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Breaking Barriers

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Last year, Erin Hannen spent a long weekend running sections of the Appalachian Trail in northern Georgia. As the Atlanta runner sat icing her post-run legs in a creek and basking in an endorphin high, she found herself wondering why she rarely encountered other women on the trails—not just during jaunts in remote national forests, but even at big, beginner-friendly trail races.

Hannen, now 25, is part of a race team of competitive trail runners sponsored by Tennessee-based outdoor retailer Rock/Creek, which also puts on several local trail races. In the past few years, their events have averaged around 30 percent female participation in non-ultra distances and less than 17 percent in their flagship ultra, the StumpJump 50K.

Though these numbers are well below the national average—47 percent female participation in non-ultra distances and 29 percent in ultras, according to statistics maintained by Ultrasignup—they got Hannen wondering what she could do to encourage more women, particularly in the Southeast, to venture out on trails. Since trail running had served as such an empowering, joyful force in her own life, she felt it worthwhile to help others discover it, too.

After meeting with Rock/Creek owner Dawson Wheeler and several other women and staff members to discuss the barriers to women’s participation in trail running, Hannen began planning a women’s summit in Ocoee, Tennessee, that would bring women together to continue the discussion. On the event signup page, she wrote, “Wanted: Enthusiastic trail chicks with insight, perspective and a desire to share their passion for the sport!” Within minutes of opening registration, the summit’s 30 spots sold out.

Barriers to Entry

“Women have a hard time finding other women to run with largely because trail-running groups tend to be small, don’t advertise and certainly don’t specifically cater to women’s concerns,” says Susan Farago, 45, an avid runner and coach in Austin, Texas, who several years ago co-founded a women’s trail-running club and four-week beginners’ program. “We started the Women on the Trails program to address four main questions we always get from women about trail running: How will I know where I am going? Is it safe? What if I fall? What about snakes?”

Though some of these concerns are not necessarily related to gender, other obstacles exist that are no doubt unique to women.

“There’s the safety aspect,” says Western States Endurance Run course-record holder Ellie Greenwood, 36, of Vancouver, British Columbia. “It’s not often that people get attacked, but when you hear stories about it happening, guys I know will still go out running alone. Women will be more cautious.”

In July 2014, a woman named Tina Waddell was savagely beaten and left in the woods—alive, but barely conscious—while out alone on a trail in northern Georgia. Unsurprisingly, when women attending the Rock/Creek summit several weeks later were asked to brainstorm possible obstacles to women getting involved in trail running, “stranger danger” topped the list.

Some hesitations, no doubt, are regional. While many of the women attending the summit from the Southeast voiced concerns about ticks, snakes and poison ivy, someone living high in the Rockies, for example, might be more worried about encountering mountain lions or lightning.

Other concerns the group listed, however, were more universal: fear of falling or getting hurt, fear of being left behind, uncertainty about how to handle menstruation or going to the bathroom in nature, lack of access to trails, lack of confidence, unfamiliarity with the benefits of trail running and what was coined the “domestic tranquility index”—balancing family life with training and often full-time jobs to boot.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, on average, women still spend more than twice as much time as men on household duties like cleaning, cooking and childcare. As more and more women balance family life with full-time careers outside of the home, the time constraints of trail running become a more formidable barrier—namely, “commute time” to trailheads for urban or suburban dwellers, and the longer training hours necessary on trails (when compared to faster-paced road running), especially to run ultras.

Greenwood also wonders whether part of the problem may be due to marketing: “So many trail races are all about beer at the finish line and trucker caps. Not all women want to get muddy and drink beer.”

And yet, if trail-running culture today is not “women-friendly” enough, how can we make our sport appeal to more women without diluting the very things that made so many of us fall in love with it in the first place?

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Elite trail runner Ellie Greenwood feeling the joy of off-roading running. Photo by Damien Rosso

In recent years, many road races tailored toward women have operated under the assumption that women will be drawn in by more “feminine” marketing. The popular “Run Like a Diva” road half-marathon and 5K race series, for example, promises every participant a pink tutu and every finisher a princess-crown medal, and features boa-and-tiara aid stations and champagne at the finish line.

Not all women, of course, will be enticed by such touches—though they are certainly resonating with some. According to annual studies conducted by Running USA, more than 60 percent of road half-marathoners are now women. Last year alone, some 15,000 women signed up to run the Nike Women’s Half Marathon in San Francisco, where men in tuxedos dole out Tiffany necklaces to finishers.

For many in the trail world, though, getting muddy and wild is part of the appeal of trail running—particularly in our increasingly comfort-oriented society.

“Trail running provides ‘permission’ to get out and get dirty, run through spider webs, get our feet wet and shake out twigs and leaves from our hair,” says Farago. “I think adults forget how to play—especially women who are constantly barraged with media messaging to stay clean, be proper and take care of others.”

