra Heminsley

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2021

Good friend, great writer & Book Lantern cohort Katya returns with a guest review.

A little over two months ago, I signed up for a half marathon. It wasn’t to lose weight, or to impress someone (although I was secretly hoping for both) or even to raise money for charity (although I am doing that, for an organization that is really close to my heart.) It’s just been something I wanted to do, ever since I saw my first half marathon and got the kick from being part of the audience. “What would it be,” I wondered, “If I was actually out there, participating?”

It took me 3 years to work up the decision, which isn’t too bad for a lifetime full of “points for effort” in P.E. and people telling me that, because I have a nasty congenital defect, I am just not cut out for exercise. Reading “Running Like A Girl” didn’t give me the boost to try (that was 3 years of tentative short runs and a little over a year of Jiu Jitsu paving the way,) but it did tell me that my problems with exercise were far from unique. (And it motivates me like nobody’s business.)

I’d like to point out: there are people out there (not just women) who cannot run because they have serious physical issues. That’s perfectly fine. There are also people who don’t run because they don’t want to run. That’s fine too. You can still read this book for the quality of the writing, or, if your loved ones are running and you want to figure out why, it might give you an insight, (my Mum found it most enlightening.) But if there’s a target audience for this, it is all those of us who watch sports from the side lines, sighing with envy while still wholeheartedly supporting others. Those who feel intimidated by male-dominated sports halls. Those who tell themselves they are too old, too unfit, or “not built for it” before they even try, lest someone else says it to them first.

In other words, this is the book that will tell you “Yes, you can” and then go on to prove it to you without being holier-than-thou. And I think the main reason why it does that is, again, the quality of the writing.

“Running Like a Girl” is split into two parts – the first details Heminsley’s running journey, from the initial run (which ended badly) through several marathons and half marathons and challenge runs (some of which also had terrible moments, but all ended well.) It’s a pleasure to read, and not just because she talks honestly about things we can all relate to (the self-consciousness, being snubbed by sales assistants, even, yes, that horrible moment when you’re in the middle of a run and you really, really, really need the loo.) Both when she’s struggling and when she’s on a runner’s high, Heminsley maintains a self-awareness and reflects upon the experience from a critical distance, which is key for this type of book. There’s a fine line between motivating others by sharing your personal experience and sounding like a sanctimonious jerk, and as far as I go, “Running Like a Girl” is firmly in the former category.

The second part is full or practical tips on kit, fundraising, and actual marathon running, and also boasts a chapter on the running suffrage. Did you know that Women’s Olympic marathon running only officially began in 1985? Or that, in the 50s and 60s women had to cheat their way through the start line in races? The idea that exercise will make our wombs fall out was incredibly prevalent (still is, in some cases) but, as the story of Katherine Switzer’s first Boston marathon shows, it was more to do with misogyny rather than anything else. (One of the race co-directors, heckled by the press, jumped in and tried to forcefully pull Switzer out. Her boyfriend had to intervene, and then she went and finished the race. Like a boss.) It puts things into perspective.

As for the actual tips and advice, in addition to drawing from her own experience (and telling you what commonsense advice holds up and what does not) Heminsley also interviews some professionals, which gives the book more legitimacy. And, where some sports magazines and online advice columns might try to sell you the most expensive hi-tech kit available, the advice here is sensible: start small, go for the purse-friendly options until you are sure what you want to do, and invest wisely. Heminsley does name-check a few expensive brands, which I would have rather gone without, (though I must admit, I’m tempted to put on lipstick for my race, if only to pay homage to those first lady runners) but again, it’s not a “buy this, it’ll make you run better” advice (more like “I wanted to wear something pretty for my first race, so this is the eyeliner that worked for me.”) (FYI: nobody cares what you look like when exercising. You  can wear make-up if you want, but you need to take the conditions into account and if it will make you feel good. It doesn’t work for me, but I’ve had friends doing Jitsu with the full cake on, so there.)

This will probably be the thing to read now, with so many New Year’s resolutions floating around, but the most important thing you will get from this book is that you run for the sake of it. Not for a beach bod, not for someone else, but because you want it and because you feel good doing it. (That’s why so many resolutions flop – you go at them from a place of guilt, not a place of love. This is why I stated mine early.) “Running Like a Girl” is, first and foremost, a great read, and running is an amazing sport. You can enjoy it for what it is – anything else is window dressing.

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