Women And Trail Running: The Long And Short Of It

[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

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.

There are 6 comments

  1. thrach

    I think if you're a woman with a full time job and children, running something shorter is a more easily digested time commitment for the training involved, not to mention time for the event. I work part time, have one child and still find it difficult to put in the training for a 100 miler while trying to do my share of house and child duties.

      1. Meghan Hicks

        Hi everyone,

        In this case, I think it’s really, really important to note that every household/relationship/life-logistics set-up is different. In some households, all adult members share household duties and childcare equally, while in other households there is a strong difference in adult daily contributions to these activities. It’s also important to point out that, in the U.S., on statistical average, women still spend far, far more time on household duties (50% of women daily as opposed to 20% of men in the U.S. do housework) and childcare (women do twice as much in-home childcare than men each day in the U.S.) than men. This survey, http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/atus.pdf, provides 2013 averages.

        1. @erinlynngood

          Oh nice! Looks like you posted this as I was typing out my response. Thank you for providing statistical data as a reference.

      2. @erinlynngood

        Hi Chris! I agree that men have many of the same constraints, however in general (I acknowledge the dangers of making generalizations) women are more likely to perform to duties of picking up children from school, doing laundry, cooking dinner, bathing kiddos, putting them to sleep, etc. I've had several female friends who express guilt about taking time to go on a long run when they feel they "should" be spending time with their children. Many of these same friends have also had well-meaning people question their training, questions that men have not had (or if they have been questioned, I am not aware). I took a coaching certification course course through the Road Runners Club of America and this topic came up for discussion – which is to say, I brought it up :) The facilitator was asking about barriers to people completing training. I shared the thoughts outlined above with the class, and also took an informal poll – the class was a relatively even 50/50 split of men and women participants (I think there were 30 total). I asked "How many women have ever had someone question how their training has impacted their family?" All but one or two women raised their hands. I asked the same question to men, and no men raised their hand.

        1. @erinlynngood

          Whoops! part of my response above was cut off. Just to add, Heck, I don't even HAVE children, and when people hear that I'm training for a 100 I've had 1-2 people ask me how my training impacts my kids! Just goes to show you that some people may not be aware of the implicit/explicit assumptions and perceived obligations, i.e. I am a woman > women have kids > running takes time away from kids. This is my own experience. It sounds like your experience may be different from the gender-role norm – I'd love to hear more about how you balance it out – whether with your significant other, or if you have children, managing domestic duties, etc.

          1. MA_Chris

            Yes, I only have my sample of one, but I'm all-in on the parental front, splitting duties 50/50. My training has subsequently taken several steps back from five years ago, as has my race involvement. We take what we can. I wouldnt change a thing in the kid dept so life will continue to revolve around them.

            1. @erinlynngood

              That's awesome to hear. Thanks for sharing – I personally feel this can be a difficult conversation to have, especially with strangers over an internet forum. It's an important conversation though, and one that can hopefully increase access to the trails for all people.

            2. runsnotsofar

              MA_Chris, I was just starting to type a similar response. But you are taking the words out of my mouth.

      3. VictwaW

        I think this is a "Yes, and…" I have definitely seen HUGE variability in terms of child care sharing (or lack thereof) in marriages. I totally agree that for men who are committed to being just as active participants in their children's lives/domestic duties, then it's hard for everyone. My husband is great in this way. However, I have also seen couples (many, in fact) where the primary burden of child care and domestic duties falls on the mother. I don't think it's always a conscious choice, but the burden of domestic duties is still lopsided. This makes it very hard for women to carve out the time needed to train. Add to that a lot of cultural messages to women about putting your family/kids before yourself, and it becomes even harder to push for the time you would need to do a longer event.

      4. Jill Will Run

        Yes, but there are a lot of households where the men still don't do nearly as much childcare/household chores as the women do. I'm not saying this to point fingers (and maybe you're awesome in this area!) but it's still pretty common.