On the group runs that Farago and her group co-founder Richelle Criswell lead, they promise to never leave anyone behind. However, they also deliberately avoid indulging in stereotypes about what will appeal to women.

“In my opinion, women-specific trail clubs or events should not coddle or belittle women,” says Farago. “Trail running can be an extremely liberating experience, but with it comes runner responsibility, respect for the environment and hard work. Nature automatically sets a high standard; women should take the challenge and rise to the occasion.”

In its two-and-a-half years of existence, roughly 1,000 women have already taken part in the beginners’ program and accompanying women-specific race series. Though the series includes three of the better-established women-specific trail races in the country, dozens of others have cropped up in recent years. Meanwhile, for the past 22 years, the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club (VHTRC) has been putting on a women-only half-marathon trail run, including a long-standing mother-daughter team competition.

“The VHTRC first hosted this race in 1993 to encourage more women to run trails,” proclaims the event website. “We’re pretty sure the club’s founding fathers were trying to scare up some dates, too.”

Societal Shift

“It’s still really new that women rock at sports,” says Krissy Moehl, 38, of Boulder, Colorado, winner of the 2009 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. “It’s not that long ago that women weren’t doing the whole Title IX thing; that was my college era!”

Until relatively recently, society didn’t recognize women as capable of running any sort of distance—let alone excelling at it. In 1926, a respected physician of gynecology and obstetrics named Hugo Sellheim wrote that women participating in sports resulted in “the wanton destruction of a part of their femininity. … Women, with their soft curves and broad pelvis, are regularly failing in these exercises. Their running is designed to be caught up with, as the saying goes.”

At the 1928 Olympics, New York Times writer Wythe Williams pointed out that several female runners fell to the ground in exhaustion following the 800-meter run. His conclusion? The women athletes had “plainly demonstrated that even this distance makes too great a call on feminine strength.”

Many women trail runners now in their 50s, 60s and 70s recall growing up with the same kind of messaging from their families. It was rarely ill intentioned, but simply reflected the cultural understanding of the time.

Marge Hickman, now 65, of Leadville, Colorado, was the second woman ever to finish the Leadville Trail 100—back in 1984.
“When I was growing up, women really weren’t encouraged to exercise that much,” she says. “My mom wouldn’t let me run or go out and play when I got my period. She told me I was supposed to rest.”

Even after society’s ideas about feminine capabilities began evolving, institutional rules have lagged. Oddly enough, to this day, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) maintains a disparity in its standard Division I cross-country race distances—8K for men (10K in the National Championship) and just 6K for women. Intentionally or not, the inconsistency sends a message: women can’t, or shouldn’t, run as far as men.

High-school girls aren’t buying it, though. Traditionally, high-school cross-country competitions have consisted of boys racing 5K and girls racing 4K—or even 3.2K in some places. But in the past few years, thanks in part to girls protesting the assumption that they’re somehow less capable of running than boys, most states have changed their policies.

When America’s oldest trail race, the Dipsea, prohibited women from participating, an all-female version of the race was created in 1918. It frequently drew even more participants than the men’s edition. By 1950, women began “crashing” the men’s race; in 1971, women were formally admitted into it.

Several years before, in 1966, runner Roberta Gibb had her race application to the Boston Marathon returned to her with a note saying women were physically incapable of running marathons. She snuck into the field anyway and clocked an unofficial time of 3:21:25.

The next year, Kathrine Switzer—then a 19-year-old journalism student at Syracuse University who’d begun training with the men’s cross-country team—told her coach, Arnie, that she wanted to run Boston. According to Switzer, he “insisted the distance was too long for fragile women to run.”

Nevertheless, he supported Switzer’s desire to prove him wrong. She registered for the race under her initials K.V. Switzer. She grew famous for finishing the race in spite of a mid-race tousle with a race official who physically tried to yank off her race bib while screaming, “Get the hell out of my race!”—but Switzer maintains that most of the men she encountered that day were fully supportive. Many asked to take their pictures with her before or after the race, saying things to her like, “Gosh, it’s great to see a girl here!” or “Can you give me some tips to get my wife to run? She’d love it if I can just get her started.”

Indeed, long before the percentages of women running were as high as they are today, many women who showed up to races say they received tremendous encouragement from their male peers.

Hickman discovered trail running when several runners she met at a local athletic club talked her into joining them in the mountains. Because they were all men, she felt intimidated at first about running with them, unsure whether she’d be able to keep up.

But, she says, “They were all just so kind and friendly—always encouraging me. They treated me with respect and awe.” It wasn’t long before she fell in love with the trails, developed confidence and stopped thinking about the fact that all her training partners were male. Since then, she has crossed the Leadville finish line 15 times—more than any other woman.

