The unfortunate truth is that nobody wants to be passed by a girl. You don’t, I don’t, no one does because we still see women as somehow weaker, somehow less.
It hasn’t been easy for me to find the right way to write this because it’s not an ‘us versus them’ argument, it’s a discussion about how we encourage and empower more women to get into our sport. So these are my thoughts and experiences in the ultra-trail world as a woman but also as someone who has worked hard to get myself into a position where I can compete with the best.
So why do we always have to be less? Why can’t we be equal but different? Women are frequently sponsored less, awarded less and covered by the media less, not to mention the fact that in some sports we are still not even considered capable of completing the same distance/number of sets as men. With many trail races only reaching 10-20% female entries it means the depth of the female field just can’t compete with the men’s and I for one want more women to race against.
There is a moment at the start of every race that I do a quick scan to find the female faces in the crowd, to share that look and smile of camaraderie in a sea of men. I’ve always wanted to race against the best in the world, which is why I pick the big international races to compete in, I want to be one of 50 or 100 women, not one of 5. This sport has given me some incredible role models, women who are not just winning their races but who are also placing with the men, women who train while raising children and working full-time. I have made some of my closest female friends out on those trails, women who continually have my back and believe in me as much as I believe in them.
I am particularly grateful to Rory Bosio (record holder for the UTMB) who in 2015 said “I will not race the UTMB again until there are 10 women standing on the awards stage”. Two years later they changed their policy and she toed the start line again (the UTMB had previously only awarded the top 5 women but always the top 10 men) that was also the year I came 10th and was awarded up on that stage alongside my idols. To think that the women 6-10 hadn’t trained as hard as the men is ludicrous and I for one can tell you it takes a lot of determination to train for that race when your highest hill is about 50 meters in Richmond Park.
While 99% of my experiences with men while racing have been amazing, there are always the few who won’t let me pass or take it upon themselves to offer negative advice (I’m pretty sure they aren’t offering the same pearls of wisdom to those men around them). Please don’t for one second think that because I’m a girl I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s tough enough to find the bravery to stand on those start lines, to challenge your capabilities, without having a complete stranger tell you you can’t do it. It’s hard to remember that these comments are only a reflection of their own insecurities when you have them buzzing through your head for the next 10 hours. What would it look like if the tables were turned? Would men feel intimidated about entering a race with 2000 women and 300 men?
So what can we do? Races can start by offering pregnancy deferral if you offer it for injury and if you want to argue that pregnancy isn’t an injury have a talk to someone who has given birth it puts a huge stress on the body and recovery often takes a long time. Yes it is a choice to have children but when it happens sometimes isn’t a choice. Quite frankly I find it disgusting that this isn’t offered to women at some of the big races and the reality of the situation is that you would probably only have a couple of women using it each year, which isn’t much to ask when you only have such a small contingent in each race anyway.
I’ve been asked how I feel about positive discrimination and somehow this doesn’t feel right either, but maybe that’s what it takes – a brave race director saying that they will first fill 30% of their entries with women and the rest can go into the main ballot?
To be honest I don’t really know what the answer is and I do understand that it’s not every women’s dream to run through the mountains for days, however, for those who do want to there are often huge barriers they need to overcome to be able to do it.
Finally, let’s give the girls some more media coverage. Often the female race feels like it is treated as an afterthought. We may not be finishing in the same times as the men but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some epic battles going on. If we want to inspire our future generations let’s make sure they are exposed to kick ass women as well as men.
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Header image of Sophie at the 2018 UTMB by Zoe Salt