The Fight for Gender Equality at the Mountain Running Championships

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Why mountain running struggled to keep pace with social justice norms—and how it finally caught up.

2017 marks the first year that women and men will race an equal distance with equal field sizes at both the U.S. and World Mountain Running Championships. It sounds like something out of a news article from 1966, when Bobbi Gibbs became the first women to run and complete the Boston Marathon, dispelling myths that women were physically inferior and incapable of covering the same distances as men. Today, men and women compete at equal standardized distances at the most elite competitions—including across Olympic events—despite the slow-moving evolution of women’s distance running. (Women first competed in the Olympic marathon in 1984, 18 years after Gibbs' landmark run.) And though it took decades, mountain running has finally caught up with the rest of the sport.

In 2016, women at the World Mountain Running Championships were still running shorter distances than the men (approximately 8K compared to 12K), and limited to a smaller team size (four women versus six men) on the world stage. But why? With so much progress in the world of women’s sports, it seems odd that a world class championship event would fall so far behind the times. The reasoning for the long overdue race distance conversion seems to have far more to do with tradition than misogyny, according to Nancy Hobbs, founder of American Trail Running Association (ATRA), chairperson for the USA Track & Field's Mountain, Ultra & Trail Running Council, and treasurer of the World Mountain Running Association. “There is always resistance to change, and this was no exception," she says. "It took some other rule changes—like the equalization of World Cross Country distances to 10K for both men and women this year, and also to sway some on the council in the direction of equality in our sport.”

"Why do they bring six men and only four women? The only answer to me seems to be outdated thinking that women are weak or fragile."

The final decision to make a change was not unanimous, though, and the athletes themselves have mixed opinions about the changes. World Mountain Running Team Member Ladia Junkins-Albertson felt the effects of the gender gap directly at the 2015 U.S. Mountain Running Championships, “I had placed sixth that year, so I was one of two women who didn't go due to unequal representation [in field size]. And why do they bring six men and only four women? The only answer to me seems to be outdated thinking that women are weak, fragile, etc.”

Joe Gray, 2016 U.S. Mountain Running Champion feels differently about the reasoning based on the competitive nature of each field, “On one hand, equality is important and I want athletes to have similar opportunities to make the national team. On the other hand, is it fair that a runner misses making a national team, placing one minute behind the winner in the men's race—yet in the women's race, the last women to make the team finishes nearly four minutes back of the winner?”

Despite Hobb's fervent push to equalize the race distances, she explains that the varied race distances and team sizes were in fact a general reflection of the fields. “It was more related to participation numbers in recent years than related to 'sexism,'" she said. "This is something many people don't understand in terms of team size specifically.”

However, the ability to grow the sport of mountain running for women, along with raising the level of competition, will lie in providing women with the same opportunities as men. That applies both within mountain running and outside of it and is exemplified across the board in college sports since the creation of the still controversial Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments Act that states: "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

"It is one thing to suggest change. It is another to implement change and be a significant voice in which to institute change."

But the progression of women’s trail racing must extend beyond the start and finish lines on the race course Hobbs explains, “For change, people need to get involved in key decision-making policies and helping to move in the direction of change. It is one thing to suggest change. It is another to implement change and be a significant voice in which to institute change. There's much diplomacy and politics involved, and someone must navigate these trails.”

While Hobbs may be only one voice for progression in mountain ultra trail running, she's a strong one. Runners like Junkins-Albertson recognize her efforts. "I know she had to go to great lengths to bring it to vote at the World Mountain Running Association's annual meeting this past summer,” said Junkins-Albertson. "Nancy has definitely been the champion of this effort to bring equality to the sport. And, quite frankly, she's the reason U.S. Mountain Running is what it is today."

2015 World Mountain Running Championships, September of 2015 in Wales. Team members pictured are Kasie Enman, Kimber Mattox, Ali Morgan, and Morgan Arritola | Photo by Kasie Enman

Athletes like 2011 Mountain Running World Champion Kasie Enman have used their success on the trails to be more vocal about inequality in the sport. “In 2015, it just clicked in my mind, why are the distance and team sizes not equal?” said Enman. "At that point in my life, I had a platform to speak from and question these discrepancies with the goal to actually be able to do something about it.”

"I have a daughter, and I don’t want her participating in sports where she is made to feel that she can’t do something."

Enman went on to help formalize a petition to get these issues on the World Mountain Running Association Annual meeting agenda—the first step toward finalizing a change (it was later followed up with a vote). She also rallied other athletes to hold signs of protest after races and to post them on their social media channels to raise awareness.

Enman says the equivalent team size and distance will increase the competitiveness of the sport for women. “It’s so exciting to have full teams. I have a daughter, and I don’t want her participating in sports where she is made to feel that she can’t do something. Empowerment is the solution,” she said.

The selection criteria for the 2017 World Mountain Running Championships is now straightforward and standardized across the board: Both men and women will race a 10K two-loop up and down course (championships alternate between up-down and all-up courses each year) on June 3rd at the Cranmore Mountain Race in North Conway, New Hampshire, to compete for four spots at the World Mountain Running Championships to be held in Premana, Italy, on July 30th.

More information about selection criteria can be found here.

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