Women And Trail Running: The Long And Short Of It

The Trail Sisters discuss gender disparity in trail races and ultramarathons.

By on April 29, 2015 | Comments

[Editor’s Note: This month’s Trail Sisters column is ‘penned’ by Gina Lucrezi.]

I’m a trail convert, so my past ‘roadie’ side loves looking at stats. I think many ultrarunners would agree with me when I say, what better place to analyze your running self-worth than at UltraSignup! Okay, I’m kidding. Kind of.

I was reviewing some recent race results and noticed a huge difference in the participation numbers between men and women. Being the feminist that I am, I was irked at the registration gap and was curious as to what was causing it. I’m aware that there are less women than men in the sport of ultra-trail running, and yes, I know racing isn’t for everyone, but still!

Thanks to my intro to stats class in grad school, I decided to create my own version of a (completely unscientific) research study in order to gauge the male-female participation split. My method was to select a random sampling of 10 races from 2014 (50k to 100 miles) from UltraSignup. I calculated the number of entries/percentages from the combined total of the finisher, DNF, and DNS entries.

Get ready for your jaw to drop…

Run Rabbit Run 50 Mile

  • Female – 65 entries/31%
  • Male – 142 entries/69%

Chuckanut 50k

  • Female – 131 entries/31%
  • Male – 288 entries/69%

Eastern States 100 Mile                                       

  • Female – 28 entries/14%
  • Male – 171 entries/86%

Jemez Mountain 50k

  • Female – 74 entries/35%
  • Male – 139 entries/65%

Catamount Ultra 50k

  • Female – 30 entries/32%
  • Male – 65 entries/68%

Cruel Jewel 50 Mile

  • Female – 21 entries/23%
  • Male – 70 entries/77%

Fat Dog 120 Mile                                        

  • Female – 23 entries/17%
  • Male – 112 entries/83%

Volcanic 50k

  • Female – 63 entries/25%
  • Male – 189 entries/75%

Javelina Jundred                        

  • Female – 164 entries/29%
  • Male – 402 entries/71%

Thunder Rock 100 Mile

  • Female – 32 entries/16%
  • Male – 168 entries/84%

To try and understand this large spread, my first thought was to find some hard facts on how many trail runners actually exist. A survey by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) reported that 6,792,000 Americans ran trails at least once in 2013. Seriously?! And for a fun fact, the SFIA reported that 54,188,000 Americans ran/jogged at least once in 2013. Among us 320-plus million Americans, we trail runners are a tiny group!

I asked UltraRunning Magazine (UR) and Trail Runner magazine (TR) for their readership stats in hopes of getting an average gender split within our community. UR’s readership is 67.5% male and 32.5% female, while TR’s is 66% male and 34% female. Each magazine attracts a differing audience, with UR being a go-to print publication for ultrarunners of both trails and roads, and TR being the print choice for mainly sub-ultra- (and some ultra-) distance trail runners. Regardless of their particular crowd, both racked up an almost identical split.

To take it a step further, TR says that 91% of its male readers trail race, and 90% of its female readers also trail race. This stat is quite important because it shows that a near-identical portion of the men’s and women’s trail running population chooses to run trail races. This means that the above gender-participation percentages aren’t skewed by a strong gender difference in choosing to race, or not. Plus there are additional people who race and didn’t partake in the TR survey! Why are the registration numbers so unbalanced?

A part of the story was missing, though, so I went back to my notes. There it was, I had only analyzed events 50k and longer. I hadn’t done any research sampling on sub-ultra distances. Maybe the entry numbers would be in favor of female participants, or at the very least, be more balanced? I went back to UltraSignup and used the same protocol conducted for the ultra sampling, but this time I focused on 8k to half-marathon distances.

Wildhorse Trail 10k

  • Female – 79 entries/61%
  • Male – 51 entries/39%

Dam Good Trail Race 14 Miles

  • Female – 73 entries/41%
  • Male – 104 entries/59%

Armstrong Redwoods Trail 17k

  • Female – 38 entries/55%
  • Male – 29 entries/45%

Rabun Georgia Half Marathon

  • Female – 33 entries/43%
  • Male – 43 entries/57%

Rodeo Valley Trail 8k

  • Female – 71 entries/54%
  • Male – 61 entries/46%

Skyline Mountain Half Marathon

  • Female – 44 entries/39%
  • Male – 68 entries/61%

Hell Hath No Hurry 10k

  • Female – 20 entries/47%
  • Male – 23 entries/53%

Mt. Ashland Hill Climb 13.3 Miles

  • Female – 188 entries/46%
  • Male -222 entries/54%

Flight for Fire 10k

  • Female – 38 entries/57%
  • Male – 29 entries/43%

McCall Trail Running Classic 10 Miles

  • Female – 59 entries/63%
  • Male – 35 entries/37%

A pretty interesting outcome! Though this is just a small, random sampling, it does portray a grossly increased female involvement in shorter-distance trail races. This sample even has female entries outnumbering male entries half the time!

