Women weren’t allowed to run marathons for years. Infamous Youtube footage shows an official trying to stop American runner Kathy Switzer from completing the 1967 Boston marathon. Yet it was a British woman, Jasmin Paris, who ran away from all the men in the 268-mile Montane Spine race earlier this year, sparking much interest among - it must be said - mainly male sports journalists about the implications for endurance sport. It’s a trend. In the low-profile world of marathon canoeing, women in the 1970s were deemed too feeble to be allowed to carry their boat past locks on races – a man had to do it for them. Now women are winning ultra-distance canoe marathons with aplomb.
This year saw a mixed-sex pair fight off all-comers in the 71st Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race, a nonstop 125 mile epic from rural Wiltshire to the heart of London. Some call it the canoeist’s Everest, others just “DW”. It can be as much as 24 hours of paddling plus 76 portages, where competitors must run around locks with their kit-laden two-person canoes, to reach the finish.
Alexandra Lane and partner Dan Seaford from Reading Canoe Club got to Westminster in ‘just’ 18 hours and 1 minute, beating a crop of Great Britain internationals plus civilian and military crews from around the world. Their time would have been even quicker had it not been for the lack of rain, which slowed flow on the Thames to a near trickle.
It’s only the second time in the DW’s history that a mixed crew has won the race outright. But a glance at the rest of the field showed dozens of women racing in doubles and singles with great success. An under 19 pairing, Samantha Martyn and Bronte Holden from Wey Kayak Club in Guildford and Fowey River Canoe Club in Cornwall, fought hard against two all-male crews for second place before finishing in third, just minutes down on their immediate rivals and comfortably ahead of another 80 boats in their race.
And the singles class, raced like the junior doubles in four stages over Easter, saw a closely fought battle in the women’s class. Close and tense racing has always been seen in the men’s competition but this year the women kept spectators on their toes until the very end with all four of the top women working in a pack on the final leg down the Tideway to Westminster Bridge.
Lane, 24, and a trainee accountant with KPMG in her day job, attributes part of her success to the growing #thisgirlcan movement, which has inspired women around the world to realise that sporting achievement is within their reach.
“I think women were always persuaded they were not capable,” she says. “It’s rubbish of course. I grew up with three brothers and never felt I couldn’t do things. But this growing movement, it’s empowering women and we’re all finding it very satisfying beating the men.”
This wasn’t Lane’s first attempt at the nonstop DW race. She first competed with her father, Hugh, in 2014 after which she ‘got the bug’. In 2015 she finished third with male partner Radek Zielski before teaming up a year later with Kat Wilson to win the women’s race in a new record time. So now she’s won, what’s next?
“I’d really to inspire more women to take up canoeing,” Lane says. “We seem to attract lots of girls early in their teens and then they drop out. I think it’s important they’re allowed to develop at the right pace. Sometimes it seems there is a choice between being ultra-competitive or nothing at all.”
Lane joins 5,000m World Champion Lizzie Broughton in an elite club – the only two women to finish in a winning overall boat of the Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race. But Lane thinks others will come.
“We’re changing perceptions. Lizzie is phenomenal and our results just show that any woman who puts their mind to it can go and achieve it.”
So will more women follow these trailblazers? Lane’s former partner Wilson believes it is already happening.
“There’s no question that watching Alex and Lizzie podium in their respective mixed boats made me rethink my own capabilities,” says Wilson. “Races like DW are not about being big and fast, but about being strong, fit and resilient. If you look at the depth of women’s racing in DW now, it’s very exciting. We have women doing well in singles, junior girls who are medaling against all-boys doubles crews - I am thrilled to see the evolution of this amazing race in all classes.”