Normally I reserve this column for some sort of training topic devoted to making readers more prepared for their ultramarathon goals. However, there are times when I feel I should use this platform for a bigger purpose, like now. We need more women in ultrarunning, period. The current gender inequality in the sport is bad for all ultrarunners. We all have opportunities to help the sport and its participants, and we should.
By Jason Koop, CTS Coaching Director
Author of “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning”
Two iconic races held their lottery processes last weekend: the Hardrock 100 and Western States 100. While each race has a slightly different process to select their fields, the results speak for themselves. If the Western States 100 were held tomorrow, 76 of the 353 entrants would be female, an underwhelming 20.5% of the field (assuming that the Golden Ticket races spots are filled 50/50, there’s no movement in the waitlist, and no other adds). Hardrock is even worse. If it were run tomorrow, there would be 13 women standing in the Silverton High School gym ready to make a loop around the San Juans. This is just 9% of the field. I admire and respect each of these races and their management teams, and I know the final fields of both of these races will change slightly between December and the race dates. I also understand the reasons Western and Hardock designed their lotteries as they have. However, neither lottery advances women’s participation in ultrarunning, and that’s a big problem for all of us.
In 2016, 33% of ultramarathon finishers were female, and female participation has been gradually trending upward. However, there is still a vast imbalance in male/female participation in the sport and, in particular, ultrarunning’s biggest races. This is bad for the sport, and it is time for the sport’s leaders – including race directors, gear companies, coaching organizations, and influencers – to take steps to narrow the gender gap.
WHY THE GENDER GAP IS A PROBLEM
Assuming the gender distribution of entrants into the Western States and Hardrock lotteries is about equal to the gender distribution of those selected to start, what’s wrong with keeping these lotteries gender-blind? We need only look at the development of road running.
The modern competitive marathon originated at the 1896 Olympic Games, but it was another 61 years before Katherine Switzer was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as a numbered entrant. At the time, distance running was not a mainstream sport for women, and even after event directors started allowing women to enter, participation numbers didn’t automatically rise to parity. Recognizing the size of this potential new market, race directors and gear companies jumped in to create women’s-only marathons and other women-centric products and events. More women saw more women running, and more women told more women about how much they enjoyed running. Fast forward 50 years and female participation in road running is equal to – and in some cases greater than – male participation.
Taking proactive steps to increase female participation in road running had profoundly positive effects on the sport as a whole. A sport with skewed gender participation numbers – in either direction – can’t take advantage of economic, community, and competitive opportunities that are available when you have gender parity.
If we want to increase female participation in ultrarunning we need to lower the barriers to entry and encourage a more inclusive culture. This means taking a proactive approach, particularly by leaders in the field. Ultrarunning will remain a male-dominated environment and culture, unless we take the following steps:
RESERVE LOTTERY ENTRIES IN PREMIER RACES FOR WOMEN
Leaders lead, and ultrarunning’s premier races are in a position to set the tone for the entire sport. Make no mistake, the Western States and Hardrock lotteries are not egalitarian, nor do they need to be. Both lotteries are already contrived to reward persistence and experience. The Hardrock 100 is absolutely transparent in their desire to award 25% of entries to new runners, 50% of entries to returning/experienced runners, and 25% of entries to grisly Hardrock veterans. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s their race and it’s their decision. But, because it’s their decision they are also in their power to set the tone for the rest of the sport.
There’s no question iconic races like Western States and Hardrock could change the gender composition of their fields. I feel they should at least double the number of women who toe the start line. The demand is there; it’s primarily a matter of will amongst the races’ leadership. The question is: What are the benefits? Doubling the size of the women’s field at Western States means 152 women start the race instead of 76. That means 152 women go back to inspire their local running communities instead of 76. It means 152 women who influence buying behaviors for female gear consumers instead of 76. You don’t derive that inspiration or gain that influence from the grassroots up; you gain it from premier events down. Doubling the female lottery recipients in these races won’t make the fields 50/50, but it’s a step in the right direction and it makes a statement to build on in future years.
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INCLUDE WOMEN IN POSITIONS OF INFLUENCE
Both men and women need to be included in conversations and decisions at the top levels of ultrarunning. Currently, the Boards of Directors of major ultrarunning events, the C-suites of major gear manufacturers, and the staff of major coaching organizations, are dominated by men. I include coaching organization in that list because – as the Coaching Director for CTS – I recognize my own coaching staff is disproportionately male. While CTS has had women in positions of influence at the General Manager and Director levels, women make up only 23% of our coaching staff across all sports, and even with proactive efforts the steps toward gender parity have come slowly.
We are committed to taking steps toward gender parity in our coaching staff, however, because we see the substantive impact our female coaches make on the athletes they work with and the professional organizations they interface with. For the most part it’s not that men actively work against the interests of women in sport; it’s that we don’t recognize or consider that women may have a different – and equally valid – view on a particular subject.
PROMOTE FEMALE AMBASSADORS
Actress and activist Geena Davis has said, “If she can see it, she can be it.” The optics of 13 women in a pack of 145 ultrarunners tells aspiring female ultrarunners: this is not a place for you. The women selected to stand on the Hardrock 100 start line will have trained, sweat, and sacrificed to be there; as a sport we can and should do more than heap the responsibility of growing female participation in ultrarunning on their backs.
When races, gear manufacturers, and coaching organizations take steps to promote female participation in ultrarunning, everyone wins. When we ignore the gender gap we do so at our peril. Eventually, the lack of female representation at races, in boardrooms, and in coaching organizations will simply reinforce the male-dominated culture of the sport and further diminish female participation.
In an effort to be part of the solution, CTS strives to achieve gender equality – across all sports – in our Sponsored Athlete Program. Personally, of the 11 ultrarunners I coach in the CTS Sponsored Athlete Program, seven are women. Every one of them was accepted into the Program on merit, but I also know increasing the talent and depth in women’s ultrarunning will elevate the performance level of the athletes I coach, as well as the benchmark for peak performance.
If you want to keep a community small, make it exclusive. A male-dominated culture excludes half the potential members of the community. If we want ultraunning to thrive – with or without an increase in total participation numbers – the culture has to be inclusive. Even the economists would agree: women have a greater impact than men in terms driving consumer sales and economic development.
So what can the average ultrarunner do to help bring women into the sport? Lead, take part in, or support events at the community and running club levels that encourage female participation. Support the efforts of local running stores and race directors who are working to bring new ultrarunners into the sport. And be a positive and encouraging ambassador for the sport of ultrarunning in your interactions with all trail runners. The slow trend toward increased female participation is likely to continue, but if we get proactive it can happen a lot faster.
There are no downsides to increasing female participation in ultrarunning, but it won’t happen without proactive steps from the leaders within race organizations, gear manufacturers, and coaching groups. The lotteries for Western States and Hardrock have already set the fields for 2017, but now is the time for these iconic races to take steps toward gender parity in 2018.