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Trail Races Continue Making Strides Toward Gender Equality

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Trail races have made major strides since the days when women’s courses were shorter than men’s and winnings stacked higher for male athletes. Advocacy, new voices in the sport and a growing population of women trail racers are helping to make these changes.

“Trail running has been a sport […] inhabited by very, very strong women and pretty strong and very strong men. And pretty much all white [people]. We are a demographic that’s pretty narrow. I think we should do things to open it up,” says Nikki Kimball, three-time Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run winner (2004, 2006 and 2007). “People are trying to figure out ways to make that happen.”

Kimball is one of those people. Kimball began advocating for gender equality early in her trail-running career, which began in the late 1990s. When she competed at her first world mountain running championships, the World Mountain Running Association (WMRA) World Mountain Running Trophy Race in Innsbruck, Austria, in 2002, the women’s 9.2K course stopped shy of the peak summit, where the men’s 11.7K race finished. What’s more, the women’s team had four women to the men’s six.

It wasn’t until 2017 that the WMRA set equal-distance courses for men’s and women’s races and allowed equal team sizes. After years of American female runners speaking out, an athlete-driven petition and social-media campaign helped push for these changes.

Now, 17 years after Kimball’s experience in Austria, due to advocacy and outspokenness from myriad sources, most trail race podium payouts, like those for the Great Lakes Endurance Run, for women equal or rival men’s and all racers run the same course together.

Kimball—a physical therapist who has, in addition to her Western States wins, Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, Marathon des Sables stage race and American River 50-mile titles to her name—has continued to advocate alongside new voices. Professional trail runners, including Stephanie Case (who places on the podium at international races and who is also a human rights lawyer) and Clare Gallagher (who won the Leadville 100 in 2016 and CCC in 2017 and advocates for environmental causes), have pushed trail and ultrarunning for gender equality on several fronts. They advocate for better sponsorship deals, equal prize purses, pregnancy deferrals and more—penning op-eds, writing blogs, speaking out in media and within their networks.

Kimball says blatant sexism no longer flies, but women are still slighted. “If it is really obvious, people know they can’t get away with it. There is nothing a race director has to gain by prizing the women less than the men,” says Kimball. “But that doesn’t mean the big industry sponsors are paying equally. The subtle slaps in the face are horrible because they’re hard to fight.”

Julia German, co-founder and vice president of The Athlete’s Coalition, a non-profit that advocates for typically underserved athletes, sees the pay disparity as an equity issue.

“Women in trail running are paid, if at all, a small fraction of what their male counterparts are paid. I would say this statement reflects averages, and it does, but I can’t name one company that is willing to have a third party audit their pay to male and female athletes even just to advise them whether they are approaching an equitable pay scale,” says German. “From what I’ve seen in the contracts I’ve worked on, it’s not even possible [for] women to argue for close to equal pay in almost all cases.”

While confidential contract terms keep sponsorship numbers elusive publicly, a survey of 67 sponsored male and female runners by pro trail runner and Trail Sisters founder, Gina Lucrezi, found a gap between what sponsors pay men and women. (Outside of running, a gender pay gap persists. As recently as last year, a Pew Research Center study found that women earn 85 percent of men’s earnings, with women of color earning even less, according to the National Women’s Law Center.)

It’s no secret that gender gaps and lack of diversity persist. In particular, this issue is apparent in race participation numbers. In road races, women make up 60 percent of race fields, according to Running USA. But in trail races, women’s participation lags behind.

In 2018, according to Ultrarunning’s database of race finishes, nearly 35 percent of ultrarunning finishers were female. That number drops in longer events, such as 100-mile races. Ultrarunning reports a 25 percent female finisher population for 100-mile races in 2018. Races with tough qualifications, such as the Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run in Colorado, dip below that. In 2018, 13 women started Hardrock and 11 finished; 146 men started and 114 finished.

For additional examples, these are the starting numbers for women at a handful of iconic races:

Hardrock 2018: 11%

Hardrock 2019: 10%

Tunnel Hill 100 2018: 36%

Tunnel Hill 100 2019*: 33%

Western States 100 2018: 25%

Western States 100 2019: 24%

Lake Sonoma 50 2018: 27%

Lake Sonoma 50 2019: 35%

*pending, as registration is still open

In her 17th year as race director of Chuckanut 50K (which in 2018 had a 38 percent start rate for women and in 2019 a 40 percent start rate for women), Krissy Moehl has noticed changes among the racers: First-timers are predominantly women and the depth of female elites’ talent has grown.

“I want people to have a connection with running—no matter their gender,” she says. Beyond Chuckanut, Moehl is excited to see and hear women finding their voice in the sport, especially Lucrezi.

Lucrezi sees improvement, with room for more. “The biggest key to making change is for people to use their voices, over and over again. The saying ‘the squeaky wheel gets the grease’ is a classic for a reason and honestly, my personal favorite,” she says.