The landscape of women’s trail-running gear has changed dramatically in the past decade as well. No longer must women make do with unflattering and often oversized apparel designed for men, a paucity of sports-bra options or hydration packs that don’t take women’s unique anatomy into account. No doubt, the recent focus of many outdoor companies on women-specific gear, as well as a proliferation of gear companies devoted entirely to women, has done more than just make women physically more comfortable on trail runs. Their mere existence serves as confirmation that trail running is as much a sport for women as it is for men.

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Laura Shultz on the Homestead Trail in Boulder, Colorado. Photo by Celin Serbo

Passing the Torch

Like Hickman, Krissy Moehl was introduced to the sport many years ago by a supportive group of guys. Though she now has a group of elite-level women she trains with at least once a week near her current home in Boulder, she often runs solo in the mountains.

“I get asked all the time, ‘Aren’t you scared running out there by yourself?’ ” she says. “I’m not. The last thing I want is for people to think of wild places as unsafe.”

Consider this: though everyone is aware of the tremendous risks of getting in a car—some 33,000 people die nationwide every year in automobile accidents—few people ever give up driving out of safety concerns. Yet one story about an attack in the wilderness can convince people that trail running is too dangerous to be worth the benefits.

This is not to say any runner, male or female, should be reckless on the trails. Of course there are precautions any trail runner can and should take—let someone know your planned route and return time, carry emergency gear, learn how to navigate using a topographic map and compass, stay aware of your surroundings. The reality, though, is that women are safer—statistically speaking—in the wilderness than in urban environs.

And sometimes, the opportunity to overcome the very fears so many women face initially can be trail running’s greatest gift of all. At the Rock/Creek summit, “Wanting to be a badass” topped the list women made of reasons they love trail running. Perhaps, then, many women run in the wild not to be reckless, or to throw caution to the wind, but because they’ve discovered there is power in refusing to be held back by fear. Trail running is, at its core, an act of empowerment.

“I still recall how cool it felt, the first time I covered a new distance or topped out on a mountain,” says Moehl. “I just love that feeling in my body—working through vegetation, getting above treeline, glissading through snow. I used to look at mountains and think they were pretty. Now I wonder how I can get there.”

Hickman, who attempted to qualify for the first women’s Olympic marathon in 1984, says, “It’s been a long, slow progression of women realizing they can run and do as much as a man does.” She credits Joan Benoit-Samuelson’s win in the marathon that year with inspiring her and opening doors for women in running by serving as a role model in a sport dominated by men for so long. That year, Kathrine Switzer was invited to be a commentator on the women’s marathon for ABC Sports; she was quoted saying that watching the race unfold was a dream come true and a massive step forward for women’s running.

Certainly, many of these early trail blazers in women’s road running served as examples to the even more recent pioneers in the trail and ultrarunning community. Sally Edwards, now 67, inspired legions of women runners with her accomplishments in the late 1970s and early 1980s at Ironman triathlons, marathons and historic trail races like the American River 50 and Western States Endurance Run. In fact, ultrarunning legend Ann Trason—the 14-time Western States champion, whose course records set more than 20 years ago at Leadville and American River still stand—credits Edwards with initially inspiring her.

“A bunch of people thought I should run trails, but I thought they were all loony toonies,” says Trason, now 54, with a laugh. “Then I heard about Sally Edwards and I got really intrigued. My mother, bless her heart, told me, ‘I don’t want you doing that.’ ” But after a friend talked Trason into joining him for a 30-mile training run on the Western States course, she says, “I knew then this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I loved being able to go out and explore, and test my own limits.”

With few exceptions, Trason went undefeated by other women for the 29 years she ran trails competitively. Not only that, she beat the majority of her male competitors, too, occasionally winning races outright.

Perhaps, then, the best way to grow the sport is quite simple. Rather than try to find the right marketing ploy or the perfect female-friendly finisher swag, maybe all we need to do is take someone new on a trail run, in the way that so many others did years ago for pioneers like Trason, Hickman and Moehl.

“Each of us has the ability to inspire another woman to step outside of her comfort zone,” wrote Hannen in a blog post reflecting on the women’s summit. “We’ve formed bonds and networks that have the potential to spread and inspire each other as well as other women in our communities to take a walk on the wild side and try something out of their comfort zones.”

Trason tells me that in 2000, Sports Illustrated tried a brief experiment by launching a bimonthly magazine called Sports Illustrated Women. She says, “It lasted like three years. I remember they couldn’t find enough women to buy the magazine. It’s great that magazines today are focusing on women. And there are whole women’s running groups, too. I’m still pinching myself, thinking, ‘Wow, it’s finally happening!’

“We’re creatures of habit, but we also like to do what others do. If our message reaches just one person—one woman who thought she couldn’t do it—well, that’s awesome.”

Yitka Winn is a contributing editor to Trail Runner, currently cavorting somewhere in the Alps. This article originally appeared in our September 2015 issue.

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