There’s a really exciting race coming up in April, a race within a race, but it’s got nothing to do with Eliud Kipchoge and Kenenisa Bekele. Gill Bland, and all of us at Fast Running, are getting really excited. 

A race gantry stands in the mist, the sun rising behind it. Figures can be seen dimly in the distance, getting closer, running. Fast.

Speeding towards us, silhouetted against the glow of a new dawn until out of the shadows a herd of women runners emerge, striding forward shoulder to shoulder arms pumping and heads held high, charging forward into the new decade.

That. That is what the women’s marathon scene feels like in the Great Britain as 2020 begins.

Role models for the masses

Gone are the days when there was one female marathoner we could look up to. Gone are the days when there were a couple, maybe three whose names we would recognise on the elite start list at London Marathon.

To those of us who love running 26.2, last year left us with score of fast ladies to look up to.

It was Charlotte Purdue, an established name, who first grabbed our attention in 2019 and gave a hint of what was to come when she threw down the gauntlet at London Marathon in April. Her 2:25:38 put her 3rd on the all-time list and bumped the profile of women’s marathoning up beyond that of superfans like me.

In the same race Tish Jones ran a 2:31:00 (3 min PB), Hayley Carruthers rinsed herself to get a 2:33:59 (near 3 min PB), getting global coverage in the process for THAT finish and Steph Davis of Clapham Chasers burst onto the scene running a 2:32:38 off the mass start. Not only were there some fun stories to cover, but the times were looking great too.

2019 continued apace with various European marathons bringing new runners to the fore. By the end of the year the top 50 was littered with names of women who seemed like they had popped up out of nowhere fully formed and running a storm.

However, a little bit of cyber stalking revealed that these were all women who had worked hard, put the hours in alongside jobs and families and injury rehab and all sorts of challenges to run breakthrough times that the rest of us dream of.

Photo: Leigh Quinnel

A controlled 2:30 from Twell

As well as the newbies, names that had been threatening to rise up for some time finally had their year. Steph Twell had said that her debut at Valenica 2018 (2:30) was ‘controlled’ – she backed up that claim by smashing the Olympic Qualifying time in Frankfurt in Sept.

It had looked like Purdue had her Olympic spot sewn up, with Twell being the main other contender until Jess Piasecki finally put those injury demons behind her and showed us what she had at Florence, bettering Charlotte’s time by 10s and throwing everything up in the air.

Right up until the last days of December the ladies were duking it out. In the end only a time north of 2:47:39 was enough to make the 2019 Top 50.

There was Rebecca Gentry, who kept us on the edge of our seats during her gutsy 2:37 New York performance, Jenny Spink who ran a 5min PB (2:31:14) with the most amazing grin on her face in Frankfurt, Ali Lavender (2:41:18 in Berlin) and duathlete Georgina Schwiening (2:35:22, Valencia) all piqued our interest as seeming new comers.

Elsey Davies had been waiting to show us her form for a while and finally knocked it out of the park with a 2:33:24 (Valencia) and Natasha Cockram shrugged off a nasty kick from a horse in race-week to smash out a 2:30:49 in Dublin. Oh, and then Steph Davis came back for another bash and only went and ran the Olympic standard. I could go on.

THAT finish from Hayley Carruthers Photo: Ian Walton for Virgin Money London Marathon

Not just fancy shoes

It would be easy to write off the leaps in performance amidst chatter about shoes, but the fact remains that we’ve never had this depth of field before and that’s what makes this so exciting to someone like me. As a marathon addict who started running for fun but has gradually got more serious and now trains day in day out, these women make people like me think that it’s worth the fight.

Who knows – if all of them can do it, why shouldn’t I give it a go? I never thought I’d make sub three but I did, so why stop there? These athletes are personable, relatable characters who we can all follow on Strava or Instagram or maybe even bump into at our local parkrun or athletics club. They encourage us to grasp for that ‘what if’ and dare to try.

The next chapter, an Olympic year

And so we reach the next chapter in this exciting story. As 2020 dawns, this slew of experienced and emerging marathon runners are pushing ever onwards to that uber-goal of making the Olympic team.

The British Athletics selection committee had announced that they ​could pre-select two of the three Olympic spots at the end of December. So, those of us who care about these things waited not just for Christmas to come but to find out whether we’d have a ready-built squad or whether the selectors were going to leave it all down to London.

What a dilemma – to preselect would give our ladies more time to prepare and less risk of overcommitting and getting injured, but the promise of a London marathon where EVERYTHING was on the line, well. That was a tantalising prospect. They chose not to choose.

So, ladies, we have ourselves a show.

It’s not really about Kipchoge vs Bekele

London Marathon 2020 is going to be one heck of a clash. The first two women over the line who also have the Olympic qualifying time of 2:29:30 will auto-qualify for the Tokyo squad. The third is up to the selectors. We have four ladies with the OQT – Piasecki, Purdue, Twell and Davis. The rest of the field need the time ​and​ the place.

It’s going to be fascinating to see who takes it out at what pace – will those without the time put everything on the line and go all in from the start? Will the top four play it tactical and hang back, ready to pick up the placings if others blow up?

What about those who are totally un-tested like Alice Wright, biding her time over in the US? I’ll be running on the day, but the prospect of this race is enough to make me want to defer, head to the mall and spend the day glued to a tracker watching the little dots until I can cheer the victors over the line.

Will everyone make the startline?

There’s just one caveat though. It’s an oft-spoken warning that getting to the start line of a marathon healthy is at least half the battle. These women are going to be training their hardest to make the most of this platform and the wave they are riding. That brings with it some dangers.

When others are hitting higher mileage, will they be tempted to ignore their bodies and add in extra runs? There are already some seriously meaty track and threshold session and back to back racing weekends going on and it’s only January. Only time will tell who can resist the urge to push just that little bit too hard.

This piece was always intended to be a showcase for the exciting state of women’s marathoning in the UK at the moment. I approached many of those mentioned above and others as well to get quotes I could use. As the responses came, we at Fast Running realised that one article was never going to do them justice.

These athletes are far too interesting and exciting to squeeze into one spot. So, each week we’re going to showcase one woman whose journey over 26.2 is getting us all fired up. Come with us and meet the new breed of GB marathoners and be inspired.

Over the next few weeks Gill will be sharing Q & A’s with a whole host of excellent British female marathoners, whilst building up for the London Marathon herself. 

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