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While women’s representation in running has come a long way, we are still far from seeing a 50/50 split at the start lines of ultra races in 2023. According to RunRepeat’s State of Ultrarunning’s report, 23 percent of ultra marathon participants in 2022 identified as female, as opposed to a male majority. This number is steadily increasing by about 2.8 percent annually since 1996.
But even with all this growth in popularity – plus studies showing that the longer the race, the better women are able to perform – fewer females are still competing than males in ultrarunning.
Fortunately, emerging from this growth is a powerful network of women-only groups that have begun making it their mission to create communities that encourage and empower women to participate in ultra race spaces. For this, we reached out to three groups leading the way.
Gina Lucrezi, former pro runner and founder of Trail Sisters, says she experienced far fewer opportunities in terms of marketing and promotions as a female athlete. Outside of the pro world, she says, “I’m not sure I’d call my personal experiences ‘barriers,’ but instead, mindless or ignorant situations that created an overall lackluster moment or experience [in ultra-marathons].”
Lucrezi takes issue with the media’s bent toward covering male athletes while overlooking female talent in the field. She says that, while this did not prevent her from competing, she did feel “as though my presence or participation as a female was marginal.” According to one study, while 40% of all sports participants are female, those athletes receive only 4% of sports coverage.
Lucrezi took her wish for better treatment, experiences, and coverage for women in ultra racing and created a nationwide, women’s-only trail running community, Trail Sisters. Her stance is that no matter how hard co-ed groups try to encourage and accommodate women runners, women-only groups present perceived safer alternative spaces to connect, share, and grow confidence as an athlete.
“Trail Sisters was my response, or my action item, to bring more purpose, recognition, and celebration to women in the sport,” says Lucrezi. “I understood the industry ‘playing field’ along with what women runners wanted and deserved. Trail Sisters would be a space to educate, inspire, and empower women runners [and hikers], and would also put pressure on the industry to do more, create more, recognize more, for women.”
Trail Sisters’ nationwide community boasts over 13,000 members in December of 2022, with 164 local women’s group chapters, offering more women an entry point into ultra running and providing long-time runners a community that encourages racing and sustained growth in the sport. About one third of the group’s members identify as beginners.
Jordan Averill is a member of the Trail Sisters chapter based out of Golden, Colorado. She joined after moving to the Denver area in 2021, and was new to trail and ultrarunning at the beginning of 2022. She says her experience joining and participating in Trail Sisters meetups “helped introduce me to new trails and helped me to get to know the area around Denver in general. I love the energy, Thursdays after work, and I love how the group goes to new places each week. This helped me feel more comfortable returning to these trails on my own when I started training for my first 50-mile race.”
Lucrezi says, “Our ethos and welcoming approach creates an environment that caters and benefits both new runners and veterans. Our local groups program is perfect for women to connect and run or hike in person, and our community’s digital platform provides a space for the global Trail Sisters community to communicate and learn. The website offers multiple articles and resources to help women new to the sport.”
The group also hosts Run With Her running retreats, puts on its own branded Women’s Trail Half Marathon in Buena Vista, Colorado, and has a partnership with the Lake Sonoma Races (LS50) featuring the branded Trail Sisters half marathon, where Lucrezi serves as Race Director, as well as encouraging participation in the Marathon as well as 50 mile distance .
Lucrezi has worked to create and curate a calendar of Trail Sisters-approved races to share with group members based on individual race standards and commitments including equal podium spots, equal prize money and awards, women’s specific apparel and swag, menstrual products at aid stations, and equal opportunity and space for women on the start line.
These events, especially the Lake Sonoma races, increase Trail Sisters’ member exposure to competitive race events and provide more visibility for women to make the jump up in race distance length. The LS50 is also a qualifier for the 2023 World Mountain and Trail Running Championships, meaning that Lucrezi is directly incentivizing participation at an event that is a pipeline to the pinnacle of the sport.
Grace Martinez, founder of running group and community PNW Ladies, shared that the lack of diversity she saw in trail running as a Mexican-American female athlete was previously a source of intimidation and a barrier. She says that [at races] “I always feel that I stand out…but when I’m with my group, I feel safe.”
Martinez’s experience as one of the few women of color at the start line of races had made her feel she didn’t belong in the sport. She references her experience with the lack of finding other women and women of color in the sport as a driver of hers to start PNW Ladies in 2015.
