Research Presentation: Gender Disparity in Mountain, Ultra, and Trail Running

Article & video presentation by Spencer Wegner, student, University of Colorado at Boulder. This article was originally published on Spencer’s website as part of the research and work that he did for his Complex Leadership Challenges course. 

There is a significant gender participation gap in mountain, ultra, and trail (MUT) running. While both male and female participation in the sport has grown rapidly since 2000, a large majority of participants are still men. In 2017, out of about 300,000 ultrarunners worldwide, approximately 50,000 were women (Scheer). The barrier to entry to MUT running is low; only trail shoes and trail access is necessary, so men and women are equally capable of entering the sport. The gender gap may exist for many reasons, but an increased awareness of the disparity and cultural changes achieved through storytelling may allow gender parity to be reached.

The Pikes Peak Marathon is a world renowned mountain race. The first official female marathon finisher in the United States, Arlene Pieper, ran the race in 1959. Even though Arlene proved women belong in the sport and inspired many women to compete, the race still has a gender gap today. The graphic below shows the percentage of men and women who ran the Pikes Peak Marathon from 1956 to 2018. Although the gender gap gradually tightened from 1970-2000, the proportion of women has settled around 25% in the last 15-20 years.

There is not a single cause for gender disparity, but there are a few cultural phenomena that exclude women. Historically, men have held the majority which has created a male-dominated culture that can make women feel unwelcome. Women are also more likely to be concerned about running alone and have inhibitions about predators (Fraioli). Social norms dictate that women usually take on household and familial duties. While men go out for their run in the morning, women stay home to get the kids ready and do not have time for MUT running. They may choose physical activities that take less time (Wurtz).

Road running also had gender disparity before it gained popularity among women. After women were allowed to compete in races in the 1960s and 1970s, female participation did not increase right away. The business acumen of gear manufacturers and race directors created products and events specifically for women which allowed more women to find the sport and gender parity eventually ensued (Koop).

MUT running has the potential to follow a similar trajectory towards gender parity. As the popularity of the sport has skyrocketed over the last 10 to 15 years, gear manufacturers have created an entire market around women’s apparel for MUT running. Women tend to consume more than men, so when they see gear made specifically for female MUT runners, they feel that MUT running is a sport for them (Hobbs).

Lisa Goldsmith racing in the 2017 Pikes Peak Ascent.

Female elite athlete representation has increased as a result of the increased popularity. Elite women have only recently begun to create careers for themselves in MUT running. Before sponsors started supporting female MUT runners, women may have chosen to stay on the roads where they could make a living. Because sponsors have increased their support of female MUT runners and shared their stories, more elite women can create successful careers and show non-elite women that there is a place in the sport for them.

Races are the events that define the spirit and culture of the sport. This means race organizations have the power to create a more inclusive culture where women are treated equally (Hobbs). The Loon Mountain Race offered a discount to first time female participants, and many races such as the Barr Trail Mountain Race make a point to award equal prize money to men and women.

If gender parity will ever be reached in MUT running, it will happen because of storytelling (Fraioli). People are significantly more likely to try MUT running after hearing inspiring stories, especially stories of people that they can relate to (Yang). If women see other women find happiness and success in the sport, they are likely to give it a try. As more women enter the sport, the male-dominated culture is naturally disrupted and the culture becomes more diverse and inclusive.

The following video presentation is a brief overview of how the American Trail Running Association (ATRA) is working with race organizations to increase diversity in mountain, ultra, and trail running, and why diversity is good for the sport.

Works Cited:

Billy Yang. Dean Leslie. 19, Podcast. Accessed 4 Apr. 2019.

Do What’s Right: Why Ultrarunning Needs to Solve Its Gender Inequality Problem Now” Jason Koop, CTS, 5 Dec. 2017.

Mario Fraioli. Human Differences in Running. 7 Mar. 2019.

Nancy Hobbs. How Institutions Impact Running. 4 Mar. 2019.

Scheer, Volker. “Participation Trends of Ultra Endurance Events.” Sports Medicine & Arthroscopy Review, vol. 27, no. 1, Mar. 2019, pp. 3–7. aph.

Stephanie Wurtz. The Gender Gap in Mountain, Ultra, and Trail Running. 8 Mar. 2019.

WOMEN” Trail Runner Magazine. Accessed 16 Feb. 2019.

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