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You don’t have to look far to find the gender equity problem in ultrarunning. At the Western States Endurance Run on Saturday, 254 men finished the 100-mile race from Squaw Valley to Auburn, California. The women’s race saw 65 finishers. It’s a ratio that isn’t unusual at ultra-distance events, but one that some other organizations are trying to improve.
On June 25, the High Lonesome 100, which takes place on July 26, beginning in Mount Princeton, Colorado, announced three new policies aimed at becoming a more inclusive option for women, transgender, and nonbinary runners, as well as new parents whose expanding families have altered their racing plans.
“Every year we’ve become more ingrained with our community of runners and some of these things just became so obvious that they had to be done,” said Kelsey Banaszynski, co-owner of High Lonesome.
The race now allows transgender and nonbinary runners to register as their identified gender (or note desired pronouns in registration) and was inspired by a similar policy recently put in place by Western States. A transgender female entrant can register in the women’s race if she has undergone continuous, medically supervised hormone treatment for gender transition for one year prior to the race.
And new or expectant moms and dads can now defer their entries for a year if a runner becomes pregnant after registering, a runner or partner gives birth between registration and the deferral deadline, or a runner adopts a child under age 5 after registration.
“We decided there’s no reason that we couldn’t include partners in this,” said Caleb Efta, co-owner of High Lonesome. “More people have pointed to this policy with positivity than we expected.”
But it’s the rule regarding gender equity that is catching the most attention. A new lottery system for entry will aim to have a 50/50 split between the men and women admitted to the field.
Why now? The race has become so popular, with an estimated 400–500 people vying for 125 spots, Efta said, the organizers knew they had to implement a lottery. But before they did so, they wanted to make sure whatever lottery they designed was as fair as possible. An equal number of entries will be reserved for men and women, but if one gender does not fill the allotted spaces, they’ll be granted to the other.
“We have historically a 20 percent female entry rate. We wanted to think about why this is happening and what we could do as race organizers to close that gap,” Banaszynski said. “We came up with a lot of ideas, but the 50/50 was the most immediate splash in the bucket we could be making.”
According to Ultrarunning, shorter races such as 50K and 50 milers are seeing women participation rates of 30–35 percent. But from 100K and longer, the rate drops to 25 percent or less. Although the barriers to training for and racing longer distances are many, for some races like the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc or the Hardrock 100, the qualification standards can be prohibitive for female runners, specifically those who might put training and racing on hold during pregnancy and postpartum. And the lottery for Hardrock’s entry, for example, favors those who’ve finished the race before, which perpetuates a field of about 90 percent men (11 women finished in 2018 compared to 103 men).
“Lotteries aren’t the sole reason for the discrepancies, but they are a big reason they get perpetuated,” Efta said.
Other variables play into the gender equity issue, too. Women, who in many families still carry most of the household and childcare responsibilities, may not have adequate time to devote to training. Some women feel unsafe training in remote areas by themselves. And with so few women finishing ultra distances, the exposure other female runners have to the sport lags behind, too.
The bigger aspects—and societal norms—will take time to tackle. For now, however, Banaszynski and the research groups she and Efta worked with to arrive at the policy changes wanted to do what they could, within their control.
“Not every race can do a 50/50 split, but certainly everybody can take a hard look at all the different aspects of your race—from your sponsors to how you’re showing up in social media to what your leadership team looks like,” Banaszynski said. “Every organization can do their little part to make a difference.”
Of course, the changes at High Lonesome aren’t without critics, saying that granting entry based on gender is unfair and “takes spots away from men.”
The High Lonesome organizers stand by their new system, though.
“Whether or not they’re in agreement with the new policies, they’re still part of our community and we will treat them with love and kindness and respect,” Efta said. “But also we’re also firm and supportive of the policies we’ve made. We didn’t jump into them half-assed—we spent a lot of time on them. We believe they’re well-crafted and they will serve the purposes we’ve identified.”