I reached out to Rhielle Widders who has been running since high school and is also the race director of the Park City Trail Series in Park City, Utah. Her series is constructed to help transition runners from roads to trails, as well as lengthening their race distance from the 5k up to the half marathon.

Throughout the course of her series, Rhielle has noted a participant demographic spread at roughly 60% female and 40% male. Being the Curious George that I am, I asked Rhielle about what she did to create a race series with such a high female participant rate:

“My races have a low barrier to entry. I take out the risks so women can learn to love the sport. Then I add the risks back in one at a time so they feel comfy going out there on their own. My races are a series so the participants start with really easy, short distances and then move up to more challenging trails and longer distances. By the end, they get it and have felt the magic so they want it and want to go back. Ultimately, I hope they graduate from the series and go on to love trail running to the point where they come back but only for nostalgic reasons or to introduce a friend to the sport.” – Rhielle Widders

I also pinged U.S. trail running pioneer Nancy Hobbs for some trail and ultra beta. She has been a driving force for the sport since its modern conception within the U.S. and has helped the U.S. connect with the World Mountain Running Championships along with being a chairperson for the Mountain Ultra Trail Council and the World Mountain Running Association. Nancy also created the American Trail Running Association. I asked Nancy why she thinks there is less female participation in trail running compared to male participation:

“In the past (say 20 years ago), the opportunities for women were not as prevalent in terms of support–there were not groups getting together as there are now and women didn’t always want to go it alone and they didn’t have a broad base of support, encouragement, or mentoring. Promotion was lacking–trail running was not as visible in print advertising (with a lack of women pictured so there weren’t athletes to identify with), there were a smaller number of events without the diversity of terrain, distance, etc., to choose from. If women were intimidated about doing one of the longer races, they didn’t have options like they do now.” –Nancy Hobbs

I agree with Nancy’s statement. I’ve only been in the sport for a few years and have seen only a tiny shift in female promotion and support. And I work in advertising and marketing within the running industry, so I’m pretty aware of what’s out there.

We know Rhielle’s race-series method is a successful formula for getting strong female participation at her races, but for the people who don’t have a transitional-type series, how do we interest them in the longer events, and keep them hooked on trail running?

“Ambassadors in the sport who are women sharing and talking about their experiences. Training programs for groups–women need to feel empowered and comfortable on the trails. Many don’t want to train alone for fear of attacks either by humans or animals. Safety clinics. Men supporting women on the trails and in trail races. Advertising geared to women on the trails. Women-specific clothing, products. I think some women want to feel feminine while running–skirts have been really good for women who want to feel that girlishness as it were. And, although I’m not a skirt-wearing trail runner, I sort of get that. I’ve worked with women at trail running camps and some of the newbies are SO tentative on the trails. The encouragement and support is really key.” –Nancy Hobbs

Taking it a step further, I asked Rhielle what she thinks are the roadblocks leading to low female registration numbers in ultras?

“I think one of the things that keeps women away is all the gear. When I started, there were about six trail shoes and four of them were made by Montrail. Now there are packs, bottles, shoes, gaiters, socks, hats, gloves, the list goes on. With all the research a gal has to do on everything else in her life, road running is just easier even if the benefits of trail running are greater. I also have seen a huge increase in the number of road races and trail ultras but not a huge increase in friendly distance trail runs that can be trained for amongst boogers, potty training, and the daily nine to five. What if I don’t have time to train 30 to 60 miles on the weekend? There aren’t enough trail races in the 5k to 21k distances.” –Rhielle Widders

In October of 2012, now 2.5 years ago, Ellie Greenwood addressed this topic in an article on iRunFar. Ellie discussed the fact that women only made up 27% of race finishers in 2011, and she pondered the reasons behind this strong female-male participation disparity. What resulted was a huge, productive conversation in her article’s comments section. A look back at both the article and its comments is fascinating. According to UR’s stats for yearly finishes by gender, women have increased to 30.79% participation for calendar year 2014. What do you think? The long and short of it is that slow and steady increases in women’s participation wins the race?

Call for Comments

This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart, so I would love to hear your thoughts. I want to know why female participation is lower in ultras compared to shorter distances. Are women more fearful to run a long way? Is ultrarunning marketed to a more male audience, or branded as a male sport? Do women feel like they are physically unable to run extended distances? Do they think they don’t have enough time because of work or children? Or, maybe, just maybe, females are quite happy with running shorter distances, that the participation numbers above represent what women want to do, rather than what they choose to do. Also, since Ellie’s article and comments conversation, has the climate of trail and ultrarunning for women changed? What do you see that’s different today? And what hasn’t changed? Tell me what you think!

[Author’s Note: Thank you to the folks at UltraRunning Magazine and Trail Runner magazine, as well as Rhielle Widders and Nancy Hobbs for their assistance with this article.]

Trail Sisters
Trail Sisters is a group of three women, each with unique opinions, ideas, and attitudes toward all things trail and ultrarunning. Pam Smith is a mom, physician, and lover of running who lives in Oregon. Liza Howard is a mom and 100-mile specialist from Texas. Gina Lucrezi is a Colorado-based short-distance speedster exploring the realms of ultrarunning.