    1. thunt609

      I agree women often don't have the time to train for longer races. From my experience if they are the ages of 30-40 and trying to raise a family and work there just isn't enough time in the day to fit the miles in. We end up feeling guilty leaving our families to train. The 40-50 crowd are the ones that seem to have more time as usually their kids are older and they can get away. By the time we reach 55-60 often times we can't run that longer distance due to aging and injury. At age 53 I take a lot longer to recover from the longer distances. I have found that the 50 mile distance is all I want to do these days. .

  2. Your Local Computer Tech

    Low female entry rates have nothing to do with female-specific gear, fewer females ultra/trail print ads, or lack of female ambassadors. I've been ultra running for 4 years and trail running for 7 years and it has MUCH to do with obligations. Just read Dean K's book on how he can run through the night -or- 5+ hours a day. Ninety percent of females don't have that freedom to mimic D.K.'s training. I've got 4 part-time jobs and still have passion for running to train seriously. It takes commitment and balance. Each year I ask my family where they want to vacation/camp because I base that on my race locations. My family supports this crazy adventure….and I love them for it!

  3. lucy5555

    I don't think it necessarily has anything to do with time, after all, both my husband and I work 60 hours a week and still find time to train and I can't imagine that all men just have tons of free time. That being said, it could be a cultural issue, given the age of most trail/ultra runners is greater than that of road runners and thus maybe these women have been influenced by past gender conformity rules? If that's the case then give it 20 or so years (until the women who are currently in their 20s/30s are now in their 50s) and I think that you'll have a near 50/50 split as the current generation has no reason to believe that there is anything they cannot do!

  4. trailmom

    I've been running ultras since Child #1 was 5 years old, with occasional breaks of a year or more (kids 2 & 3). Mostly 50k's and 50-milers, which mainly required just a little more than marathon-level training, so the time commitment was manageable. In fact, having a limited amount of training time likely focused my training and kept me from accumulating junk miles, which may be one of the reasons I'm still running distances now, 18 years later. Other reasons to love ultras: (1) it's "me" time (a rare luxury); (2) I can accomplish a goal, start-to-finish. (Parenting is great, but the payoff is definitely a long-term achievement! The boost from training for and finishing a race is a nice short-term "win" to keep me going.). Ultra trail races can be manageable, but I think that shorter trail races can also be challenging, fun, and a sometimes-needed brief escape from real life. It's good to see more of them around, and maybe that will bring more women into trail running.

  5. sdjackie

    I think it has to do with the perceived difficulty and danger involved when running on trails. Road running just seems a lot more social and safe (but not to me). I also think that household and child care obligations do impact women's perception/reality of available time for training. On the positive, at my last ultra I didn't have to wait at all to use the women's bathroom and the men's line was quite long. That was enjoyable for a change!

  6. @mom2booandbobo

    For me personally, I don't have access to trails during the times I can run on the road. Running early early in the morning before everyone is up and before we head to work/school is what works for me. I work out early in the a.m. and my husband does in the p.m. Yes we could probably swap but it is what works best for us. So, my main hesitation from going longer on trails is that I don't have the experience. I did a 27-mile trail run and finished but that was my only goal.

  7. GinaLucrezi

    Wowsa! I love and appreciate all the feedback for this post. I think there is a little truth to everyone's response bc as Meghan mentioned, everyone's situation is different. There is probably no right/wrong answer…or just one answer, but hopefully pinpointing the different reasons will help those who are looking for ways to do more ultras.

  8. katiebee44

    This is a really well written and interesting article! In my (limited) view, I don't think the percentages will change significantly over time, and I actually think that's ok.

    As a mother of both sons and a daughter, I have been so interested to see the innate differences between boys and girls in my kids and their friends. I, personally, celebrate those differences. And one of the most striking things that I see between them is that boys are (as a generalization) born more competitive than girls are. From the minute they could walk, my boys wanted to race – each other, me, the world. My daughter shies away from competition and wants harmony in the world far more than she wants to compete with anyone. I think that's ok.

    There is a great book called, "Boys Adrift" which attributes boys' struggles in schools to the current school philosophy where competition is frowned upon. Currently, in many schools, everyone gets a trophy and there are no losers… which also means there are no winners. This takes a major motivating factor out of schools for boys. (The book goes on to note that as a result, many turn to video games to fulfill their competitive sides.)

