Women in Trail Running and Ultrarunning: Perspectives on the Challenges and Progression Toward Equity

A look at the current status of women in trail running and ultrarunning and what still needs to be done.

By and on March 19, 2024 | Comments

We think we all can agree: Women’s trail running and ultrarunning is B-O-O-M-I-N-G.

Not only do the sports look and feel different than they did only a few years ago, but the data corroborate our thoughts.

According to the running publication Run Repeat, as of 2022, women’s participation in trail races has reached 46%, whereas in 1997 only 13% of trail race participants were women. And if we look at Run Repeat’s 2020 study of ultrarunning, we learn that while women’s participation is much lower overall, at 23%, as of 2020, women’s participation numbers have increased from 14% in 1997. The data from both of these studies and one more of Run Repeat’s on the sport of running as a whole in 2019 show that women make up far higher percentages of shorter-distance races than longer-distance races.

Even though we all can think of some of the vast advances toward equity that have been a part of this growth — hello, the eight-odd years of hard, continued work by the Trail Sisters organization to make space for women in trail running and lululemon’s woman-only FURTHER ultramarathon which recently occurred, we’re looking at you — opportunities for women to flourish in the sports do not seem to be increasing at the same rates as women’s participation has.

Again, the ground feel matches the data, which identifies fundamental issues such as safety concerns and a pay gap holding women back from participating in trail running and ultrarunning.

In 2022, the U.K. organization SheRACES — one of several organizations working to level the playing field for women in trail running and ultrarunning — carried out a survey of over 2,000 women, with a wide range of paces, who compete in races from 5 kilometers to ultramarathon distances. The results found that 72% of women had been put off from signing up for a race.

If we look to a 2018 iRunFar survey of more than 5,000 trail runners and ultrarunners, we learn that women far more often than men experience problems with and fear for their personal safety while running, so much so that many women modify their running plans to allay the perceived risks. And a small, 2017 survey of 67 sponsored athletes on iRunFar showed a wide pay gap between women and men in trail running and ultrarunning.

In order to better understand where the sport of running currently stands in its evolution to support women as much as it has historically supported men, we listened to a number of women who are at the helm of breaking down the barriers that exist for women in trail running and ultrarunning. In this feature article, we share the perspectives of these women, on where they see good change has occurred and where more progress is needed.

Our goals with this article are two-fold:

  • To celebrate the progress thus far, and
  • To give all of us, as members of the trail running and ultrarunning communities, clear action items on the next steps we can take to support women better.
Melissa Beaury and Alli Hartz - running in the desert

Trail runners Melissa Beaury and Alli Hartz on a desert run together. Photo: iRunFar/Eszter Horanyi

Identifying and Celebrating the Organizations Working Toward Change

Among the many organizations and individuals working toward changing the playing field for women in trail running and ultrarunning, Trail Sisters, SheRACES, and the Pro Trail Runners Association are leading entities.

The organization Trail Sisters, founded in 2016 by Gina Lucrezi, was among the first trailblazers to recognize a need for greater equity for women in the sport and to act accordingly.

Lucrezi told iRunFar: “The concept was generated from personal experiences working within the industry and participating as an elite trail runner within the sport. There were lots of voids, a lack of perspectives, and what appeared/felt like a non-interest in embracing or empowering any other demographic other than male. Simply put, I decided I wanted to change that.”

Gina Lucrezi - Trail Sisters founder

Gina Lucrezi, Trail Sisters founder. Photo courtesy of Gina Lucrezi.

In 2019, Trail Sisters developed a set of standards for race directors to adhere to, with the hope of growing women’s participation and creating a more equal sport. The points they focused on were all measures that could be implemented easily, without a great deal of hassle or expense to the race organization.

Lucrezi said, “Though there are many other standards we can add, I believe the best way to create fast and large-scale change is by making these standards accessible and simple to execute. The five standards we’ve chosen make a meaningful and noticeable impact, which creates momentum, trend, and adoption as ‘normal.’”