“We started with 20 members and have grown to over 12,000 members,” she says. “I’m a running coach that had a vision of uniting women of all backgrounds, experiences, and helping each other start. We’re here to help women form real friendships and real connections. We are women first, then moms, wives, runners, hikers, and more. We have formed a unique platform to talk about women’s issues, social issues, relationships, and of course running.”
Martinez’s stance is that increasing female representation in trail running holds the key for women’s race performances to stand on their own. She says, “We all need to see ourselves in every capacity. Representation matters. One day we will create spaces where women won’t hesitate to run alone, run with others, run somewhere new, run in their neighborhood, and run when it’s dark. One day we won’t be asking why it is important to see more women in the trail and ultra race space. It will be a thing of the past.”
The PNW Ladies community offers a social network to members that extends beyond running group meetups. The group’s tagline, “Friendships included, running is optional,” encapsulates the group’s culture. An active Facebook group encourages members to find time to run with each other as well as form friendships based on shared affinity for music or outdoor activities.
Members are women and friends first, creating a strong, encouraging culture where race participation flourishes. PNW ladies partners with another local group, Run 2 Be Fit, that encourages group member participation in various 5K’s throughout the year. Members of the group say that learning about races they previously were not exposed to is a major reason they love being a part of the running community.
Women of the Wasatch
Meredith Johnson, a lifelong-runner based in Salt Lake City and founder of Women of the Wasatch, says that she found herself in SLC’s running community and began to question her athletic abilities, in contrast to the male athletes she was surrounded by. At the time, she was signed up for the Wasatch 100 but backed out at the last minute.
“I had so much imposter syndrome during that time and I didn’t have a support system,” she says, “I felt extremely intimidated, so I just felt that I didn’t belong in the space.” She craved community after a year of solo runs. “I knew that was something I needed because in high school and middle school I was on a cross country and track team and never felt this added pressure. It just always felt fun so I decided I needed to go back to my roots,” she says.
Johnson created the very community of women runners she craved for herself, cold-calling and Instagram DMing women in the area she was referred to, and eventually formed a group that became Women of the Wasatch.
The group grew exponentially, starting with ten members in October of 2020 and climbing to over 600 members in December of 2022. Johnson says, in the beginning, more and more women were showing up to group meetups challenged to find a good pace balance. But they found that balance with the creation of a “no-drop” pace group. It’s been successful in continuing to grow participation in the group.
“We can spread out more on the trails and be more respectful of other people out there using them and making sure there’s always someone in the back of the group that’s comfortable in that [sweeper] role and pace,” she says. “So anyone else back there with them doesn’t feel like they are holding anyone up. They can show up, no matter what shape you’re in, and go on a run with someone who is there for the same reason.”
For Johnson, it all comes down to increasing visibility for other women in the sport. “Whether it be sports or at work, if I don’t see someone that looks like me or acts like me, then something won’t seem as in reach,” she says. “But watching runners like Courtney Dauwalter winning big races, it’s so clear to me that it’s possible. So, the goal is to see women who typically say to themselves, I’m not a runner, but they show up to a race. That is so inspiring, and they are creating this chain to inspire even more women to just show up.”
Women of Wasatch strategically helps women build up comfort with long distance races by strategically helping to build up mileage. “It’s mind-blowing,” says Johnson. “We see people that show up for the first time on a trail run in 2021 who are running 50 mile races in 2022.”
Johnson explains that the group encourages field trips to big trail running destinations like the Grand Canyon or Zion National Park. The purpose is to help the Women of Wasatch community push themselves a little further each run. The example Johnson gives is helping someone whose longest run ever is ten miles, build up to 13 miles on the next day of the field trip. And then from there help folks to build up to a 20 mile day on the next field trip. Eventually, a 50-mile race no longer seems out of the realm of possibility. The group often travels together to compete in these longer distance races.
Trail Sisters, PNW Ladies, Women of Wasatch, and many other informal trail groups are building a culture to mentor and support female athletes in a way that’s primed to increase female representation in the sport of trail and ultra running. What begins internally, with enough continued growth and momentum, will only increase visibility and, ultimately, put pressure on race participation standards to catch up.
All three of these groups have supportive resources to share, for those looking for a community of their own. Not only are these women creating the space for others to show up and push themselves, but they want you to come just as you are, now. Just be sure and grab a friend.