    So far, I have written in HUGE generalizations! Obviously, there are very, very competitive women out there and men who are not at all! But looking at the children I know, I see a general propensity towards competition among the boys that I don't see as strongly among the girls.

    To me, racing in shorter trail races is much more fun than racing in ultras. I am a runner. I have run most days since I was 12 years old and I currently race 3 times a year or so, usually on road. My husband is a dedicated ultra runner. I tried my first ultra last year and was happy with the accomplishment but had no desire to do another. Why? Honestly, for me, there's enough pain involved in really long, ultra trail races that I think you have to be pretty darn competitive (with yourself at least if not with the rest of the world) to push past all of that pain to get to the finish.

    I am a mom and that does keep me busy. But for me, that's not why I don't run ultras – I could find the time if I really wanted to. My husband is a very involved dad and is a very hard worker and has put in countless 80 hour weeks at work and he finds the time to train for ultras. For me, I get more enjoyment out of something shorter or faster. I like racing on roads because I am very number-orientated and I feel fast when I do. It fulfills my endorphins and makes me feel strong and happy.

    Anyhow, this is a really interesting topic. My husband has certainly found his sport and ultra running and racing ground him and make him happier in all aspects of life. Likewise, the women whom I know who are racing ultras are incredible, amazing, inspirational women. I'm grateful the ultra community exists and is such a great, supportive community. I salute all of the men and women who have the strength to compete in them.

    Katie Bien

  9. BrettSC

    As I read through all these comments, I see lots of excuses (not meaning that to sound bad), but none that can't be overcome. Meaning – if you are busy with work and kids and housework and etc, then tell your damned man to MAN UP. My wife doesn't run much, much less trail run…but if I needed to do more here and there in order to enable her to do it (if that was a barrier), I would ENJOY helping her.

    In conclusion, I wonder if its like a lot of things – if it just comes down to interests? There are more female nurses and less female engineers, but not because of any sort of innate intelligence difference or skill advantage or disadvantage.

    If there are barriers that prevent higher female participation, then lets attack those. If not (or at least not readibly identifiable), its okay for genders to have differing interests. After having run 100 miles a few times, I could also make the argument that they are just smarter for participating less. :)

    1. mikehinterberg

      Hi Brett,
      Thanks for the comments. I do think the 'excuses' are valid enough to warrant discussion.
      You sound like a great husband, and that's not the problem — it's the small things adding up across the population.

      As an engineer/scientist, I can also attest that there are well-known barriers to women in STEM education and careers. Again, it's worth looking at these as valid concerns. Even if/when most are fixed, a lag in participation also simply means that women don't have as many friends/peers/mentors in the field to have the same level of camaraderie that we might enjoy. It's much more enjoyable when you have more things in common with the people you spend lots of your time with. (Same might go, as you point out, for male nurses). So barriers need not be insurmountable to be a valid reason for population disparities. But you're also right about interests, and enjoy your last paragraph. Coincidentally, there's a new article about women in engineering, and I was thinking about running as well: http://www.businessinsider.com/how-to-attract-wom
      "Women are more likely to pursue careers in engineering when the work makes a social impact"

      I wonder, are women more likely than men to be interested in charity/caused-based running? (I wasn't able to readily find this, but it's interesting to note gender differences in shorter races and all-womens events) Are there other ways to make longer ultras more 'meaningful' in general?
      Bemused, I also wonder if men go out of their way to 'create' meaning — via FKTs, "slams," made-up "doubles' and streaks and what-not — in an otherwise useless activity — that might also skew the numbers!
      Do women care about the d@mn buckle as much as men do?!

      So yes, it is also important to distinguish barriers from otherwise benign lack of interest.

      1. Your Local Computer Tech

        Yes, the buckle is 'da BOMB for women! I joined the military so I know men-to-fewer-female ratio career choices (you mention engineers). Camaraderie? Yes, I like being in a small community of ultra runners that say "hi, how are you doing?" as they pass you on a course. I like the friendliness that can only equate to runners that are HAPPY in THEIR PURSUITS. (Deep down we crave to be non-conformist. Gotta' be a little crazy.)