These five main standards are:

  • Equal podiums and awards
  • Women’s specific apparel and swag
  • Menstrual products at aid stations
  • Women on the starting line
  • Pregnancy and postpartum policy

As of this article’s publishing, there are an incredible 458 Trail Sisters-approved trail races that are following these standards, but the work is far from over.

Trail Sisters began as a digital platform, but in response to messages they frequently received from women asking how they could connect with other trail running women in their area, they began to facilitate local run groups for women in communities all over the United States, where the organization is based.

Gina Lucrezi speaking in front of a crowd of women.

Gina Lucrezi presenting during a Trail Sisters gathering. Photo courtesy of Gina Lucrezi.

Lucrezi told iRunFar, “We put together a list of what it entails to be a Trail Sisters leader, and what the groups needed to include. Our biggest things were ‘no drop’ — these groups were for women getting together and you had to wait for everybody — and that they would be volunteer-led, free groups. We didn’t want there to be any cost — no barrier to entry in that sense.”

The demand was there and the groups quickly took off, and there are currently 145 active Trail Sisters run groups around the U.S.

With regard to the importance of building women-only spaces, Lucrezi said: “The biggest benefit is finding like-minded people. They know that it’s a welcoming space and that we’re all dealing with the same obstacles in general, so we can come together to talk about those obstacles and work through them. And the intimidation factor is very different when it’s just the one gender.”

Through these groups, many women have gained the confidence needed to sign up for a race they would previously have found too intimidating, and have gained valuable community and life-long friendships.

U.K. organization SheRACES was founded by mother and ultrarunner Sophie Power in mid-2022. Based on its research, and much like the work the Trail Sisters organization has been doing, the founders set about putting together a detailed set of guidelines for race organizers, as to how they could attract more women, give them a great experience, and fully value the female competition.

These included providing toilets and changing facilities, generous cutoffs, inclusive marketing imagery, fair deferral policies, equal prize money, and more.

SheRACES now certifies events that commit to minimum guidelines, allowing them to signal that they are inclusive for female athletes, and supporting them in increasing female participation. The work began in the U.K., where SheRACES was founded, and has already had a dramatic effect on the trail racing landscape there, and now internationally.

Also founded in 2022 was the Pro Trail Runners Association (PTRA), a nonprofit operated by professional trail runners. While the association has several missions, the general aim is to give pro trail runners a voice in the progression of the sport. The PTRA has several working groups, one of them being the Women’s Equality Working Group.

The PTRA says that among this working group’s activations have been:

  • Helping to establish a UTMB World Series pregnancy policy
  • Helping to develop a maternity template that can be used for athlete contracts
  • Working with UTMB and other races to increase media coverage of women during races

Recognizing the Sport’s Remaining Foundational Issues

Stephanie Case is an ultrarunner, women’s advocate, and founder of the nonprofit Free to Run, which connects women in areas of conflict with the sport of running. When iRunFar asked her for a status update on the progress — and lack thereof — of women in the sports of trail running and ultrarunning, she pointed to an original need to recognize some of the sport’s foundational issues.

Case begins, “Sexual harassment on the roads and trails remains a significant issue and concern for many. One recent study found significantly higher rates of sexual harassment and abuse were reported by female, transgender, non-binary, and gender-fluid runners compared to male runners: 70% of female respondents and 61% of transgender, non-binary, and gender-fluid respondents reported incidents of sexual harassment and abuse compared to 17% of male respondents. This contributes to women’s lack of feelings of safety when going out for training or racing.”

The 2022 Hardrock 100 women's podium.

The 2022 Hardrock 100 women’s podium (l-to-r): 2. Stephanie Case, 1. Courtney Dauwalter, and 3. Hannah Green. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

She noted that while the sport remains male-dominated, there has been some clear progress in terms of representation on the trails and on start lines, which she attributes in part to “more inclusive race policies, the rise in women’s trail running groups and communities, and increased media representation.”

