Barefoot and female

April 14, 2000

Although the Victorians would have us believe otherwise, athletics was not invented as a gentlemanly pursuit. According to Peter Radford, professor of sport science at Brunel University, any mention of 17th-century British endurance runners was written out of the history books because the sport was dominated by the poorer classes. "Women in particular used to perform enormous distances for prizes. They could earn up to as much as a year's wages," he says.

Seven-year-old Emma Matilda Freeman would complete 40-mile runs to earn money for her family, while 60-something Mary McMullan from Yorkshire, who ran barefoot, frequented country markets where she would mark out a mile course and run for money. She regularly completed 96 miles in 24 hours.

There was also a 70-year-old woman who used to run back and forth between Glasgow and Paisley. The drunken crowds that stayed up all night to watch her were dispersed only after the police arrested her.

In Edinburgh, crowds of pregnant women were encouraged to race up Arthur's Seat for health reasons by a Dutch midwife, who offered the winner a large cheese.

"We used to believe that women came to long-distance running later than men, but that is absolutely not the case," Radford says. "It is a pity more female athletes do not know about this. It might give them more confidence."

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