by Sandi Nypaver
Why 2016 was a great year in women’s trail running and how 2017 can be even better.
“Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.” -Maggie Kuhn I can still remember the first time I heard that quote. I was in college sitting in on a free lecture given by award winning journalist Connie Schultz. When she said that quote, referring to how it helped shape her own career, I had chills go up my spine. I had walked into that lecture like I would anywhere, trying to go as unnoticed as possible. Painfully shy, I remembered the time I gave a class presentation in high school and a classmate commented on how much my voice shook from being so nervous. Yet at heart, I had always known the ideas that came to me and the observations I made, needed a voice. Once I heard that quote, I knew I could no longer ignore my own voice, even if the idea of speaking up shook me to my core.
With Maggie Kuhn’s quote in mind, I started thinking about all the changes that have occurred in MUT (mountain-ultra-trail) running this year, all because of women who had the courage to say something.
2016 gave us the gift of Trail Sisters, founded by Gina Lucrezi, that has allowed women to say something in a whole new way! It’s a community made up of women who support and motivate others, while giving women a platform to share their own stories, give advice, and advocate for change. Due to Trail Sisters, women have a place to freely express their opinions on topics like body image, eating disorders, personal life experiences, lessons learned through running, the “she asked for it” attitude and so much more.
Maybe not everyone agrees with each other all of the time, but the women in the Trail Sisters community know that that doesn’t matter when looking at the grand scheme of things. It’s a place where women don’t have to worry about being enough or feel like they don’t belong because we’re all striving together, learning from one another’s thoughts and experiences.
One of my favorite moments in women’s running this year was when the World Mountain Running Association (WMRA) voted for women and men to run the same distance at the World Mountain Running Championships. Furthermore, team sizes will now be equal. That’s right, no longer will only 4 women from each country be represented while the men have 6. This was 30 years of gender disparity! I’ve been told there are still men from other countries who believe women shouldn’t even have a team, so how did this change come to be? Simple. Enough people decided to speak up.
A few years ago I started seeing both women and men mention their frustration about the disparity on blogs and facebook posts, which often led to a larger discussion. This may not seem like much, but WMRA council members were taking notice. At the beginning of 2016 former World Mountain Running Champion Kasie Enman and her sister in law, Molly Enman, created sportsequality.org. Together they encouraged us to “ask why” there wasn’t yet equality and started a petition for equal distances and team sizes in the mountain running, cross country running, and the nordic skiing championships.
Soon enough USATF came out with a survey asking runners for their thoughts. Survey results showed that we were ready for equality and from there Nancy Hobbs and Richard Bolt took the reigns on the US side, telling the the WMRA that the mountain running world needed to change. Though I don’t know the details, I also heard that similar events took place in other countries as well. In 2017, the first year that there will be equality in both distance and team size, I encourage everyone reading this to celebrate the change through social media on the day the championships take place.
On a different note, most runners appreciate the inspiration that comes from a well done running film. I’ve really enjoyed watching films like Unbreakable, In the High Country, and Running the Edge to name a few of the big ones, but all of these movies feature men. Of course Finding Traction, a film based on Nikki Kimball’s Long Trail FKT attempt was a big hit among trail running fans, but it still seemed like films with female runners as the lead role were few and far between.
Apparently a few film makers took note and 2016 brought us Life in a Day by Billy Yang, Outside Voices by Joel Wolpert, and Women of Hardrock by Run Steep Get High is expected to come out later in 2017. There were also plenty of other short films on women that touched our hearts this year and I was thankful to see trail running film festivals adopt this trend as well.
I realize that some people may think it doesn’t matter if a man or woman is featured because we’re all just runners. However, for me personally I’ve found that yes, I can get inspired by anyone, but there’s often a connection and interesting point of view that I discover from watching films about women. For instance, in 2013 I think a lot of women including me cried watching Home by the African Attachment, a short film where Anna Frost opened up about her personal struggles. I also can’t ignore the fact that women are still playing catch up from years of inequality as well as the fact that body insecurity is the norm, so we need all the films featuring empowering women that we can get.
