Profile – Ladies of Ultra Running Part Two

In line with our promise to feature more in the way of female ultra running and to raise the awareness of some of the issues we brought up, we bring you another feature of one of our local Australian runners, Bry McConnell. What we’re aiming to do with these profiles is to raise awareness of how our sport can be more accommodating to the pressures that both men and women face – in short – it’s about how we can be better and appreciate different circumstances. We can do this by featuring the thoughts of those women who manage some of the pressures we discussed and ask them their advice too. Our goal we hope, is that our features can help other female (and maybe male) runners and to gain a greater appreciation, and ultimately encourage more women into the sport, particularly here in Australia where numbers are low.

I recognise that some people may think this is a non-issue – that’s fine and we’re all entitled to opinions. But I don’t believe it to be a non-issue and we’ll continue to push this agenda. As such next week, we’ll be profiling the Ladies ANZ Sky Running team as they take on the rest of the world in Chamonix, France – with a very real chance of taking out top spot in our opinion. For now, here are some musings from Bry McConnell – a regular on the Aussie ultra scene, and a pretty handy runner too…

Why do you think we see women in Australia unrepresented in ultra running?

I think until recently we lacked many of the introductory style races, particularly in trail racing there were limited options for shorter races to build up experience to then step into an ultra. Many women I talk to find trail running daunting enough without adding distance, travel etc to the mixture.

Bry smashing it up at the inaugural Hillary Ultra (80km) earlier this year where she finished fourth.
Bry smashing it up at the inaugural Hillary Ultra (80km) earlier this year where she finished fourth.

Another factor I feel is the limited ‘club’ options in Australia. Over the last few years we have seen a great many clubs, training groups, training camps etc spring up, hopefully these will make access to the sport seem more achievable to many women. Without the exposure gained through clubs or knowing someone who does it, many women look at ultras as something unobtainable and amazingly difficult. Finding others in the sport to share their knowledge makes a difference (and many women would prefer this to come from another female).

Does the current ultra running environment suit women who have demands elsewhere e.g kids/work?

We all face a lot of demands in our day to day lives, so I personally don’t like to view it as more difficult for women, but it does depend on the support you have at home. Where can you fit in the training? How does your training affect time with your friends and family? Who looks after the kids when you are away racing? A favourite in our house – can husband do a suitable ballet bun (no way I can race on a weekend when the kids have performances – husband doing their make up would be too big an ask).

Additionally there is the safety factor of doing a large amount of training in the dark or out on the trail on your own – this has been raised with me many times, and remains a big consideration to many female runners.

How do you manage to juggle your running with your kids and family / work life?

Constant juggling, always have a plan B. I am lucky in that I normally can get a long run in during the week, however this often gets moved around due to kids being sick, work, family or other commitments. I have to take the chance to run when I can. For me this means runs up to 2hrs I’ll generally do before getting kids up and ready for school. With my husband traveling regularly, I often need to move these to during the day or the dreaded late night treadmill session!

With my kids now having activities all day on Saturday’s that I need to come and go from, if necessary, I drop and fit in what running I can. Splitting my daily run is sometimes the only way to get through the kms I need.

Bry with another prolific Aussie female ultra runner - Nikki Wynd at TNF100
Bry with another prolific Aussie female ultra runner – Nikki Wynd at TNF100 – Both ladies kicked my ass that day!

How in particular does your husband work with you to help you fit in your running?

I am lucky to have a husband who is supportive of my running (though not of the constant early alarms). He can see the stress build when I have missed runs, so will where he can help out with ferrying kids around etc to ensure I get a chance to run. He does travel a lot, so before a trip we make sure I have got as many decent runs in as possible.

My traveling away to race is supported by all the family as my time for myself, and as a mother to you girls, hopefully all the training and racing is setting a good example for them for the future.

What are the main barriers for women to run ultras, in your opinion?

  • Access to people all ready doing them to learn from.
  • Understanding of the base level of training – not just what the from end would be doing, as a training plan for that can look daunting.
  • Entry level races.
  • Team races, be it relay or pairs etc where they can gain an understanding running the distance with someone.
  • Fitting in the training – this one affects all people running ultras, but I know for many women, finding others to train with or safe areas to train is a concern.

Should more races cater for women?

There are certainly some women who love the opportunity to race in a females only event, but for me I don’t see it as a necessity. I have female friends I love to run with and will happily do this within another event.

A great thing with this event is the range of races and that they have included kids races and other entertainment. The TrailACT races (shorter trail races in ACT) do this too, offering a 1km kids event with things to hunt for on the way rather than 1st over line focus. These types of events mean the whole family can go and enjoy a day out (and the kids can beat the parents who are exhausted from their own event).

Bry's two lovely daughters taking part in the TrailACT events - which allows for a family day out on the trails. More and more event organisers are opening their eyes to these options.
Bry’s two lovely daughters taking part in the TrailACT events – which allows for a family day out on the trails. More and more event organisers are opening their eyes to these options.

I do think it is great to see race directors trying out new ways to get more females into the sport, so will watch with interest the numbers at events such as this.

What about gear? Is it too focused on men…particularly backpacks and shoes?

When I first started ultras only four years ago, there was certainly an issue of lack of gear designed to fit women properly. I think we are seeing a very rapid change in this and hopefully will continue to see this trend.

Do we need more apparel such as the new Anna Frost range of clothing for women?

Need, no. But is there a demand for it, yes! I don’t feel the apparel choices have stopped women coming into the sport, but I do think having options to look and feel good on the trail is appreciated and we certainly are seeing more technical gear designed for look as well now.

I am still surprised by the number of brands putting a large amount to product development and marketing funds into ranges that do not cater to females. This appears to ignore a potentially large growth market.

What recommendations would you make to race directors / the ultra running community to help entice more women into the sport?

The rise of more training camps and groups such as Summit Sisters is certainly a great start in giving more women a window into the sport and a supportive environment to learn in. I would like to see these continue to grow as well as more females in the sport mentoring others who are interested (I feel this happens now informally, but relies on you knowing someone in the sport, so perhaps there are ways to make it more available).

Races that have the option to compete as a team are also a great initiative. A few years ago I did a ‘Midnight Marathon’ on trail where a relay option was also offered. It got lots of women out running trails at night for the first time in what was a fun environment. One of my regular run buddies at present is looking to do her first ultra soon, but first would like to either crew or do a pairs race to ease into the sport, there are still limited options for teams events.

Having a range of events on a race weekend to enable to whole family to be involved. Whilst it is more work for race organizers, splitting the timing of races to allow for spouses and/or children to race over the course of a weekend event is a great way to get the whole family involved. In many cases both partners run, but normally due to the timing of events it isn’t possible for them to both race. Ideally it would be great to have a split of timing so there is a chance for the whole family to complete a race.

The more that females within the sport talk about their experiences and share their passion, the more females we will see enter the sport. The barriers are not so high once you have knowledge and support.

Many thanks to Bry for offering up her thoughts and opinions.

 

Dan

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