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How can we attract more female runners to multi-stage races?

Written by Fiona

May 31 2019

While female entries for running races such as 5ks, 10ks and half marathons have risen significantly in the past decade, many other longer-distance races, such as one-day and multi-day challenges, are still attracting far fewer females compared to males.

Rachel Hewitt claims in an article in The Economist: 1843 magazine that “women’s presence in ultra-distance trail races increased from about 5% of all contestants in the 1990s to around 20-25% today, but it is still well short of parity.”

I was aware that the female-to-male ratio was low but I am still surprised by the difference in the statistics. For example, my recent stint as chief blogger at the 2019 Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race revealed that only 14% of the field were female. Although a rise since the previous edition of the five-day running race from north Wales to south wales in 2017, it amounts to just 1%.

The sister challenge of Ourea Events, the eight-day Cape Wrath Ultra, also had significantly fewer female entries, 22% in 2018. (Next edition of this race is 2020 and entries are filling fast.)

This year’s West Highland Way Race – a 96-mile one-day ultra running challenge – has an entry list totalling 254, including 55 females (21%), which has been generally the same proportion for previous years.

Compare this to another Ourea race, the Silva Great Lakeland 3Day and the rise in female entries is incredible. Across all the classes of entry, from “Café” class, to Wainwright to Expert there were 53% women in 2019.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, as you will read, the “more chilled and relaxed” Café class had 63% women, while the Expert class had just 16% female runners.

There are a few more races that are bucking the trend, thank goodness, such as a 40% female field in last year’s Glen Ogle 33 Ultra and 42% in the Hardmoors 30, as reported in Run247.

A quarter of the Cape Wrath Ultra 2018 field were women. Credit: Jimmy Hyland/JHPvisuals
Some 14% of the field were female in the 2019 Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race. Credit: No Limits Photography.

Women are good at endurance running

Yet when women do enter tougher, endurance-based events they do well. In the most recent Cape Wrath Ultra, of the 22% (39) females who entered, 54% finished as competitors. Of the 78% male field (136 in total), 65% finished.

Last year’s West Highland Way Race had an entry list of 235. This comprised 20% females. Finishers in the female field were 98% while for the men this figure was 84%.

In another race, the Isle of Jura Fell Race, which includes seven mountain summits, including the Paps of Jura, over 28km the success rate among the females who entered is higher than the males. Less than 1% of DNFs were females in 2018 while 8% were males. However, the field included just 20% females. Still this is a rise of some 10% compared to the annual race a decade previously.

These are just a few of examples but research shows that you are much more likely to finish an ultra race if you are female.

Shane Ohly, the founder of Ourea Events, says: “While fewer female runners enter ultra distance races they are more likely to arrive at the start line properly prepared and trained. Men, in general, are more likely to ‘give it a go’ even if they know they have not trained sufficiently. This is often shown in the results.”

Nicky Spinks is the first person to complete the “triple double”. Credit: Inov-8
Lisa Watson wins the women’s race at the 2019 Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race. Credit: No Limits Photography

Ultra women leading the way

Despite the seemingly shocking fact that women’s distance-running events – those longer than 1500 metres – were not included in the Olympics until 1984, women are increasingly proving their mettle at longer-distance events.

In some poignant examples, recent women runners have outshone the men in ultra races. Earlier this year, Jasmin Paris was the outright winner of the Montane Spine Race. In 2012, Scottish runner Debbie Martin-Consani won – and set a course record – for the Grand Union Canal Race.

Nicky Spinks continues to push the boundaries of long-distance mountain running and has recently become the first person (not the first woman!) to finish three famous double rounds: The Double Ramsay Round, Double Bob Graham Round and now the Double Paddy Buckley Round. (A “triple double”.)

Nicky, 52, believes women are often better at ultra running for a variety of reasons. She says: “Of course, in many cases men are physically stronger but women have many advantages when it coms to ultra distance running.

