If She Can See It, She Can Be It

There has been a lot of recent discussion, including here on Run 247, around the low levels of female participation in ultrarunning. Although some races are seeing more women take part (40% of this year’s Glen Ogle 33 Ultra field is female; 42% of January’s Hardmoors 30), the majority of ultras still have comparatively few female participants, particularly at longer races of 50+ miles. Women will make up only 12% of the field in December’s 50 mile Montane Cheviot Goat and 15% in next year’s Dragon’s Back Race.

Earlier this year I surveyed over 1,200 female runners, both those who had run an ultra and those who had not, to try and understand why female participation remains relatively low. I also put the same questions to male runners (with 541 responses) to see whether the barriers to participation differed between genders.

It is often assumed that women are not running ultras because biological predisposition means they just don’t want to. Several Facebook discussions I have seen have included variations on these lines put forward by both men and women that “endurance sports appeal more to men because of their more egocentric mind-set” and “most women just don’t want to do it”. However, based my surveys it would appear that this is a false assumption. Only 18% of the women surveyed said they would not like to run an ultra; 43% had already run one and 39% said they would like to run one in the future.

Many of the barriers to participation in ultra running are unsurprisingly common to both genders. My surveys found that the biggest obstacle stopping both men and women running ultras is time to train as a result of work, family and other commitments. However, there were also significant differences between the two genders.

Men were more focused on logistical and practical barriers, such as the cost of race entry and being able to train without getting injured. They also worried about the impact of their running on their family and were concerned about placing a strain on their relationship with their partner.

Women were much more likely to cite barriers relating to a lack of confidence and self-belief. Large numbers considered that they were not good enough to run an ultra or felt intimidated by other runners. Many believed that they were too slow to run an ultra; a significant number of the women who responded to the survey said that they would be encouraged to run an ultra if cut off times were more generous (38%). These reasons were only cited by very small numbers of male runners.

So how do we encourage more women to take part?

Kayleigh Ralphs has helped many people develop from complete beginners to ultra runners through Kayleigh’s Fitness Run Club and feels that a distorted image of ultra running is often portrayed. She says people think that “you have to be at a mega fitness level and be an elite, which is not the case. Ultra running is suitable for everyone, of all ages and abilities, that’s what makes it great.”

Some of the language used around ultra running can make it seem an intimidating environment, with races describing themselves in often macho language, such as ‘brutal’ or ‘toughest’. This image can be reinforced by discussions on social media; some of the women I surveyed told me that they lacked knowledge about how to prepare for an ultramarathon and felt intimidated about asking ‘beginner’ questions: “Ultra runners come across as very ‘bullish’ and can be quite sarcastic about new runners and almost unkind about their initial questions and issues.” This perceived image is in stark contrast to the experience of women when they actually participate in an ultramarathon, with large numbers praising the friendly, inclusive and welcoming environment they have found. Top ultra runner Kim Cavill thinks it is important that women are able to see the supportive side of trail and ultra running: ‘The more we can support each other, the better. The trail running world is very different to road running and is so much more about being outside enjoying yourself than competing, and I think more women are realising that and finding it more appealing than running around town getting heckled!’

More visibility of women in ultra running is needed

Many women have been encouraged to try an ultra marathon by knowing a friend who has taken part in one. In the words of Geena Davis, “if she can see it, she can be it”. We need to ensure that the image of the ultra runner is not just wiry, white and male. As female participation increases, some growth should happen organically as these runners go back to their running clubs and local areas and provide visible role models to their peers. However, we can also accelerate this by improving the visibility of female ultra runners, both ensuring that elite female racers receive equal coverage with their male counterparts in the press and in race publicity, and also raising awareness of the ‘ordinary’ female runners successfully completing ultra marathons of all lengths. Blogs and social media can assist with this, as well as more subtle measures, such as ensuring that photos on race websites include images of both men and women.

Race directors could also take some additional steps to facilitate women’s participation. As generally slower runners across all distances (with of course some notable exceptions), women are disproportionately affected by cut off times. A recent interesting piece from irunfar suggested that instead of the gap narrowing at longer distances, actually even the fastest women’s times are proportionately slower compared to men’s times in ultra races. Cut offs are often in place for practical reasons and to limit the impact on volunteers, but perhaps race directors could look at whether it would be feasible to extend cut offs in some cases.

Bigger races could make themselves more female friendly by developing policies to help with the impact of pregnancy and childbirth. Sophie Power made headlines around the world with the image of her breastfeeding her son during this year’s UTMB, a decision partly influenced by the fact that UTMB will allow deferrals for injury, but not for pregnancy, meaning had she not run she would have lost the place she had worked hard to gain through the points system and ballot. Western States has now implemented a pregnancy deferral policy, which allows pregnant women to maintain their lottery status for up to three years.

Above all though, the solution seems to lie in giving more women the confidence that they can successfully complete ultra distance races. Kristian Delacour of The Mad Hatters races has found that a more personal, welcoming approach has had a big impact in encouraging more female entrants. They discovered that engaging with their runners via social media and being very responsive to messages and questions was effective in encouraging women to sign up. The race organisers also looked at where cut off times could be adjusted and organised recce runs to encourage runners who might be nervous of their ability to complete the route. Kristian believes that these measures were significant in achieving female participation rates of 53% for their marathon (28 miles) and 31% for the 40 mile hilly ultra marathon and hopes to build on this next year.

The world of ultrarunning is a friendly one

As a very average runner myself, who juggles running with work and a young family, I felt very intimidated when I started running ultras, but I soon discovered that my worries were completely unfounded. Women who are participating in ultra marathons are doing so successfully and are finding the environment at races to be inclusive and welcoming. If we can ensure that the perception of ultra running matches this reality, then hopefully more women will be encouraged to give ultrarunning a try.

You can read more from Lizzie on her blog: https://lizzierunning.wordpress.com/