    2. mikehinterberg

      I do think both of you are in agreement in coming from the same place of love, passion, and concern about balanced responsibilities.
      If running is supposed to show us that traditional pursuits of monetary success are flawed, then we may also agree that traditional roles and view of fatherhood as predominantly a monetary provider are also flawed. Peace!

  10. Jill Will Run

    For me it's the challenge of balancing my job and being a mother… I have my 2yo in school all day while I work, I am not really eager to put her in more childcare so I can go run. I like my kid and I want to spend time with her!

    And my husband just doesn't do as much child-rearing as I do… regardless of the fact that we both work full-time, I am the primary parent. Some families seem to do better at balancing the household responsibilities between partners… and I think that balance seems to be worked at even harder when both parent has an interest (such as running/cycling/etc.) that they want to make time for. It helps each partner understand the need for give-and-take with each other.

    Most of my running I do in the wee hours of the morning while my husband and child sleep, and personally I wouldn't feel as safe driving to trails and running in the dark on them on my own. So my trail running is usually limited to shorter distances for the time being. I think for a lot of women I know, that is the barrier to running a lot of longer trail races. And my girlfriends who do run long trail races, they have no jobs and their kids are in school… so while their kids are gone they go run for hours.

  11. @BourryYang

    In the same way that many men will pick the hottest curry on the menu or the strongest beer on the list, when presented with a range of different trail races, they will always pick the longest. Everyone knows that the length of trail race one runs is inextricably linked to the size of one's manhood.

  12. trailblazerphoto

    I agree with what a previous commenter said re: I don't think less women are in ultra running because of gear, I think we still (overall) have a gap between men and women in regards to opportunities, support and home responsibilities. I don't even have kids but I do much more of the dog/home care. Now I'm lucky-when I'm training for a longer distance race (I'd love to be an ultra runner but alas, got injured right before my first 50K. Working my way back that way but it's slow going), my husband stepped up and helped out but even then, some stuff just went by the wayside because I had to make a choice between training and a respectable looking house (training won). This might be 2015 and women may have come a long way but my opinion is we are not equal by a long shot and the percentage of women in ultra running is just one more statistic that shows that. I think it is still more socially acceptable for men to be the ones to be competitive, to be the ones to pursue big goals and for them to be the ones that have more freedom and less responsibility in regards to home/kids so that they can do those things. This is a great article and I am so happy this is being talked about and I appreciate all the commenters and their thoughtful discussion!

  13. workhorseblogger

    It would be interesting to note of the percentage of women finishing ultras, how many have children still at home and what ages? And if the number of mothers with children at home running ultras decreases with longer distances. I agree that the training time factor is probably a major component. I have three kids, and I have run an ultra a month for the past 12 years. Two kids still at home but both over 20 years old. You have to sacrifice something to get in the training time. The ideal scenario is asyour children get older, they run with you! I haven't been that lucky but I have see other people who run events as a family.

  14. @bpurcell72

    Although family commitments may factor into some runners choice to avoid ultras, I think this is more antidote then statistic. I ran my first 1/2 marathon back in '92 while in college. I still have the complete results on paper. There were 496 finishers, and only 102 of them were women (~21%). Based on my memory of running races back then indicates this was probably pretty close to standard percentage for 1/2 marathons in California. If the internet was as popular back then, I bet commentors would have made similar arguments that women are just too busy raising kids to run as far as a 1/2 marathon. Today, could you even imagine a 1/2 marathon where women aren't the majority of runners? I think the simplest answer is likely the most correct; ultras are still in its infancy when it comes to participation. As the numbers continue to balloon and the accessibility of races increases, the ratio of women runners will continue to rise.