Case continued, “Compared to just a few years ago, there is a lot more openness to recognize that the gender imbalance in the sport is an issue that we all have an interest in correcting. I can remember when I first started publishing articles about gender issues in our sport, while many were supportive, the backlash from both men and women in the community was swift and fierce. While people recognized that women were less represented, there was a fair amount of pushback that this was a problem. Some argued that women were not as interested in ultras as men, that women were biologically less competitive, or that there was no need to take proactive steps to create more space. Now, these arguments are becoming increasingly at odds with where our community is heading.”

Case noted that expectations within the running community have changed for the better, and said: “When I wrote about the need for pregnancy deferral policies in races back in 2017, it was a new concept — most of us hadn’t even considered it was an issue. Now, the conversations are centering around what those policies should look like, rather than whether they are needed.”

She added that while pregnancy deferral policies now in place at UTMB, Western States 100, and Hardrock 100 may not feel relevant to many ordinary runners, who see these as elite events, they help to set the standard for more local and community events as well.

Women's podium - 2023 UTMB - Hartmuth, Dauwalter, L'Hirondel

The 2023 UTMB women’s podium (l-to-r): 2. Katharina Hartmuth, 1. Courtney Dauwalter, and 3. Blandine L’Hirondel. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

We Must Provide Equal Space in Races for Women

Several of the women we spoke with talked about the need for closer-to-equal representation of women and men in races.

Case says, “Other areas where we have seen progress is on race lottery policies. The High Lonesome 100 Mile is a perfect example: They have set a 50/50 male/female quota on their race lottery, which some might see as radical, but others like myself see this as a no-brainer!”

Maggie Guterl - 2021 High Lonesome

Maggie Guterl at the 2021 High Lonesome 100 Mile. This race has become known for its policy of a 50/50 gender split in its lottery. Photo: Zach Miller

Stephanie Howe is an elite runner, coach, sports scientist, and mother who is in complete agreement: “I would love to see 50/50, especially in races that have a lottery … I would love to see just as many women competing as men in the whole depth of the field, not only the elites but everyone who’s involved.”

Power also spoke on this topic: “We have seen a significant shift in U.K. races adopting or being influenced by our guidelines.” Power added, “Many races that follow SheRACES guidelines are approaching 50% women on their start lines.”

Meeting Women’s Needs on the Trails and at Races Generates Robust Women’s Fields

Aside from lottery policies to allow more women to enter races, the women we spoke with said we can — and should — consider other factors to make trail racing feel like a safe and welcoming space for women.

Power said, “Outside of event organizers, we also need to speak to the men in our sport. Almost all women I know have had a negative race experience — from being pushed, groped, harassed, blocked, or more. We had a message from a woman who could not shake a man from running with her for almost 50 kilometers during a race, which made her increasingly uncomfortable, as he waited for her at every aid station, toilet stop, and more, and increased his pace to match hers. We need to have these conversations about what acceptable behavior is and raise awareness about what actions can make a woman feel unsafe, even if unintended.”

Being a part of the sport for over a decade in her diverse capacities has allowed Howe to see the unique interests of women out on the trail and at races. She says, “Women do better when they can run with their friends — like daily training, races, and camps. I think that’s really cool that women will do that, and it’s their time with their friends out on the trail. It’s really healthy and supportive. That’s what trail running and ultrarunning can do for women, is to provide that group space.”

Women from the U.K. organization Black Trail Runners enjoying time out on the trails in Ruislip Woods, England. Photo courtesy of Sonny Peart.

Power also identified the logistics of the race, and in particular safety concerns around these, as an off-putting factor experienced by 40% of women in the 2022 SheRACES survey.

She said: “The need to feel safe is something that should never be underestimated by a race organizer, and we know that for many men it is difficult to understand. Having well-marked routes, with pre-race recces, helps. As does using trackers and communicating that there will be female volunteers at aid stations, especially through night sections. Some races also offer buddy-up arrangements through the night for those who are nervous about being alone.”