The concept of inclusivity in trail running is spreading to conversations at the national level—and not just in heated debates on social media.

The theme of this year’s US Trail Running Conference is “Diversity and Inclusion: Trail Running for Everyone.” Event director Terry Chiplin believes race directors should invite women and other underrepresented groups to race and change race marketing strategies.

“It’s no wonder that races typically see a majority of men when that’s what the imagery shows, and then any women that are pictured tend to be white, super lean, fit runners,” he says. At the conference, attending race directors will walk away with a list of actions they can take to increase diversity.

Already, trail and ultramarathons are working to increase inclusivity. Through interviews and research, we identified these 10 standouts.

Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run

The preeminent 100-mile race announced two pregnancy deferral policies at last year’s Trail Sisters clinic. Since then, WSER has also announced a policy on transgender athletes. The aim? Establish clear ground rules that allow transgender athletes to compete.

Loon Mountain

Last year, in a partnership with Trail Sisters, the race offered a discount for first-time female participants. This year, more than 54 percent of pre-registered runners are women. Chris Dunn, race owner, has taken other steps to welcome more women, including equal representation in marketing imagery; equal prize purses and recognition during the awards ceremony; gender-specific tee shirts; and enlisting influential women trail and mountain runners.

Rainshadow Running events

Co-race director Elizabeth Reese has added feminine hygiene products to the aid station supplies at Rainshadow Running races across the Northwest. Anyone who’s raced with a period knows that this can relieve considerable stress during race day in wilderness. In a recent Runner’s World article titled “This Running Race Is Stocking Tampons at Its Aid Stations, and It’s About Damn Time,” writer Caitlin Giddings recently asked, “Why aren’t more race aid stations throwing us an absorbent cotton bone?” Rainshadow has also implemented a generous pregnancy deferral policy.

Antelope Island 50K

For the second year, the women’s prize purse will be more than the men’s. Race director Jim Skaggs opted to pay women more in light of the gender pay gap. (In the U.S., women make on average 80 cents for each dollar a man is paid.) Sure, Skaggs has faced Twitter trolls, but reports positive feedback as well. “Us race directors talk,” he says. “We ask, what are we doing to encourage more women to run?” His Buffalo Run Adventures provide women’s specific tees, too.

Tejas Trails

A family-oriented environment provides perks for all parents, from a free RaceDay Adventure Camp and craft-and-game tables to youth trail runs and toys to borrow. Race directors Chris and Krissy McWatters explain on their site that after losing a son, they “decided we must make Tejas Trails about more than just trail running…we are very motivated to create environments where people grow closer together from these races.”

Barr Trail Mountain Race

In 2017, sponsors paid 20 percent larger awards to women to raise awareness to the national wage gap, as well as inequality within race participation and sponsorship payouts. For 2019, the course record incentive for women is higher than men’s; the race adds $100 for every year the record has stood. “We are making a concerted effort to increase women’s participation…by hosting talks, runs, and events directed at women,” says Peter Maksimow, BTMR committee member.

Legendary Race’s Cloud City Multi-Stage

This epic stage race offers a $1,000 bonus for a woman who wins overall. Citing stats about women closing the performance gap in longer distances, the event aims to incentivize women to compete hard. What’s more, Legendary Race offers pregnancy deferrals and, yes, tampons and pads at aid stations.

Ouray 100-Mile Endurance Run

Race Director Charles Johnston wanted to make a point by paying top women 20 percent more than men in 50- and 100-mile events. “We want a sport where the next Courtney Dauwalter doesn’t miss out entirely because ad spend happened to be focused on 20- to 55-year-old males. We want the same set of rules for everyone, where grit and work ethic determine where you get to, not some arbitrary circumstance. My daughters will be prepared to work twice as hard in life, but I’d like to see a world where that results in them getting twice as far,” he says.

Golden Gate Dirty 30

This year’s race will offer women their own starting lane and full refunds for those who can’t race due to pregnancy. Race Director Megan Finnesy is working to increase the participation of women and hopes to push it to 51 percent. She has offered a unique range of awards, including an emphasis on first-time ultrarunners, and a new team option. “I am a woman who never thought I could run a marathon, let alone a 100-mile race,” she says. “This world has changed my life for the better. I want to inspire other women to find out what is possible for them.”

Mermaid Series

A women’s race series founded in 2006 hosts the annual T9 Mermaid Trail Run, an event created with runners who are new to trails in mind. “We don’t expect our runners to look a certain way, complete the distance within a certain allotted time frame or be rated at a certain level to participate. We just want them to come out and try,” says Stephanie Davies, assistant race director. With a goal of inclusivity, anyone—yes, men too—is invited to participate. Founder Carlo Facchino ensures the post-race festivities stay up until the last runner crosses the line.

Editor’s note: If your race is making strides, please comment below and let us know how—and why—you’re working towards inclusivity and/or equality.

Elizabeth Carey is a writer and running coach in Seattle, Washington.