  15. erin

    As a single mom with a "normal" 8-5 job and a teen who plays on multiple sports teams, it comes down to this: time and priorities. Within the confines of my schedule, I can easily train for marathons and be happy with my results and leave it at that. Once I discovered my love for trails and running longer than 26.2, I had to take a look at what would suffer due to the increase in training time. For me, it has been these things that suffer: sleep, house upkeep and chores, social life and time with extended family. In the ultra-distances, I am not competitive….I do not have the ability to train in the mountains on the weekends or devote more than 4-5 hours per weekend day to training. My son comes first and will always come first in my mind. This is my choice and I realize that training for ultras may need to take a backseat for a few years….and I am okay with that. I would rather train properly for a 100 miler than half-ass it and DNF. I admire women who can "do it all"…parenting, career, AND run ultras and do well. It is certainly possible. I shudder at the notion that fewer women run the longer distances b/c they are "too long" or "too hard" or "too dangerous". Personally, the toughest ultrarunners I know are women!

  16. mikehinterberg

    Total agreement and sympathy with societal pressures with kids being, *on average*, more of a barrier to women than men, when it comes to parenthood.
    That doesn't mean women can't or don't run longer ultras, it just means, averaged across the whole population, parenting and social structures make it comparatively harder for Mom's. While this is only one factor, I see no reason to discount it: some women are saying they are experiencing it, so who am I to question and argue otherwise?

    And I'd have everything to gain by stating otherwise. I've been lucky enough, and this aspect of our parenting wasn't even planned, to be the full-time, stay-at-home/work-from-home Dad, to our baby son. So I'm doing most of the day-to-day kid-related stuff. It's awesome, and it's only with regret that my wife can't do more of it, although we'll be switching soon (and then I'll be envious).

    I've observed all kinds of eye-opening things as a stay-at-home Dad. And these are things observed on day-to-day weekdays that I wouldn't have noticed had it been more 'traditional.' Since I'm at the playground and swim lessons and (lots of) stroller jogging, and looking up things on the internet about development and trying to learn from other parents, I've been more sensitive to some of the differences. First off, women get inherent questioning and pressure and advice about their career before and after babies are born. There are well-documented (in books and articles) "camps" of Mom's (stay-at-home vs. career, breastfeeding vs. formula, etc.) who are judgmental and almost adversarial. Paradoxically, while the stereotype of the bumbling or uninvolved Dad still persists (often for good reason), I've found that making *any* sort of additional effort as a Dad is lauded. For some reason, I feel like I can 'get away' with doing what I want without being judged, whether it's playing at the playground at noon in pajamas, or jogging in the rain, or not having the right number of hats (plural!) and gloves and jackets on a baby when the temperature outside is anything south of body temperature, without wondering or worrying what other people think. A big part of that is simply not having a large group of peers judging me, whether real or perceived, and it may simply be that women are less likely to glare or say something to a man doing something that they mildly disapprove of (although I've found that old ladies are more likely to speak their mind ;) ). While there are other unique challenges to stay-at-home Dads, this is an unexpected advantage. If I had useful advice, and this is not a unique opinion, it would be for less competitive and judgmental parenting.

    And I don't even have to point out the obvious physical challenges: pregnancy, childbirth, post-partum, breastfeeding. My hat's off to Mom's everywhere, as it's hard enough to do everything while sleep-deprived, let alone everything else!

    Again, paradoxically, the classical demands of professionalism/careers don't help. In addition to pay disparities, maternity leave in the US, sucks. Paternity leave sucks even more. The latter can put even more pressure on women because men often don't have enough time/practice to get into a helpful routine and/or gain confidence in certain day-to-day-tasks — or, at least, give women a reasonable time to recover and work together on a brand new life and drastically altered routine.
    If I had any advice here, it would be to establish patterns and social support that allows for more sharing.

    So while there's no doubt that both genders can run ultras even as parents, my sympathies to the stories above, and many more, that simply suggest there are unique challenges for mothers. I believe it.

    1. @texassky

      Three cheers for you! It's totally true about females being judgie (new word) to one another. I don't know why?!? When we find another female to support us we latch on like a newborn baby, because they are HARD to find!! It's crazy! And, when we see Daddy at the park with the littles, its like a firefighter just rescued a kitty out of a tree…SWOON!!