Best Running Headlamps - testing headlamps on a night run

iRunFar’s Meghan Hicks preps for an early morning run. Many women have safety concerns about running in darkness and the need to feel safe during nighttime sections of races is important. Photo: iRunFar/Eszter Horanyi

The issue of cutoffs arose again and again among SheRACES survey respondents, with 46% saying they had been put off entering a race because of cutoffs.

Power expanded, “It’s not the cutoffs themselves though, it is the way they are often described. Consider the difference between a race describing itself as ‘tough’ or ‘brutal,’ highlighting that if you don’t get to a certain point by a certain time your race will end. Compared to a race detailing the pace per mile you need to attain to reach each cutoff, with reassurance that if you are moving well and just outside the time but likely to make the next one, they will let you continue.”

While Power acknowledges the need for cutoffs from a race management perspective, and to limit the amount of time volunteers have to be out and exposed to the elements, she pointed out that making them more generous has a noticeable impact in terms of diversifying the field of runners.

She offered as an example, “A U.K. fell race allowing slower competitors to start an hour earlier led to increased participation amongst women 50 years and up and men 60 years and older.”

Bertha Lotje Woehl

From left to right, Bertha Lotje Woehl, Manny Gonzalez, and Mya DeLeon enjoying the 2021 Badger 100 Mile together. More generous cutoffs have the effect of diversifying the field, to include both more female and more masters runners, says the organization SheRACES. Photo: Will Harrison

Normalizing Support of the Trail Running and Ultrarunning Mother

Being a mother is a natural part of many women’s life cycles, and women remain athletes during this time if they choose to. Several of the women we spoke with said that motherhood and being an athlete as dual life components are still not normalized in trail running and ultrarunning.

Howe ideated about this: “We have to start with normalizing women taking care of their kids and being out in nature. You don’t just have to sit at home, breastfeed your kids, and put them down for naps. When my son Julien was days old, I was already starting to walk with him and I would just sit down on the side of the trail and feed him. I didn’t see a lot of other women doing that … and I did get a lot of comments from people….”

Best Jogging Strollers - Loading the Burley Encore X

iRunFar’s Annie Behrend prepares for a stroller run. Photo: iRunFar/Brianna Stockwell

Howe says that being a mother and an athlete who races are also symbiotic life elements, which should be normalized, “So then when you think about racing, that adds a whole other level. You can get a little bit shamed for, ‘Oh, you’re spending all this time training and not with your baby,’ and then, ‘You’re racing and maybe that reduces your breast milk supply.’ I think the women who are putting themselves out there and doing that are incredible. And I think they’re also having to weed through a lot of those comments from people who are just kind of rude. But the more we do it, the more women can see that it’s fine.”

In many ways, SheRACES was borne out of Power’s own experience at the 2018 UTMB, when owing to the lack of pregnancy deferrals available at the time, she found herself competing a few short months after the birth of her son.

A photo of her, taken by Alexis Berg, breastfeeding at the Courmayeur, Italy, aid station received global attention and sparked a conversation about the need for pregnancy deferrals in racing. Since then, the story has come full circle, with the work of SheRACES and the PTRA helping to secure a pregnancy deferral policy at the event — so that future women don’t have to sacrifice their sporting aspirations when they become pregnant or return to racing sooner than they are physically and mentally ready, for fear of missing out on a bucket-list race entry.

Sophie Power - breastfeeding in Courmayeur

The now iconic photo of Sophie Power breastfeeding in the Courmayeur aid station during the 2018 UTMB. Photo: Alexis Berg

Eszter Csillag, an elite runner, mother, and member of the PTRA, also identified issues around pregnancy as some of the biggest obstacles to be overcome to achieve parity for women in the sport.

Outlining the work done by the PTRA’s Women’s Equality Working Group in its first year, of which she is a member, Csillag said: “The new pregnancy policy at the UTMB [World Series] races was an important step. Another one was the outlines for a pregnancy clause in contracts [for sponsored athletes] through a shared language with brands.”

