A Q&A with Gina Lucrezi, founder of women's trail running community Trail Sisters
Professional ultrarunner Gina Lucrezi started Trail Sisters, an online community for female trail runners, in 2016 after noticing a need for camaraderie among women in the sport. Recently, she’s spent her off-trail time surveying ultrarunners to investigate the discrepancy between salaries, sponsorship, and pay between male and female athletes.
Emily Downing, managing editor for Outdoor Women's Alliance, talked with Lucrezi about founding Trail Sisters, the community of ultrarunners, and gender inequality in the sport.
How did you get into trail running?
I had a pretty successful high school and college career in XC and indoor and outdoor track. I ended up being a 10-time Division III NCAA All-American (1 x NCAA National Champion), and was my university’s (DeSales University) Female Athlete of the Year, all 4 years I attended. I loved the sport of running and knew there was more for me after college, but I wasn’t sure quite what.
We need to hold each other accountable for maintaining the trails, keeping them clean, and looking out for one another out there.
I moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, for an internship at the United States Olympic Committee to complete my Master’s degree in Sports Management. Every day I would stare at Pikes Peak... it was so majestic. I’d daydream about trail running around the mountain so that I could explore every nook and cranny.
I was then lucky enough to meet Nancy Hobbs, founder of the American Trail Running Association, who proceeded to take me on my first trail run. I was hooked. I still had a strong competitive hunger, so I proceeded to sign up for some local races in hopes of one day getting strong enough to make a USATF Mountain Trail Team.
What do you like most about trail running and ultrarunning?
What I love most about the sport of trail and ultrarunning is the community. The people in this select sport are extremely supportive and kind. We’ve all experienced the same struggles, such as twisting an ankle, bonking on run, having to deal with the unexpected bathroom break in the middle of the woods…. And also the same highs; the endorphin rush from completing your first ultra, achieving that stellar view point after a quad-burning ascent. We understand each other and are there to support one another.
What do you like least?
Hmmm, that could go many ways. I hate finding trash out on the trail. When you're eight miles out in middle of the mountains, that last thing you want to see is someone’s ignorance for the amazing playground they were provided with. Additionally, I’m not a big fan of people going off trail to blaze their own route. Having a small footprint is extremely important, as we should try not to disrupt the environment more than we have to with a simple single trail.
How do you see community playing a part in trail running and ultra trail running? Is it important, as running is a relatively solo activity?
Community plays a huge part in the world of trail and ultra running. We need to hold each other accountable for maintaining the trails, keeping them clean, and looking out for one another out there. It's really important that the community comes together to support their sport and their passion. If not, our national parks, BLM lands, state parks, and open spaces (you name it) would simply be destroyed. If the community didn't look out for one another, it sure would be a much lonelier sport, and the sense of empowerment and inspiration for people to lead healthy lifestyles through outdoor activities would sadly be almost non-existent.
What inspired you to start Trail Sisters? Who are “Trail Sisters,” and what do they do?
A Trail Sister is any woman who holds these four pillars near and dear: community, adventure, living a healthy lifestyle, and conservation awareness. Trail Sisters respect and empower one another. They strengthen the community and sport by coming together and always offering support.
We ran every day, talked about every topic imaginable, experienced highs and lows together, and understood how to inspire and empower one another.
I got the itch to start a blog and community site after training with my trail sister, Ashley Hunter Arnold. We ran every day, talked about every topic imaginable, experienced highs and lows together, and understood how to inspire and empower one another. Thus, I thought every woman should have a trail sister. Maybe she isn’t able to have a friend to run with every day, once a week, or even at all, but she could come to Trail Sisters and read an article from a like-minded woman, who could potentially inspire or motivate her to keep getting out the door and loving the sport.
There aren’t many focused media outlets that speak directly to female trail runners, and with the sport of trail running leading the outdoor industry in growth, I thought it was important women had an outlet for education, information, and inspiration. I had the resources, time, and motivation to make the site happen, so I did!
How do you see female ultrarunners treated differently than their male counterparts?
There is definitely an inequality between female and male trail and ultra trail runners. It has always been an uphill battle for women in general, but it disappoints me to see the inequality in a sport that relies so much on community. My recent research revolves around elite female and male athletes. The major differences are within pay rates (contract stipends, appearance fees, travel stipends, cash prizes, etc.), contract lengths, imagery and promotion, and potential age discrimination.
The most interesting thing about this process, to me, was the amount of hesitation both men and women have, but for different partially assumed reasons. In short, I've gathered that women are fearful to demand more because of the possibility of being dropped for another eager athlete, willing to accept any amount or incentive, and men are fearful of participating because their responses may trigger potential conversations that may result in a change in their salary and incentives.
Why is gender inequality a problem in the ultra community? Who does it affect the most?
Sadly, gender inequality is a problem within the entire country. Women have been fighting an uphill battle ever since they realized they had the ability and right to fight. In relation to sports, it has been encouraging to see the USA Women’s Soccer and USA Women’s Hockey teams stand up for what they deserve and are due.
If we continue to demand equality, we can eventually achieve it.
With continued gender inequality in sports—and in general—it will continue to cause a rift between the sexes, along with our abilities to further advance and strengthen our communities, our pride, our drive to support each other, and personal potential to achieve our best. Thus, it really affects everyone, not only women (although they take the brunt of it).
What do you see the community doing to address gender inequality? What can be done differently?
Hmm well, that is where we're at right now: trying to ask the community to make some changes to equalize things. Recently there have been changes to making the USA Mountain male and female team sizes equal; and UTMB, one of the most renowned 100-mile trail ultras, is now recognizing the top 10 women finishers along with the top 10 male finishers.
The best thing we can do to address this issue is continue to talk about it—and create buzz. If we continue to demand equality, we can eventually achieve it. It may get a little rough, but nothing worth fighting for is easy. We need people to speak up and not be afraid of the backlash. It isn’t easy for me to sit here and write about this topic when I have sponsors of my own and am also a team manager, but I feel it's something that needs to be addressed, and hopefully the people and companies I’ve surrounded myself with will support me and the efforts I’m making to create a better community, sport, and industry overall.
Ideally, I’d love for companies (who are benefiting the most out of the athlete-company relationship), to provide equal support and opportunities to male and female athletes who are achieving comparable standards. Each individual company has the right and freedom to select its standards or rating system that determines athlete support, but they also have the right and freedom to determine if they want to provide equal support for their women and men athletes.
With the sensitivity and nature of money and contracts, there can be no public records of change, but if the athletes continue to speak about the inequalities in support and opportunity, I think we will all have an idea of where things are at…. or if they are changing. Here’s to hoping for a win-win for everyone!
[ed. note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]