Also deserving of a round of applause is the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) for recognizing the top 10 women for the first time in the history of the race. In 2015 Rory Bosio, UTMB course record holder and 2 time winner, told Outside magazine “When that levels out, I might return,” referring to previous years when the top 10 men were called up on stage during the awards ceremony while only 5 women were recognized for their races. Maybe UTMB race officials never read the article, but it’s hard to ignore the words of a beloved, joke-cracking ultra runner who has fans across the globe. This was also another instance where I saw quite a few runners use social media as a platform to express their opinions on the matter.
A few people still oppose this change, stating that more men run UTMB so only recognizing 5 women is fair. While I understand that reasoning, change is always induced by action. Seeing 10 women on stage is another way to bring more women into ultra running and from an elite perspective it makes finishing in the top 10 a much more worthy goal. I guarantee you’ll start seeing women pushing each other more in the late stages of the race to get a top 10 spot.
The point I really want to make with all of the above examples, is that none of this magically happened because a fairy waived her wand. Each change happened because people recognized their own power, decided to do something, and used their voices. Sometimes things came easily, and other times progress was made by slowly chipping away at a very dense cement wall.
A couple of years back when I was raising awareness about the inequality of the World Mountain Running Championships, a person I still deeply respect told me I should just be happy that the team members now have decent uniforms and get travel money. That was a hard pill to swallow. Was deciding to be simply grateful for the current progress the right thing to do? After giving this some thought I ultimately decided that just saying thanks to the people who previously made positive changes doesn’t suffice. To me, being grateful isn’t only giving a heartfelt thanks, but picking up the torch to make further progress. That I can live with, and it’s the road I’ve chosen to travel.
I admit that sometimes carrying the torch sucks! A few times I didn’t choose the best words to accurately express my views and that made a few people upset. But you know what, I’m a much better speaker for those experiences. Definitely far from perfect, but better. I even had people who disagreed with me about an article I wrote about why it’s wrong to negatively critique women. I desperately wanted to give those people a lesson in constructive criticism and tell them that starting out a comment with something positive is key to getting heard and respected. However, in that case I learned it was better to focus on all of the people who told me thank you for speaking up. So yes, saying something can be hard, but look at all of the progress that has been made! In the end it’s almost always worth it and when it’s not, at least we can say that we tried.
To the people who have gotten women’s running to where it is today, thank you a thousand times over for speaking up! However, there’s still work to be done. Too many times this year I still saw a competitive women’s field at a big race get overshadowed even if the men’s field wasn’t any more stacked or often times less competitive than the women’s (I was thrilled to see that Clare Gallagher got the respect she deserved for her time at Leadville 100!).
Despite all good science on how men and women are biologically different, some people still argue that there shouldn’t be a women’s field at races. Yes, women can win an ultra outright when competition isn’t top notch, but take a look at races like The North Face Endurance Challenge San Francisco and you’ll see that biology does make a difference between the elite men and the elite women. We also still need to let women know that they can run ultras and that they don’t need to feel selfish for taking the time to train and do something healthy for themselves.
Going back to the World Mountain Running Championships, part of the reason it took so long to make a change is because there are still men from other countries who think that there shouldn’t be a women’s championship and that their country shouldn’t even have to fund a women’s team. Not too long ago I was on the trails in another country and more than once a guy I was going faster than refused to let me pass even though I knew I was correctly asking in their language to let me pass. Of course there are much bigger problems in the world, but I truly believe that speaking up about issues like this give us the courage to speak out and take action on bigger issues as well.
Furthermore, I do wholeheartedly believe that the progress in women’s running made this year does in fact make a difference in the world. It gives women of all ages inspiration and strong female role models to look up to. In those countries where men think women shouldn’t compete, it gives those women hope. As runner Silke Koester eloquently said in a recent Trail Sisters article “Shouldn’t we teach men (and particularly young boys) that women don’t need protection, they deserve respect? Shouldn’t we all, as a civilized society, enable women to own their running?” The progress women made in 2016 gets us closer to that kind of society. That matters.
You don’t have to write a book or make a film to continue making progress for women’s running in 2017. Sometimes “liking” a Facebook post is enough! I also encourage you to share great films or articles on women, start discussions, follow women’s races (which is now better than ever since women’s race coverage has also made huge improvements), or do whatever else you feel compelled to do. Even if your voice shakes, find the courage to say something.
Call for comments:
What other exciting things happened for women’s advancement in 2016?
What other issues do you think will be addressed in 2017?