Sitting in the athletes’ forum Q&A on Friday, the day before the Buffalo Stampede I was struck by two things. Firstly how wonderful it was that so many people were willing to put themselves through some serious ‘hurt’ and embrace SkyRunning. But secondly, how slightly disappointing it was that we’re still only at a level whereby female participation in ultra running sits at around the 20-25% mark.
I know this because that’s the split of Ultra168’s audience demographic, but in also talking to some of the sport’s pros, such as Anna Frost it’s painfully clear that if we need an equal balance of male and female participants if we’re to ever grow the industry further.
In fact it’s imperative in all walks of life. Outside of running I sit on a board at work which is driving change in this respect, aiming to have a 50:50 split of women in top managerial positions over the coming five years. I’ve also done extensive research on the topic in a business context to look at and understand why women are so poorly represented in the upper echelons of management. For me personally it’s a big issue and something I’ve been involved with now for a number of years.
Coming away from the weekend at Buffalo was a fantastic experience to see so many women achieve their goals. The highlight for me personally was seeing Jacinta O’Neill fly under the radar and win a major race. It’s in a similar vein to what has just happened over the ditch in New Zealand, with Jo Johanssen taking the ladies scene by storm. I spoke to BCR’s Grant Guise about it before race, simply asking ‘where has she come from?’ To which all he could do was shrug his shoulders. And this seems to be the trend that we’re seeing… too much is left to chance and we rely on a few ladies to push their heads above the parapet and into the upper echelons of the sport.
The fact is that we’re not investing enough as an industry to ensure that talented women are coming through the ranks and into the mainstream competitions. Right now, the sport is far too geared towards men and there are many barriers that women face, which if we’re to progress as a sport and have equal representation, we need to overcome with action. In some respects, I hope that we’re preaching to the converted here, but what we’d like to do is to take a moment to run through some of the challenges and barriers women face so that we can create a greater understanding amongst the community. Then of course offer some solutions that we can all be a part of.
One of the best parts of the weekend just gone was the opportunity I had to spend lots of time with some of the ladies of the sport, namely Anna Frost, Samantha Gash and Jo Brischetto among many others. I’ve been thinking about writing this article for a while – but I am a man. I need to hear it straight from the women who’ve made a real fist of this ultra running thing and I couldn’t think of three better ladies who could offer some valuable thoughts. So what are the barriers that women face when it comes to ultra running?
In speaking with Anna Frost, she relayed to me how back at home in New Zealand she runs with many talented women, yet so few of them go on to enter competitions, which is mainly due she feels, to a lack of confidence that women have in a competitive environment. This is in stark contrast to men, where ego and testosterone are evident in volumes. For the most part however, that couldn’t be further from the truth when you look at our sport. The vast majority of men and women are extremely humble – indeed a conversation I had on the Saturday evening in Bright with a female pro cyclist was rather telling. She was astounded at how friendly and unassuming ultra runners were, something she assured me was non-existent in her sport. But perception is everything.
Jo Brischetto is well-known to many as one half of the Summit Sisters with Salomon athlete, Gretel Fortmann. Summit Sisters is a community of all-women trail runners that aims to share passions for wellness and adventure with other women. Jo had a lot of very valuable thoughts to offer as to why women may find entering our sport difficult:
“Often the terrain of trails means that many women feel as though they may risk tripping, falling or injuring themselves. Trail running is often perceived to be dangerous. I often hear from other women, ‘you are very brave’. Navigation is also a big issue as many women do not feel confident to navigate alone. In conjunction with this they may feel unsafe being away from civilisation as well as a fear of snakes or even leeches.”
Jo continues, “In trail and ultra running there is also a lack of community. Many women prefer to run with a friend or a group, as it is often easier to maintain motivation and regularity if you are training with a group or friend. With so many more women running only roads, it becomes harder to find training partners, and for many women, this is really important.”
