Gender Diversity in Ultra Running
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
Diversity is a very popular term right now, and for good reason. Diversity means the practice of including or involving people from a range of social and ethnic backgrounds and of different genders, sexual orientations, etc. Diversity generally creates more interesting, more productive, and more inclusive populations. If we can love and accept others' for their differences, we're all better off for it. But when we talk about diversity, it's best to be incredibly specific. The ultra running community has been talking for a long time about the necessity of diversity and inclusion, why the sport isn't that diverse, and how to increase inclusivity.
This study from the National Library of Medicine found that ultra runners (running 100 milers) have a mean age of 44.5 years, 80.2% were men, and 70.1% were married. The findings are a bit dated (2009), but indicate a trend that hasn't changed much. Generally, 100 mile ultramarathon participants are largely well-educated, middle-aged, married men. A 2020 study found that the average age of ultra runners had dropped a bit lower to 42.5, and women now represent 25% of all ultra participants, across ultra distances. The ultra crowd is generally older, generally white, and generally male. If you've been at the starting line of an ultra, none of this will surprise you.
What's surprising to me, is that any of this is shocking. I wrote this article a while back about running and financial privilege. Ultras, more so than shorter road races, cost money. Entry fees are higher, more gear/food is required, and in many cases, more miles are logged requiring more shoes and more time. When we're talking about increasing diversity and inclusion in the ultra community, we seem to be missing the glaringly obvious fact that a lot of people generally don't have the time. "If you want it bad enough, you'll make the time," you might be thinking. Sure, maybe. But for most people, running ultras is recreational, and there comes a time when real human obligations (jobs, family, etc) take precedent over a hobby, no matter how much much that hobby is loved.
Gender diversity specifically has gained a lot of attention. However, the ultra running community is a very small microcosm of the running community; according to this 2020 study, six of ten adults who run are women. The problem isn't that women aren't running, it's that women aren't running 100 milers. There are more than a few reasons for this-ultras have been historically dominated by men, although this trend is slowly turning as more women earn sponsorships and more brands create women-specific ultra running gear. Women are also (and for good reason) more concerned about running alone due to predators (both human and animal). Running alone can be risky and dangerous for women in ways that it simply isn't for men. And finally, a lot of women in their 30's and 40's have kids, and social norms still dictate that women take on more of the household and familial duties.
It's probably wrong though, to assume that social norms are at fault. I'll turn 30 next year, and if I had a baby, my priorities would immediately and necessarily shift. I wouldn't have time to go run for eight hours in the mountains every weekend. I'd still run, but I'd probably shift to shorter distances in order to accommodate work and family life. Finally, (and this is pretty obvious), fewer women than men may want to run 100 miles. This study published in the journal Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences concluded that evolution plays at least as much of a role in sports interest and participation as policy does, quite possibly a greater one. And evolution tips the balance in favor of males.
I'm not saying that we should accept a lack of diversity in sports. Quite the opposite. In 1972, before the enactment of Title IX, only 7% of high school athletes were girls. Today it’s 42%. And since women started embracing road running, the gender split has become nearly equitable. Ultra running is growing in popularity, fast. And with more eyes on the sport, the subject of inclusivity matters more than ever. While a lot of races focus on catering to elite runners and runners with a lot of disposable income, there is a small but significant shift toward inclusivity. At the end of the day, most ultra runners are recreational, and creating environments of inclusion will inspire more women to run and will, in turn, be better for the sport as a whole.
Some races, like Hardrock, are proactively letting more women onto the start line. That's a great start and it's easily replicable. Not only that, but having more women on the start line creates more women of influence in more ultra running communities, which means that more women will be inspired to run. It's not all that difficult and the potential upsides are high, not only from a diversity standpoint, but from an economic one as well.
The other major thing that would help create an inclusive culture in the ultra space would be to have more women in positions of influence. Gear manufacturers, races, and coaching organizations are overwhelming dominated by men. The majority of running coaches are men, and the majority of athletic administrators are men. Including more women in these positions would bring a diverse perspective to the sport and ultimately enrich ultra running overall.
At a recent ultra running event that I attended (I won't say which one), a gentleman was speaking about how ultras "used to be." They were small, exclusive events that were less focused on creating revenue and more focused on running far, he said. But an exclusive community will remain small, and ultra running is busting at the seams to grow. In order to grow, we need to be inclusive and in order to prosper, we need to recognize the real-world implications of increasing diversity. It won't happen overnight. It may never be 100% equitable between men and women for reasons much deeper than our sport's culture, which is influenced heavily by our larger societal norms that we may want to think.
Race directors are not the only ones responsible for increasing diversity-organizations like the American Trail Running Association can help as well, alongside brands that provide gear, ambassadorships, and sponsorships. Increasing female participation will have zero downsides from an economic and cultural perspective; women spend the bulk of their disposable income in food, fitness, beauty, and apparel. Our sport only stands to grow with an influx of women participants.
The best way to grow is to grow slowly. The best way to open the doors to all types of participants is to give everyone an equal spot to start from. Where we end is, more or less, up to us.