As many runners know, having performance indices like those maintained by the International Trail Running Association and UTMB are required for entrance into some races. Elite-level indices are also required to gain entrance to some races’ elite fields. These indices have been historically weighted toward recent high-level performances. This means that, when a woman takes time away from racing for pregnancy and recovery, her performance index may lower.

Csillag explained PTRA’s work in this area, “We are still in conversations about freezing performance indices during the period of pregnancy [and postpartum]. This would ensure that elite runners can come back to competition at the level they left it.”

Eszter Csillag - 2022 UTMB - fifth place

Eszter Csillag with her daughter, after she took fifth at the 2022 UTMB. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

Women’s Representation in Trail Running and Ultrarunning Media is Critical

All of the women we spoke with said that the representation of women in the media is a critical aspect of fully evolving the sport of trail running and ultrarunning.

In 2016, Trail Sisters launched a first-of-its-kind, online crowd-sourced journal dedicated to sharing women’s trail running and hiking stories. Every article is penned by a woman and celebrates their voice and perspective through an educational, inspirational, or empowering story.

Lucrezi told us, “Working in the outdoor industry and running professionally, it became obvious there just wasn’t an interest from mainstream media outlets to put time, energy, or money into articles or coverage highlighting women.”

She went on, “Trail Sisters was my solution to grow awareness and uplift women’s interest, eagerness, and achievements. Since 2016, we’ve published 1,095 articles and have 465 female contributors, and more of both are on the way.”

As another vehicle for tackling the unequal exposure of male and female athletes, Trail Sisters began hosting athlete panels at trail events that include women from a diverse and broad range of experiences to share in discussion and question-and-answer sessions.

Lucrezi said, “I decided to take this on after sitting through far too many elite athlete panels mainly highlighting male race participants. I would notice how mainstream media would swarm at these panels, take pictures, and grab sound bites. This was great for the male athletes, but what about the female athletes? If women weren’t welcomed to the stage to be recognized and honored, it set a precedent that there was nothing worth sharing or covering.”

Lucrezi has been hosting a “Ladies of Hardrock 100” panel at the Hardrock 100 since 2017, a “Women of Western States” panel at the Western States 100 since 2018, and the “Ladies of Leadville” panel at the Leadville 100 Mile since 2021. These panel events have become staples in each event’s race-week schedule, receiving full-house turnouts.

Csillag shares thoughts on the subject: “In 2023, we asked for more media coverage during the UTMB World Series Finals, for example, but also at other races where the coverage often leans to following the men’s race more than the women’s race. It is important because if women can see more women’s stories and competition, they can be inspired to become part of the sport themselves.”

Case provides a specific example of lacking women’s coverage in 2023, “I think we are seeing an improvement in terms of race coverage of women elites, but we still aren’t there yet. The default is still to highlight men’s accomplishments first, while women’s performances remain an ‘add-on.’ One recent example is from the media coverage of the 2023 Spine Race in England. When Damian Hall broke the course record for the men, it was reported by mainstream media as breaking the overall course record. Those reporting it didn’t even think to check the female record, which was then held by Jasmin Paris, and was hours faster [than Hall’s time.]”

Jasmin Paris on her way to the overall win at the 2019 Montane Spine Race, where she also set an overall course record, which stood until 2024. Photo: Montana Spine Race/Harsharn Gill

The issue is not just with the coverage of elite women, but with the representation of all kinds of women in all kinds of trail running and ultrarunning media. This idea is reinforced by the findings of the SheRACES survey, which indicated that 20% of women surveyed were put off by the imagery of the race itself, and not feeling like they belonged on the start line.

As Power pointed out, “The typical image on a race website is the start line, which is almost exclusively faster men — alienating not only women but also many men.”

Trail World Championships 2019 - Starting Line - Portugal-1

A typical starting line photo from the 2019 Trail World Championships, showing almost exclusively male athletes. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

Csillag was keen to point out that these efforts are in no way meant to vilify or push back men, saying: “It is more about balancing the media coverage to a 50/50. It is not pushing someone out of the room, just letting more people in as the sport grows.”