Samantha Gash is also well-known to the pages of Ultra168, having made a name for herself with some huge feats of endurance over the years. She’s crossed the Simpson Desert and in September will run across the Freedom Trail in South Africa with the goal to promote female health, education, and confidence. She also found time to help me put on the Ultra Spirit race down in Melbourne a few years ago to help raise money for Kimberly fire victims, Kate Sanderson and Turia Pitt. She adds:
“Women love the idea of running in nature, but the knowledge of gear, trail knowledge/navigation, technique etc can be very overwhelming. In addition to this, for many women their only time to exercise or run is very early in the morning or evening, and for safety reasons it is often not wise to head out on a trail by themselves at this time. Coupled with the lack of options for training partners therefore rules this out.”
So what exactly can we do about it to help boost the numbers of women in ultra and trail running? Well again, I hand over to the ladies to help answer this one.
One of the ideas I tossed around in the car with Anna Frost on Saturday Buffalo as we chased around the leaders was whether or not there should be more female-only events. Do that and you remove a potential barrier to women thinking about entering events – male ego. For most women, ego doesn’t exist, but place them in a male dominated environment and perhaps the swathes of testosterone is just too off-putting to want to toe on the start-line. And who could blame them? Us men can be real idiots at times!
Women-only events are not a new concept however. The Nike She Runs event attracts well over 3,000 eager women to run 5 or 10kms at night through various locations around the world. Jo offers some more detailed advice:
“Community building is the key to facilitating a shift of women to running trails. It requires a non-threatening environment where women feel safe and without pressure to be of a certain speed or ability. Having group runs that are done to time (e.g. 30 mins out and 30 mins back) takes away the pressure for people to keep up. Having online ‘closed’ groups for women to arrange training runs also helps women feel safer when planning runs.
“Introducing women to trail running on fire roads/ less technical trail allows them to build confidence and also means they don’t need to invest in specific trail gear. As the confidence builds, we can help to educate women about the realities of trail running, as well as start discussions within the community about training, gear etc.”
Mentorship also plays a huge roles in bringing more women through the ranks. They might not know it, but those women who are known within the trail and ultra running circles have a huge influence on other women around them and should use that position wisely to help encourage and develop the community of women in our sport. The current ‘women of trail running’ have the potential to play a big part in facilitating these changes.
Starting social trail runs in their communities and facilitating conversations that break down the barriers will serve to make a huge difference. Open and honest discussions about their journey to the trails through their communities and social media can make a big difference.
In conjunction with this, Samantha offers some thoughts as to how to take this to the next level, “I believe it could be advantageous and encourage women to become ‘elite’ or even more serious into the sport if there was mentorship and guidance through the demands of racing and being a sport and brand ambassador. It has been great to see initiatives such as Summit Sisters encourage women of all levels to start trail running. In addition, we should look focus on female trail runners who wish to take their love of the sport to the next level too.”
But what about others in the industry? What can we all do to help push this agenda along?
On a personal level, I believe there is a duty of care from the brands that serve our sport. Right now, far too much gear is aimed at men. You can see why with a 75:25 split. But if we’re to ever advance towards a far greater representation in our sport, gear needs to be designed and made specifically for women. Brands need to stop thinking about short-term profits with the male market and think far more about the long-term potential that the female market offers. Items such as backpacks in particular are so focused at men that quite a few very experience female trail runners I know have commented that they still yet to find a backpack that fits them.
And then there’s the media and websites such as our own. Profiling and promoting female trail runners from a variety of backgrounds inspires women and demonstrate how achievable and rewarding running trails is. “It is important to not only focus on fit elite female athletes, as this is often just another ‘barrier’,” advises Jo.
Over the last 12-18 months, I have personally made a conscious effort to prioritise females in our previews by often covering them ahead of the men. It’s something I am going to commit to for Ultra168 indefinitely, ensuring the representation of female and male coverage builds up to an equal footing.
The fact of the matter is that it is the responsibility of us all to ensure women are far better represented in our sport than they currently are. That is the brands (through more specific gear), the media (through better profiling), male runners (through greater understanding of barriers) and female athletes too (in providing guidance and mentoring).
The growth of our sport is going to come from having more women become involved with it. It’s time we all started doing more to make it happen.