“In my experience, we are more organised than the men, we whinge less, we can put up with more discomfort and we are more focused on our own race plan rather than being led astray by others in a bid to race. I have seen too many men race hard and fast at the start only to be beaten by women in the end.”

Shiri Leventhal, from America, agrees. She says: “While research studies have shown that women are less likely to enter ultra races unless they have done significant training, men are more likely just to enter on a whim or with a lower base of training.

“But the percentage of women who finish is a lot higher compared to men.

“I think this is why there are lower percentages of women doing ultra and endurance races because they think they have not done the right training and that they will not be able to do it.”

There are many perceived obstacles to stop women doing endurance events. Credit: No Limits Photography.
Women believe thats elf-confidence is a major issue. Credit: No Limits Photography.

Women reveal the obstacles and issues

Although women can successfully compete with the men and, on occasions, beat them, the entry lists to ultra distance and multi-day races continue show remarkably fewer women.

In the 2019 Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race, the female winter Lisa Watson admitted that she had not been confident in her ability before the start line.

She said: “I packed my bags expecting to have 14-hour days.” Instead, she finished each day in less than 10 hours. She also came ninth overall, therefore beating many of the male competitors.

She added: “I was very surprised to be the first female because this is the first time I have done a race like this. In fact, day three was the furthest I had run in any one day.”

Many other women report a range of perceived obstacles. I asked some of the Berghaus Dragon Back Race female runners.

Confidence problems

Another female competitor in the  Dragon’s Back Race said: “It’s a confidence issue. Many women do not believe they are strong enough or fit enough to do multi-stage races. But they are!

“They need to believe they are strong and they can do it. This confidence building needs to start at primary school level. We should be showing girls that they can do anything they want to.”

Lowri Morgan, who was fourth female in the DBR, said: “I don’t think people realise, women especially, how strong they really are. If people start from the beginning, running a bit and then take it further and further then these types of races are possible.

Shiri said: “A lot of women will only sign up to a race like this if they are 80 or 90 per cent sure they can do it, while men tend to be only 50% sure. We need to show more women it’s possible.”

Claire Humphris, from Britain, agrees. She said: “We need to women believe in themselves. I think the big barrier is confidence not fitness.”

A female competitor enjoys a town stop in the Dragon’s Back Race. Credit: No Limits Photography.

Time issues

Although the world is changing, many women say they are still the main child carers or the one with the major caring role in the family. This can mean that women are the first to sacrifice fitness and training when they gave a child,

Lowri believes that women can do ultra running and raise a family but it needs to be with the support of others.

She said: “I am a mother. I have a son aged four. But when I was pregnant, people said I wouldn’t be able to do what I did before. But I thought, this baby is going to come into my life and I am going to continue to run.

“You have to be good at time management and ask for support. Every session I do now has a purpose. I don’t just go out and run, instead I have a goal for every run.

“I get up early, run and get home before my husband goes to work, or I go out for a run after I put my son to bed. I even did interval sessions with my baby in buggy.

“I am also fortunate to have the support of my family, but I do think that many women forget that their time is as important as other people’s and they can ask for support.

“I am not saying it is easy and you do have to be disciplined, but when women tell me they couldn’t do what I do, I say go out and try.”

Lourdes Gutierrez-Kellam, from America, has further tips for women. She said: “I have older children now but when they were younger I would get them to ride their bikes while I ran.

“We would do my training as a family event. I also picked races that would tie in with travelling with the family. My children have been to many different places in the world because f my races.

“I am lucky because I have supportive kids and a supportive husband.

“I also think it’s important that I have shown them a good role model; that I can work, bring up a family and also race. This is a benefit to my children, I believe.

“Although I have sometimes felt guilty about not spending all my time with my kids I think on balance they have learned a lot from my running and racing.”

Shiri also adds to the point of needing a supportive partner. She said: “I am fortunate to have a supportive husband and I pay for babysitters for my 19-month-old son.

“While I am here running with my husband – it’s our five year wedding anniversary actually – our son is with his grandparents. This is such a treat as we rarely get to run together these days.

