Jailed fell runner thought UK Athletics was 'trying to kill her'

Helen Pidd North of England editor
Lauren’s parents Pauline and Graham Jameson outside Birmingham crown court after the verdict. Photograph: Matthew Cooper/PA

It was three months before Lauren Jeska walked into the reception of UK Athletics armed with two knives that her parents realised something might be wrong.

The 42-year-old champion fell runner had gone home to Lancaster for Christmas in 2015 when she began talking about being “at war” with the national governing body of athletics. UK Athletics (UKA) wanted her to take blood tests to prove her testosterone levels were low enough for her to compete as a woman and Jeska was deeply unhappy about it.

In 2000 she had gone to Brighton to undergo a gonadectomy – essentially, castration – which should, according to UKA’s own guidelines on transgender athletes, allow her to compete in domestic competitions. Many of her rivals in the sport had no idea she was born a boy called Michael. She wanted to keep it that way, firmly believing that any biological advantage disappeared with her testes.

She had been crowned English women’s fell running champion in 2010, 2011 and 2012. It was a winning streak she put down not to any lingering male physiology but “very committed and dedicated training – which worked as a way to improve my mental health – and careful planning,” she told her parents in a letter from prison in November last year.

“Basically she felt she was at war with UK Athletics (UKA), and when you’re in war acts that aren’t normally acceptable can be justified,” said her mother Pauline Jameson this week, recalling Jeska’s Christmas visit home. “It sounded dangerous. I told her not to do anything silly. By that stage she had taken legal advice about suing UKA.”

Pauline and her husband Graham were concerned about Lauren’s behaviour but didn’t think she would act on her threats. “We didn’t think she had it in her nature to carry it out. We never, ever imagined she would do something like this. We were absolutely horrified when we heard she had taken the knives from where she lived in Wales to this meeting in Birmingham. Not even one, but two. Basically she went armed,” said Pauline. “The background to this is that she had never even hit anyone, let alone stabbed anyone,” said Graham.

When the couple received a phone call from a Birmingham police station on 22 March last year saying that one of their children was being held on suspicion of attempting to murder Ralph Knibbs, the human resources manager who was UKA’s point of contact for gender issues, they were horrified. She had not been a problem child. One of her two brothers, twins almost two years her junior, had taken his own life after suffering from mental health problems.

The twins always used to refer to their elder sibling as “the golden child”. Lauren was their big brother then: Michael. He had sailed through school at Lancaster Royal Grammar, going on to win a first in physics at Oxford University. It was when Michael began a doctorate at Oxford that he came home with some news. “It was Easter 1998 and I love the way she did it. ‘Mum, you always wanted a daughter, didn’t you?’ I had three boys. ‘Can I be your daughter?’ That’s how she did it, and I thought it was lovely,” recalled Pauline, 69, at home in Lancaster on Friday.

That’s not to say she necessarily understood. “I said, ‘what do you mean?’ So she had to explain. And then I was shocked, really. And disappointed. We had three children and she was the only one I thought might give us grandchildren. She said to us then, ‘I’m telling you now because I have definitely made up my mind. I’m doing it. Don’t you dare to change my mind.”

The parents hadn’t seen it coming and have searched in hindsight for evidence of their eldest child’s unhappiness. “Although the idea of transgender never crossed our mind, I suppose it’s slightly relevant to the case that he, as a boy, was very gentle. Never in fights. Her two brothers were always in fights. She did not like the rugby culture of the [grammar school]. But that could describe me too — it doesn’t mean you’re transgender,” said Graham, 74, a mathematician at Lancaster University.

Jeska’s identity struggles distracted her from a career in academia. She abandoned Oxford and moved back north, later doing a master’s in Gender, Sexuality and Queer Theory at Leeds University, graduating in 2006. It was in West Yorkshire that she rediscovered a passion for running, having competed in cross country at school. Friends from Todmorden Harriers, her running club, recall that when she took up the sport in her early thirties she wasn’t particularly outstanding, but just trained like a demon to reach the top.

“She really found her identity there. Her friends there became very important to her,” said Pauline. She and Graham were delighted when Jeska began winning races, but were also concerned. “When she started running competitively and winning races we started saying to her: Lauren, you’re transgender. Are you sure this is OK? You need to do something about it.”

Jeska told her parents that the Fell Runners Association (FRA) showed her “amazing support” when she told them she was transgender, as did members of the Todmorden Harriers she came out to. But when, in late 2010, she started competing abroad and decided she had better tell the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the sport’s global governing body didn’t know how to deal with her, Pauline claims: “They didn’t even have a transgender policy until 2011.”

Nor did the UKA, until 2014. It was in 2015 that Jeska claims her problems began. According to her parents, she applied to run the London marathon as an elite athlete, but was rejected for reasons unclear. Then she was told she couldn’t run the Snowdon race, a major event in the fell running calendar, because of questions over her gender.

Then came a crucial meeting with a UKA official in June 2015, when Jeska was told that her past results were at risk of being erased from the record books if she didn’t submit to the blood tests, Birmingham crown court heard this week. She later told her friends that she felt traumatised by the meeting and suffered flashbacks which she self-diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (a diagnosis not made by any of the four psychiatrists who examined her when she was in jail on remand, though some did suggest she was on the autistic spectrum).

Gemma Ford, a friend from Todmorden Harriers, told the Guardian: “She felt they were going to take away the life she had built up. She had fitted into the fell running community and had a wonderful life, a lovely life. She calls the meeting ‘an attack’. She said it was vindictive, that she felt abused. She felt that her way of life was being threatened, that UKA were trying to kill her, take her down.” Pauline agrees that her daughter felt under threat. “I remember when I first spoke to her in prison after her arrest, the first thing she said to me was: ‘finally I feel safe’.”

UKA strongly disputes this account. A spokeswoman said the request for blood tests was as a result of not having any other documentation about the procedure, and was supported by the transgender organisation UKA was using at the time. The UKA had offered both to assist with sourcing a doctor to do the tests and pay for them, the spokeswoman added.

On Wednesday Jeska was told she would serve at least 12 years of an 18-year term, with the judge saying she still posed a threat to society following the “cool, calm attack”. She appears sanguine about her sentence. When the Guardian visited her parents on Friday, a prison chaplain at HMP Foston Hall, a woman’s jail in Derbyshire, called them to say their daughter wanted them to know she was OK. She has started work mentoring inmates who struggle with English and maths and is trying to keep up her fitness in the prison gym, said Pauline. But she is angry that several attempts she made before the attack to get psychiatric help came to nothing.

The Jamesons make no excuses for Jeska’s violent attack. Both Christians who attend an evangelical baptist church, they say they are praying for Knibbs’ full recovery. In a statement to court Knibbs said he had suffered a “traumatic, life-changing experience” and also a stroke during the assault, resulting in partial sight loss.

The couple hope UKA will learn from the traumatic experience. “Lauren has told us that she is much more passionate about the mental health agenda than about transgender rights,” said Pauline. “Yes, she objected to her transgender status becoming public knowledge, but she was secure in her no-longer-new identity. She has taken coaching very seriously and has deep concerns that UKA might deal in a similarly insensitive way with younger runners, not so secure in their identity.”

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