      It is hard to be a woman. It's hard to be a human. I have an idea…lets make it even more difficult and go run around in the woods by ourselves, in a torrential downpour (because that ALWAYS happens) being hunted by pumas (stay with me) and call it FUN! But, it is FUN! And it reminds us that we are alive!!

      One day I WILL run 100 miles. But, for now, I have to go change my Bubba's diaper. Thank you for your comment. I'm going to print it out and re-read it on Mother's Day :)

    2. Ultrail

      I'd like to second what Mike says here. I'm a college professor, and my wife's an attorney. Due to my teaching schedule, I have much more time to take care of our 5-year old twins, which means that I take on more of the parenting duties than my wife does. We are very fortunate to be able to afford child care, so I don't have problems scheduling my runs. But my wife does. Even though I am home with the kids and encourage her to get her runs in, she feels guilty about doing so. She feels like she needs to spend a certain amount of time with the kids each day, and she thinks that each minute she spends outside of work without them is robbing them of together time. I think the guilt is caused in large part by societal pressures to be a perfect mom. On a practical level, the biggest problem she has, I think, concerns the changing of the seasons. It is much easier for her to run during the summer, simply because it's still light out after the kids go to bed. During the fall, winter, and spring, it gets dark earlier, which means it's less convenient to go running. You can always feel the excitement in our house once the time changes in spring because my wife can finally get out and run consistently.

      1. Ultrail

        Oh, one more thing. I have no idea if other women have a problem scheduling runs during the daylight hours like my wife does, but if they do, it could very well impact female participation in ultras. We all know that one of the most important components of training for ultras is consistency, and if it's harder for people to schedule their runs for half the year, it would make sense that they would also have difficulty ramping up mileage sufficiently during the spring and summer to tackle longer distances. Even I have this problem, despite the fact that I can get childcare coverage any time I want.

  17. Andy

    Wow. Lots of feedback. Forgive me if I've missed something and will repeat. Also, forgive me if I'm saying the same thing I might have said in response to Ellie's column in 2012 – I didn't go back to check!

    At the risk of sounding like a psychologist (which I am) or a biological determinist (which I'm not), I think men are generally more prone to obsessive all-out pursuits, be it ultrarunning, golf, or work. Addictions are more common among men than women, across all substances, as well as in sex, gambling, and other compulsive behaviors. There certainly are societal factors (childcare, etc.) that influence and reinforce lifestyle and activity differences, but there most certainly are underlying predispositional differences as well. We all know the story of the persistence hunt as the atavistic roots of ultrarunning (thanks Christopher McDougall and Berndt Heinrich) — the men ran all day chasing antelope, while the women stayed at camp, right?

    I'm not saying that running 50 or 100 miles is the same as addiction (if so, I'll be the first to stand up at a 12-step meeting and say "My name is Andy and I'm an ultrarunner"). But on the "spectrum" of compulsive behaviors, it's in there somewhere. Also, in no way is this meant to slam either gender. But it fits with the data showing women's equal or greater participation in shorter events. After all, women *are* superior at multi-tasking and keeping perspective and balance, right? :)

  18. Amy

    I definitely fall in the women have more childcare commitments than men camp. I appreciate the nuanced reasons behind this that people have brought up. If women are taking off 1-2 years per child from running marathon distance races and men aren't, this will add up to a trend like we see (or explain a lot of it).

    I ran marathons in my 20s, and I'm running marathons and ultras again now that I'm in my late-30s. In the middle, I had three kids and took ~6 years off from running marathons. I tell my running friends with babies that it's fine to take it easy for 18 months post baby. If you feel like running, great. But, if you don't because you're sleep deprived and your hip and ab muscles are all weak, give yourself a break. Meanwhile, my husband was plugging away and running pretty long distances throughout. He was competing in a triathlon when I went into labor with our 3rd child.

    I love running for 4-6 hours on trails. I'm excited to run the Squamish 50 miler this year. I've run 15+ marathons. This has nothing to do with a drive to run long.

