I was born long after the due date. My mum always joked about it, saying that I was stubborn and had my own mind already before my lungs drew their first breath. I just think it reflects that I come from lineage of strong women. In my family, my little nephew answers “who flies in the helicopter?” not with “a pilot” like other kids in the kindergarten, but with “Grandma!”. Because that is exactly what my mum, an emergency doctor working out in the field, does.
My own grandmother is equally strong. I grew up sipping coffee in cozy autumn afternoons with her. But unlike other grandmothers, she never baked cakes for our hangouts nor did she cook. Yet she could tutor me in organic chemistry when that time of high school rolled around. That is because she has a PhD in organic chemistry. If women in STEM do not have equal conditions now, well, I can only imagine how it was for her.
With role models like these, for the longest time I have not realized that this is unusual. That there are things women and girls are not supposed to do, or need to fight harder to do. That women can be and often are perceived as “weaker”. I was just not raised that way and needless to say, it came as bit of a shock when I went outside of my bubble.
Maybe it is why I still sometimes react strongly and stubbornly when I see things targeted at women. One of those has been the Women’s Classic Circuit (Tjejklassikern), a women’s version of the Swedish Classic Circuit, which is a challenge composed of four races in different disciplines that should be completed within a year. It includes 90km cross-country skiing (Vasaloppet or Engelberktsloppet), 300km biking (Vätternrundan), 3km open water swimming (Vansbrosimming) and 30km cross-country running (Lidingöloppet). The women’s version consists of races 1/3 of the length of the full ones. Since I have moved to Sweden, I have been thinking about participating in this challenge, letting myself experience typical and historical races and travel within the country. Given my skiing level, the 1/3rd of the distances felt most manageable.
But my stubbornness would not let me sign up. The motto “challenge for all the women” did not sit well with me. Not all I thought! There are women tough beyond tough. I was raised by them and I wanted to be more like them. So I signed up for Halvklassiker – a challenge of 1/2 of the distances.
However, while training, this question of Tjejklassiker and why is 1/3rd version target to women has been coming back to me. Why do men not get to try the shortest version of these races? Is there an implicit bias, that for women 1/3rd is a challenge but for men the challenge starts at 1/2 of the distances? I do not think so, as even the Tjejklassiker is not per say easy and Sweden is trying to work with gender issues. And then, instead of ranting, I decided to take action. While pausing skiing training because of injured knee, I emailed the organizing board of the challenge.
While my knee has been cooled by ice, my heart was warmed by a response, in which I have learned a lot about history. As recently as 1976, women were not allowed to race in Vasaloppet, the cross-country race that is part of the Swedish Classic Circuit. This is why an alternate race – Engelberktsloppet – that allowed women’s participation could be used to complete the challenge. The organization has also attempted to introduce 1/3 swim only for men but participation was not sufficient. Nowadays, a 1/3 version of cross-country skiing and swimming exists. In the response, I was also thanked for my engagement and informed that they will try to rethink the possible bias in the motto of Tjejklassiker and how it could be improved.
Today, marks exactly a week prior to my participation in the cross-country skiing race. A second component of the half classic circuit for me and the longest skiing race for me up to date. Training and injury made me reflect on the role of “women’s only” races. While I decided to opt out, I see their role in providing supportive environment and encouragement to take on challenges.
I would lie if I did not curse at myself a bit in the past weeks. However, I hope that the stubbornness with which I have (according to my mum) timed my first breath in this world, will help me next Tuesday when I am out of breath. I will also use all my orange gear to bring me some positive energy. Yet, if you have any encouragement or words or support or cheers, share them with me!