We spoke to U.S. elite ultrarunner, Sabrina Little, who was upbeat about the progress being made for women in the sport. The theme of visibility quickly came into the conversation: “I think things are improving! It used to be a challenge to learn the stories of the top women, and it seemed like more people were excited about the men’s races. These days, many of the storytellers in the sport are women, and this makes a big difference. I find myself looking forward to the women’s races and better able to follow what is going on.”

iRunFar Editor-in-Chief Meghan Hicks’ Perspective on Women’s Representation in Media

A top aim of iRunFar is to provide equal coverage for women and men. Over a decade ago, we made an organizational policy that we’d endeavor to cover women and men equally in all of our work.

Ten years ago, there was little precedent for a policy like this. To be candid, the traffic for our women’s-specific work was a fraction of that for men. Covering women equally was the correct thing to do, but gains in viewership and interest in that work took time.

Fast forward to the present, and we have a robust women’s community on iRunFar that is larger than basically any other non-women’s specific outdoor media entity out there. Often our coverage of women gathers more readership than that of men, which is about the coolest thing ever.

I hear media entities and race organizations say they don’t cover women as much as men because their women’s coverage doesn’t have the same following. As they say in the “Field of Dreams” film, “If you build it, they will come.” We have plenty of data supporting this concept from other sports, and we have iRunFar’s data on this sport. If we do the work of telling stories about women, then we will build a community of people interested in those stories.

Grey collage of She Summits run leaders.

She Summits run leaders, who are helping to promote trail running and ultrarunning for women in Ireland. iRunFar’s own managing editor Sarah Brady is pictured in the top row, second from the right. Photo: She Summits

I am really proud that, right now and at an important juncture in the development of women’s trail running and ultrarunning, iRunFar’s leadership team is made up of women. I feel strongly that women need to lead the entities that make up our sport in order for women’s representation to fully develop within all aspects of it.

I encourage other entities to place women on their leadership teams. As awesome as it is to have men as advocates of women in sports, nothing can replace the perspective and approach of a woman on women’s sports.

I also want to say, I know that iRunFar’s work in this area is imperfect and ongoing. We learn new things about what coverage we’ve been missing, miss the mark, and don’t always do things exactly how we wish we could have. We conduct an annual audit to see if our operating procedures manifest our policies correctly, and we update them as needed. We are all committed to being perpetual learners in telling women’s stories — and all our work.

Finally, I’d love to see us arrive at a time where all the men of trail running and ultrarunning stand behind equity actions for women and other underrepresented groups, to allow such groups to fully occupy and feel comfortable in the spaces in which they’d like to be. I’m mixing lots of metaphors, but the phrase, “A rising tide lifts all ships,” is so true with elevating women’s trail running and ultrarunning. If we elevate the women of our sports, we elevate the sport as a whole.

2023 Western States 100 - media at finish line

Trail running and ultrarunning media assemble to wait for the winners at the finish line of the 2023 Western States 100. It is interesting to point out that there is a gender gap in members of the trail running and ultrarunning press corps. Photo: Garth McGimpsey

A Fully Evolved Sport Must Have Women Co-Leading It

Case also believes that in order for trail running and ultrarunning to become fully evolved, the sports need to be co-led by women.

This is because, she said, “While applauding the rise in women’s trail running groups, camps, and initiatives, which help women to create more confidence in the sport, it is important to recognize that all the confidence in the world won’t change the underlying barriers and challenges that prevent women’s full participation. Sociocultural norms are still very much hindering women’s participation in trail running and ultrarunning.”

She went on, “Women continue to shoulder most of the childcare responsibilities around the home, and the scrutiny on how women spend their ‘free time’ remains much higher than men.”

Case pointed out that there are no easy fixes to these societal issues, but emphasized the importance of making sure that women are present amongst the power structures that are making decisions about how our sport progresses.

Lucrezi is also in agreement with this, and said: “When women aren’t included, neither are our needs, nor our strengths.”

