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After 30 Years of Gender Disparity, World Mountain Running Championships Weigh Change

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For the 30 years of its existence, runners at the World Mountain Running Championships have raced different distances depending on their gender: 12K for men, 8K for women. Team size has differed, too; each country has been able to field up to six men but only four women.

Now, that may be changing.

The World Championships are held by the World Mountain Running Association (WMRA), mountain running’s international governing body. On Saturday, the body’s executive arm, the WMRA Council, voted to equalize both distance and team size, starting as early as 2017. (The changes still need to be approved by a majority of WMRA member nations before implementation, which seems likely but not certain, according to council member Nancy Hobbs.)

This step comes after years of slowly building momentum for gender equality in competitive mountain running. More recently, a petition and social-media campaign led by top American female mountain runners has further publicized the issue.

Expanding Opportunities, Lingering Inequalities

The World Mountain Running Championships, a yearly competition of the world’s fastest mountain runners, began in 1985 with a men’s and women’s race. The United States did not field a women’s team until 1995, when Hobbs, now the chairperson of the US Mountain Ultra Trail Council and the WMRA treasurer, took it into her own hands.

“I started the program because there wasn’t one,” says Hobbs, who has long been a pioneering force for trail running in the United States. “I didn’t think that was fair or equitable and I knew we could field a women’s team and be competitive.”

(Full disclosure: I ran for the US Mountain Running Team at the World Championships in 2014).

She was right. American women proceeded to become some of the best trail runners in the world, with three team world championships (2006, 2007 and 2012) and one individual championship (Kasie Enman in 2011). Last year, college freshman Allie Ostrander won the junior women’s division at the World Championships; months later, she would finish second overall at the NCAA Cross Country National Championship. Ostrander, Hobbs notes excitedly, is younger than the team itself.

While opportunity for female mountain runners expanded hugely in the years since Hobbs fought for the existence of a women’s team, there was a lingering concern. At the World Championships, six-person men’s teams continued to race 12K, while four-member women’s teams raced 8K. To mimic the Worlds course, the distances at the U.S. championships were often (but not always) disparate as well.

A Petition Leads to a Vote

At the 2015 World Championships in September, the long-bubbling dissatisfaction with the gender inequality in both distance and team size began to boil over among U.S. women.

Shortly after, Kasie Enman, the 2011 World Champion, and her sister-in-law Molly Peters, herself an NCAA running coach, started petitions for equal distances and team sizes at the World Championships through their website, sportsequality.org. Those petitions sparked a full-fledged conflagration on social media, with dozens of shares and reposts leading to hundreds of signatures and letters of support.

“[T]here are still areas of our sport where women are sent a message that we are not as capable – of going the distance, of participating,” Enman and Peters wrote of the petition. “When we asked why, we got answers that weren’t based in fact and a consensus that ‘it’s just the way it’s always been.’ Well, it’s time for change.”

“I felt that my letter would hold much more weight if it was coming from hundreds of people, instead of just me,” Enman says. “I think [the widespread support] really did make a difference.”

In December, US Mountain Running, led by Hobbs and Richard Bolt, another pioneer in United States trail running, announced that the national championships it organizes would have equal distances for men and women. The petition and the public display of support it generated gave Hobbs and Bolt the backing they needed to make changes in the United States and then take the proposal across the pond, to the WMRA Council meeting in Monaco on Saturday.

After a lengthy discussion, the council made two provisional decisions related to gender equality. First, men and women would race equal distances: 10K for seniors (usually, age 20 and up), 5K for juniors. Second, team sizes would be set at four for both genders.

“In the past, the council has been unwilling to consider such proposals,” but the public attention generated by Enman’s petition helped, says Bolt.

Top women trail runners in the United States have greeted the news with passion and excitement. “Athletes shouldn’t have to be labeled a ‘feminist’ or considered ‘extreme’ to simply want to run the same distance as men. It’s just the way it should be,” says Morgan Arritola, three-time US Mountain Running Champion.

Sandi Nypaver, winner of the 2014 North Face 80K in Costa Rica and a prominent advocate for gender equality in trail running, explains that the issue is important to all runners, even those who will never compete for a spot on a national team: “If things are kept the same, it’s like saying women aren’t good enough or worthy enough to compete at a high level. That doesn’t only hurt the women who can make the team; it hurts everyone.”

“My hope is that the incoming generation of female mountain runners will feel fully empowered, like they can do whatever they set their minds to,” says Enman.

Some runners expressed disappointment that the men’s team size was reduced, rather than the women’s increased. “This is great news purely for equality between men and women in mountain running,” says Megan Lund-Lizotte, a five-time member of the US Mountain Running Team. However, she adds, it is important to keep the pressure on and ensure appropriate funding and opportunities for all.

“Overall opportunities for men and women in mountain running have still increased over the past 10-plus years,” says Bolt. “While the potential loss of two men’s team spots at the [World Championships] is unfortunate, we have more funded opportunities for men to race at the international level than ever before.”

Next Steps

The WMRA Congress, composed of representatives from WMRA member nations, will meet in Bulgaria in September to vote on the proposed rule change. Hobbs cautions that approval is not a sure thing. “Historically, Council recommendations are met with support from the Congress,” she says. “We’ll have to wait and see what the delegates decide. There will most likely be some countries that will not support the initiative.”

Enman says it’s important to keep the pressure on: “This is not a done deal and a lot of advocacy needs to be done between now and then to ensure that the Congress votes in favor.”

Nypaver adds that “some countries don’t even want women competing in the World Championships.” In the face of that resistance, she says, “people showing that they care about women’s running may be key to getting [countries] to vote in favor of the issue.”

But for now, Bolt says, the council’s decision is a win for equality advocates.

“Personally I think this is great progress and will lobby my federation colleagues from other countries to vote in favor of these proposals,” he says. “It’s a tribute to World Champion Kasie Enman, the many equality advocates who preceded her and the American trail-running community that this important issue got the attention it deserved.”

The petitions remain live and can be viewed here.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Kasie Enman won the World Championships in 2012. In fact, it was 2011.