Monday, January 21, 2013

T-minus 20 days to race day, and counting: What does Downton Abbey have to do with running?

Last night, I was watching my guilty TV pleasure - Downton Abbey, which is set just around the time where my grandmother would have been wrapping up her career on England's first touring competitive rhythmic gymnastics team, in the early 1920s.

Since my mind usually wanders to all things running related (according to my husband), and my knees were still throbbing from yesterday's fall, it occurred to me that since the start of the series, we haven't seen the characters of Downton do anything more active than ride a horse, or walk the dogs (and according to this blog, Matthew seems to really love riding his bike).

Most of the time, they seem to be either changing into their latest outfit for dinner, or sitting around chatting about the latest local gossip (or in last night's episode, wondering what the heck Tom was thinking, abandoning a pregnant Sybil in Ireland after having set fire to a castle of some English-Irish aristoctrat. I mean, really...)

It's amazing these folks all look so slim and slender, the amount of time they spend sitting around well-laid tables and glittering chandeliers, eating the lavish meals cooked for them by the staff downstairs.

In fact, Tom's run through the forest is probably the most activity we've seen the residents of Downton engage in over the course of three series. How the heck did he manage to run miles through an overgrown forest, and arrive at the doors of Downton looking handsome and rained on, but not out of breath?

Now that she's married, Lady Mary seems to have settled into her role as a married woman, which consists of writing letters, planning dinners with archbishops and redecorating Downton, where needed. Self-proclaimed spinster Edith, on the other hand, is causing stirs because she submitted a letter to the editor about women's suffrage - the gall!

So just imagine the brouhaha that would have occurred if any of the girls had waltzed into the dining hall, only to announce that they intended to take up running?

As it turns out, if they had decided they wanted to take up running, they'd have been years ahead of their time.

In fact, it wasn't until the 1928 Olympics that women were allowed to compete in Track and Field, including the 800 metres. But, according to this blog, which cites a New York Times article, because six of the nine competitors in the race ended up collapsing at the end of the race, the 800 metres was declared too dangerous for women to compete in, and was retired from the Olympics until 1960.

Women were declared too frail and feeble, and running might endanger their "lady parts," not to mention not be ladylike.

A few years ago, while training for my first half marathon, I remember our running instructor, Louise, telling us the story of Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1967. It was a huge deal, because for so long women had been discouraged from running long distances - "they would get huge legs, or grow hair on their chest or their uterus would fall out," recalls Kathrine in a PBS documentary.

In fact, it was such a big deal, that one of the race directors tried to tackle Kathrine and pull her out of the race. Thankfully, Kathrine also happened to be running with her boyfriend, a muscular jock-type guy who pushed the race director out of the way, while journalists started heckling her for being a suffragette.

But Kathrine pushed on, determined to finish the race on her hands and knees, if that's what it took. She knew she was running for more than herself, but also for all women - to prove that women, in fact, were capable of accomplishing such feats.

Four hours and 20 minutes later, Katherine Switzer finished, becoming the first woman to finish the Boston Marathon. Amazing.

Oh, what the ladies of Downton would have thought of such a scene, when at present Edith can't even vote because she's not married!

That's not to say that we don't still have a long ways to go (just the other day on The Ellen Show, she had a young girl on who's petitioning to be allowed to play football on an all-boys team), but  looking at the ladies of Downton, all I have to say is, we've come a long way, ladies!


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