Gunhild Swanson with the youngest female finish, Katie Trent, age 22 at the finish of the Western States 100

Gunhild Swanson (left) and Katie Trent (right) at the 2015 Western States 100. Both women finished during the final minutes of the event. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

Professional Women Runners Must Be Supported Through All Cycles of Life

For elite trail running and ultrarunning women, fairness and equity in contractual modalities and compensation are other areas where progress is needed.

As Case points out, “Many athlete contracts have non-disclosure clauses attached to them so that athletes can’t talk openly with one another about their compensation packages. This has a negative effect on women in particular, who may not feel they are in as strong of a negotiation position.”

Little also checked in on this idea, “Perhaps there are pay inequities among male and female ultrarunners, as there are in most professional spaces. But I am optimistic that this will improve as we become a more visible part of the community through storytelling.”

Howe was in complete agreement with Case and Little, “I would love to see transparency with sponsorships. I don’t think many people have ideas of what the top runners are making in the sport and what the difference is between men and women.”

Stephanie Howe during the 2014 Western States 100. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

With regard to the issues that still need to be addressed for parity in elite-level ultrarunning, Little said: “There is a kind of presentism, a ‘what have you done for me recently’ mindset, in ultrarunning. This makes pregnancy and post-childbirth frustrating. It feels like everything is rushed and that we need to come back to racing super quickly to prove our value.”

She went on, “Often in professional running contracts, an athlete’s value is only measured in terms of performance metrics. This can mean that, throughout one’s pregnancy and post-childbirth, the athlete has no value to the company they represent, in terms of the contract, even if they continue to be present and share their journey … I think it would be valuable for athletes to be understood as having more to contribute than race results — and having that value reflected, and quantified, in contracts.”

Of course, the challenges of childrearing for women athletes in particular don’t stop at pregnancy and immediately postpartum. As Little outlined, “One issue for me has been that having young kids feels like you are tethered to home — psychologically and logistically. Local and regional races make more sense for family stability. However, my experience has been that sponsors value the big-ticket races more — the ones that are across the country or abroad. And races such as UTMB often require additional qualification races, which means a lot of travel.”

She continued, and summarized the challenges this setup presents for running moms, “These races are a logistical challenge, especially when breastfeeding. Racing far away means either bringing the baby with me or planning ahead to store up a surplus of milk to last while I am gone. It is complicated.”

Little offered a constructive solution that brands, media, and sponsors should look more favorably on strong performances exhibited at smaller, regional races, which are for myriad reasons often more accessible to women. She pointed out that shorter races, too, can be more accessible to women, when a lack of free time to train and race is a factor, and these could be glorified to a greater degree.

Sabrina Little at the Yorktown Battlefields five-mile race

Elite runner, mother, and academic professional Sabrina Little competes in a regional race, close to home, which allows her to compete while meeting all the needs of her robust life. Photo courtesy of Sabrina Little.

Endurance Running Needs to Study Women’s Physiology and Needs Women Scientists

Howe, who holds a PhD in Nutrition and Exercise Science, is a part of Jason Koop’s “Research Essentials for Ultrarunning” publication, which follows the release of new sport-related research and analysis. In the course of this work, she sees an extreme lack of study of women’s physiology.

The publication has been reviewing an article on an ultrarunning or endurance study each week since the spring of 2023, and Howe observes that: “It is so bad how many studies don’t look at women. We have not found one study that has just looked at women.”

She continued, “Most of them research only men. If they include women, it’s usually an observational or longitudinal study from a race where they’re including some women, but it’s so disproportionate.”

She went on to say, “We need randomized controlled studies that are really getting at the science and the physiology behind the sport. There are these studies on men, but not on women.”

Howe said the reason for the dearth of research on women is the menstrual cycle and a historical misunderstanding of its effects on research. She elaborated, “You have to control for the menstrual cycle, which is not that hard to do. It just means that you track it, you just ask [subjects] questions and maybe you test them or maybe you move their tests a week. It’s really not that hard to do in the grand scheme of setting up a study.”

