An Open Letter on Gender Inequality in Trail and Ultrarunning
And thoughts on Encouraging More Female Participation in Races
In light of the recent controversy surrounding changes to the Run Rabbit Run (RRR) finish time for Tortoise women, a group of women ultrarunners in the Pacific Northwest decided to convene over beers to talk about the future of our sport; specifically, the future of women in our sport. The original RRR post has received quite a bit of feedback, but in the interest of constructive dialogue, we would like to publicly respond and encourage further discussion on this important subject.
Firstly, we appreciate that RRR and other races and race directors are thinking about involvement of women in the sport and wondering how to reach gender parity. Unfortunately, their suggested solution and language used in presenting that solution fell incredibly short of addressing the issue in a meaningful way.
Additionally, it appears this proposal came after discussion with elite female runners, who are generally not the target audience of this change and may not understand the complexities and motivation of the women impacted by this decision.
While it seems that female participation in ultras is still low, especially as the race distance gets longer, we are unaware of any statistics showing that women DNF due to timing out at a significant percentage more than men. If RRR or other race directors have data to suggest this, we would love to see it and would very much welcome the conversation about allowing different time cutoffs for gender and age group divisions. We also believe it is worth exploring the relationship between race finish cutoffs and qualifying time cutoffs, which are the same at many races, but do not need to be.
In lieu of seeing the above data, we are left with information we found by scouring Ultrasignup results for the past few years of popular U.S. hundred milers. Based on what we are seeing, participation by women in hundred milers is still extremely low. Ultrarunning magazine shows participation of women in U.S. 100-milers in 2018 was about 24%; our review of races seems to generally align with that, with a few exceptions to the rule skewing one way or another.
That said, in reviewing the DNF rates for men and women in these races, there is not a statistically significant difference in percentage of women and men who drop at the majority of these races. Because reasons for dropping from races are not tracked in this data set, we are making the assumption that there is an equal distribution of contributing factors for both genders. We believe this is a valid assumption given our experiences and anecdotal evidence from races where we have run and volunteered.
Our next comment regarding RRR’s decision has already been made ad nauseum, and we don’t wish to use this post to beat a dead horse (or a live one for that matter). But it is worth noting that in a sport where we are still seeing gender inequity, it is insulting and patronizing to suggest that the only reason we, as women, would forfeit our extra time would be to “run with our man.” As the post has been removed, we can hope that race organizers saw the flaws in their language. Comments on social media have also said everything there is to be said on this particular subject, and with more colorful language than may be suitable for this post.
Our real question is: where do we go from here?
As mentioned, we appreciate that RRR has recognized gender parity as an issue to be addressed, and we do want to encourage race organizers and others in positions of power in the sport to consider how their races, sponsorships, and publicity can serve to move women forward, not perpetuate the “old boys club” that it may appear to be at many start lines. As such, we would like to offer the following incomplete list of suggestions as a starting point for both encouraging more women into the sport (and into longer distances), as well as making the events themselves more conducive to female participation.
To encourage more women to participate in the sport, we suggest:
- Equal representation by sponsors, on race websites, in race photos, etc.
- Offering childcare, both during training as well as during races.
- Providing women with real-life examples of training while maintaining jobs and families.
- Making sure that race “swag” is women-specific (e.g. women’s t-shirt sizing) or non-gendered.
- Weighing lottery entries so that more female participants get into races, making the field closer to 50/50.
To make races more conducive to female participation, we suggest:
- Celebrating female finishers and prioritizing their finish times.
- Emphasizing the fact that there are two separate races occurring: not using “winner” and “women’s winner,” but rather “men’s winner” and “women’s winner.”
- Encouraging courtesy and respect on the trails and at the finish line. Enough talk about being “chicked.”
- Inclusion of feminine products at aid stations.
- Developing a pregnancy / new parents policy with cancellation or deferment options
- Discussing the possibility of different start times with clearly defined reasoning and goals. For example, a goal of having race leaders finish before dark may allow for better media coverage and celebration of the women’s race, or separate start times may emphasize that there are indeed two separate races occurring.
We recognize that our group is in no way representative of the entire community of women in this sport; particularly, we recognize that we lack diversity and intersectionality, another issue in our community that demands attention. But this topic is important to us, and important to the future of our sport, and we hope that this very public “oopsie” spurs productive conversation, ideas, and actions that will move our sport toward a more inclusive future.
If you are interested in gaining a better understanding of diversity in our sport, we suggest the following actions for ALL runners:
- Reach out to runners with a different perspective to your own. Ask why they run, how they feel about races, and what would improve their experience?
- Survey your local runners and share the results.
- Host a discussion to develop a constructive dialogue for change.
- Start or join a local running group, get to know a diverse group of runners.
- Share your experiences: talk about how you achieved something and how you failed, ask other people about their experiences