    Given the challenges women face with balancing children and running, I really appreciate seeing running mothers like Pam Smith, Michele Yates, Jen Benna, Kacie Enman and others interviewed and sponsored. These guys inspire me! Jen Benna talking about pumping while running an ultra on TraiLive… Solomon's short film about Kacie running while pregnant… Michele Yates talking about rubbing icy hot on her sore hips on Ginger Runner Live… These are so appreciated!!!

  19. JessTang

    Part of it is just the time limit. Our average finish times are slower than men across every single distance, that includes ultra distances. This means the cutoff times are more competitive for the average woman mid-pack runner to meet them which bar or dissuade us from attempting them. Another part to consider is how long women have been running long distances. It wasn't long ago when women were banned from running long distance races events, and it was socially and publicly seen as hazardous for our health. We had no role models. Women weren't officially allowed into the Boston Marathon until 1972. There was no marathon category for women at the Olympics until 1984. It also takes years to build up to ultra distances. Women participation has been increasing over the years at the lower road distances up to marathons. It's only a matter of time before we're 50%+ of the ultra field as well.

  20. vashoncove

    There is a serious over-reliance on arm-chair opinion compared to actual data on this issue as reflected in the comments.
    Trail and ultra running has many parallels with hiking and backpacking. Many trail and ultrarunners are also hikers and backpackers. Why do we see the same ratio of male/female in backpacking?
    My arm-chair opinions are that the "I don't have the time I am too busy doing laundry" excuse is just that, and the supposed need for role models/fashion mag examples are insulting to women – waiting for Oprah to go run Western States? The best and most frequent reasons I hear are safety reasons. Back when the ratio in road running was lopsided, there were groups formed to provide safety and women were encouraged to run with dogs – there were even "loaner dogs" so that women could go running with the feeling of safety. Let's provide women with safe environments to run in.

    1. Meghan Hicks


      Respectfully, this article was supposed to incite women to talk about their own personal choices in trail and ultrarunning, including the challenges that affect their choices. For many women, household work/in-home childcare in addition to jobs outside of the home do, indeed, impact their whole life schedule, including their leisure activities. And, as you allude, the very perception of being busy can be a barrier for women, too. But, as women have written here, these are legitimate challenges for them, just as, as you mention, a feeling of safety is a barrier for others. If a woman wants to participate in the trail and ultrarunning community in a different way than she currently does, she needs to analyze her own barriers/challenges, not what statistical average tells her should be her barriers or what is challenging for other women. I agree with you 100%, however, that the perception of a lack of safety in trail running is a barrier for many women that trail running communities can address.

  21. wMichaelOwen

    Well written Gina – I am a sucker for these types of statistical analysis pieces and always enjoy "completely unscientific" observations! I think your percentages from a small sample show a great representation of ultra vs. shorter trail race environment.

    I started thinking of ways that trail running communities and organizations could go about getting more females interested, involved, and participating in trail and ultra running. As with many sporting activities, a lot of the interest could start at a young age. It might be harder for a mother in her mid-30's to start trail running for the first time compared to a female much younger. This is a tactic used by groups who host youth running clinics in communities.

    I then thought of an environment where females outnumber male, which is in colleges and universities. I don't have the hard facts but I know the percentages are close to 60% female enrolled in colleges compared to 40% male. From personal experience, of the 12 students in my most recent trail running course that I teach at Ohio University, 8 were female. David Horton who is known at Liberty University for his popular running classes, has his students run a 50K at the end of the semester, and I see many females (from observation it seems more than male) who might be experiences trail and ultra running for the first time.

    I know that every university might not have a trail running class (would be awesome if they did), but this could be an environment that race directors market towards to have a wider impact on potential female participants. This would also get women involved at a younger age which in turn would promote a stronger chance for it to turn into a lifelong pursuit.

  22. trAlien

    I've known a lot of female runners who go to races because their boyfriend/spouse/brother/friend/(etc.) is running one of the longer races and they sign up for the shorter distance for fun.

    The higher number of males in one race may directly relate to the number of females in another.

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