In this category, Howe also recognizes how there are fewer women leading research than men, “Most of the authors on these papers are men as well. There are some women doing research, but not nearly as many as men. We’ve got so far to go.”

Final Thoughts on Becoming a Gender Inclusive Sport

“There is often a misunderstanding that work on women’s rights means fewer rights for men — it is not a zero-sum game. We all have the same rights, but we don’t all have the same power, and that is what can cause friction,” explains Case.

She continued, “The key to approaching inclusivity issues with people who may not necessarily be onside is to identify common ground and try to work through any resistance in a sensitive manner. We can all benefit from a more inclusive and equitable sport — having a more diverse field makes it more competitive and interesting, and brings new ideas and challenges to the table! However, those who are used to the sport looking and feeling a certain way may find inclusivity work threatening and destabilizing, because it ultimately requires dismantling the privilege that exists for certain groups.”

Case left us with a final thought about moving toward becoming a more inclusive sport, “I have always found it important to ask questions and listen when resistance arises, although principled stances should not be shied away from. Inclusivity work cannot be done effectively when shouted from a soapbox; it requires dialogue, openness, and understanding while staying true to bottom lines.”

Through listening to some of the women leading the sports of trail running and ultrarunning, the following action items emerge on how we can all work toward being better stewards of equitable opportunity for women:

  • Celebrate the organizations and people working toward change for women
  • Recognize and address foundational issues such as women’s identity, feelings of safety, access to free time, and the gender pay gap
  • Provide equal space in races for women and men
  • Meet women’s needs at races
  • Represent women and men equally in the media
  • Normalize motherhood as a normal part of life for many runners, including professional athletes
  • Make women leaders of the brands, races, media, and other entities of the sport
  • Study women’s physiology and make women the primary researchers in scientific inquiry on running

Howe is encouraged by the progress she’s seen in her decade-plus in the sport, and says the sport should use that momentum to keep moving forward, “Women’s trail running and ultrarunning is at such an exciting time. I think this momentum is amazing, but I don’t want this to be a stopping point of, ‘Look at all these things we’re doing for women and equal coverage and equal treatment in the sport.’ This is a good place to keep going from. We’re on a good trajectory, but [where we’re at now] cannot be a ceiling. This is [our next] starting point.”

Call for Comments

  • What areas of progress would you like to point out, where the sport of running has progressed to create space for women?
  • And what do you see as the main challenges facing women in trail running and ultrarunning right now?
Melissa Beaury - running in the desert

Melissa Beaury enjoying the desert of Colorado. Photo: iRunFar/Eszter Horanyi

Sarah Brady

Sarah Brady is Managing Editor at iRunFar. She’s been working in an editorial capacity for ten years and has been a trail runner for almost as long. Aside from iRunFar, she’s worked as an editor for various educational publishers and written race previews for Apex Running, UK, and RAW Ultra, Ireland. Based in Belfast, Ireland, Sarah is an avid mountain runner and ultrarunner and competes at distances from under 10k to over 100k. When not running, she enjoys reading, socializing, and hanging out with her dog, Angie, and cat, Judy.

Sarah Brady

Meghan Hicks is the Editor-in-Chief of iRunFar. She’s been running since she was 13 years old, and writing and editing about the sport for around 15 years. She served as iRunFar’s Managing Editor from 2013 through mid-2023, when she stepped into the role of Editor-in-Chief. Aside from iRunFar, Meghan has worked in communications and education in several of America’s national parks, was a contributing editor for Trail Runner magazine, and served as a columnist at Marathon & Beyond. She’s the co-author of Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running with Bryon Powell. She won the 2013 Marathon des Sables, finished on the podium of the Hardrock 100 Mile in 2021, and has previously set fastest known times on the Nolan’s 14 mountain running route in 2016 and 2020. Based part-time in Moab, Utah and Silverton, Colorado, Meghan also enjoys reading, biking, backpacking, and watching sunsets.