Recently, Amy Rusiecki, race director of the Vermont 100, had to fend off social media critics after deciding to give awards to the top 10 male racers but only award the top five women finishers. Noting that 76 percent of the 2018 racers were male, she argued that the woman’s field was less competitive because it was smaller.
“The top 3.7 percent of men each year get recognized and the top 6.9 percent of female every year gets recognized,”Rusiecki wrote. “How is that unfair to the women?”
While the race ultimately awarded the top ten female and male runners, the debate illustrates trail running’s gender dilemma. Men outnumber women in our sport. The American Trail Running Association’s spring 2017 survey showed that just 42 percent of participants were female. The ultrarunning finisher statistics are even lower, with 34 percent female participation in 2017 according to Ultrarunning Magazine. When facing tight budgets and pressure to put on a quality event, awarding the top percentile of each gender rather than a set number of top finishers would seem to make sense.
But I believe awarding more male than female participants promotes an unfortunate message about athletics and gender. It says that men are better than women and deserve to dominate ultras, trail racing and the athletic world as a whole. It’s a version of a message we heard as young girls: sports are for boys. Thanks to that message, girls have 1.3 million fewer opportunities to play high school sports than boys and drop out of sports at a far higher rate. When a young girl sees that the vast majority of podium finishers at a race are male, she’ll think there’s no room for her in the sport.
Trail running is male-dominated sport today but we can’t allow it to stay that way if we want the sport to grow. If we fail to inspire the women and girls who are reluctant to join the community it’s the sport’s loss. Growing the sport is the best way to stop race organizations from dismissing this argument for equal recognition Let’s not give race directors and gear companies a reason to award women unequally. Let’s focus on growth.
If you want to foster the growth of women in trail running, join and support community and running club levels who are encouraging female participation. Take the initiative in your personal life as well. Encourage women who might be intimidated by the sport or community. Try to persuade non-runner friends and acquaintances to try running in the dirt, and cheer them on as they grow within running. Through writing social media posts or word of mouth, share how rewarding trail and ultra running can be— even though it can be hard, scary or uncomfortable. Be a positive ambassador for trail running in your interactions with all trail runners. Most importantly, celebrate other women’s success even if it’s at the sake of your own.
There will never be equal opportunity in trail and ultra running if we don’t take the lead. By encouraging more women to compete and creating competition, we are paving the way for a boom in female opportunity and increasing our chances at true equality.