“With kids, it’s even harder to fit in training and racing but if you had a passion before having a child you will find the time to fit it in. I make time around work, I get up early and I go in the evenings and sacrifice a social life. I don’t think that having a child affects men as much.”

‘It’s not just for skinny sporty women’

Bodil Oudshoorn, from The Netherlands, said: “I think we need more realistic role models. More ordinary looking women so that other women can see that it is achievable.

“When I arrived at the Dragon’s Back Race I looked around and I became anxious. I thought there were so many fit looking people, so many men and people were older than me.

“I often feel under-confident. But once we got started I started to believe I could also finish. I also found people very supportive. I think women need to have more belief in themselves.”

Shiri added: “We need to show that everyday women can do ultra running and to normalise it.”

Two women hug each other in congratulation. Credit: No Limits Photography.

‘It’s not just a macho thing’

British runner Kirsty Reade said: “Organisers need to stop marketing events as tough and brutal and advertise them showing how beautiful they are, or what a great endurance challenge it is for everyone.

“Too often the races sound so macho and that is off-putting for many women.

“I think, too, that race organisers could do more to make events seem friendlier, which can encourage more female participation.”

Read Kirsty’s interesting article If she can see it, she can be it.

Nicki Rehn, of Canada, said:  “I think we should show how much fun these races are. We should be telling our friends and showing them the beauty of the events and how they will meet like-minded people.

“From my experience, women are tougher than the men, but a lot of women don’t seem to realise this.”

Lourdes agrees. She said: “What appealed to me about the Dragon’s Back Race was the photos and films of the landscape. That sold it to me.

“Also, when I saw that even if you didn’t make the cut-offs each day, it was still possible to continue but non-competitively. I figured that even if I totally screwed up, I could still keep going.

“In any case, these events to me are all about the adventure and the scenery and seeing new places rather than getting a fast time.”

Let’s look at cut-off times

There is an interesting argument for making cut-off times more favourable to female entrants. Have a read of female physiology in endurance running.

As Kirsty Reade states: “Cut-offs are often in place for practical reasons and to limit the impact on volunteers, but perhaps race directors could look at whether it would be feasible to extend cut offs in some cases.”

Another ultra runner, Marianne Grover, of Ayrshire, agrees. She says: “I am not exactly typical as I only started running ultras aged 60 and I’m now 68 but as a slow runner I find many races have cut-offs that are just too tight.

“I often notice when looking at results that often the runners at the back are almost entirely female so I think this is something that could be a problem for many runners. 

“It’s great to have races with times aimed at fast walkers but another useful approach is the challenge type races where slower runners can start earlier, thus not keeping marshalls hanging about.”

Marianne has completed some of the “shorter” classic Scottish ultras, such as Clydestride, River Ayr Way, Glen Ogle, Devil o’ the Highlands, Glenmore 24,and the Kintyre Ultra. She says: “I also tried the Highland Fling one year but I got caught by the cut-off at Rowardennan.” 

She has taken part in few of the Lakeland Trails races and finished the Lakeland 50 twice. She says: “The Lakeland 50 is run by the Long Distance Walkers Association so cut-offs are timed for fast walkers, or slow runners.

“I do think that running these long races is a very empowering thing for women to do. Running on my own in the dark and navigating in the Lakelanad 50 made me feel that I was a real runner.

“Sadly, I have now reached the stage where I struggle to find races to enter.”  

Lowri Morgan enjoyed the friendliness of the Dragon’s Back Race 2019. Credit: No Limits Photography

Pregnancy concerns

Shiri brings up the hot topic of “pregnancy deferral”. Many women believe that race organisers should make allowances for women if they become pregnant close to a race.

She said: ”Pregnancy deferral is when women can ask for a race entry to be deferred to another time to allow them to be pregnant and recover from having a baby.

“It might seems to be a minor thing but it actually affects a lot of women in the 30-to-40 age range, which covers many female entries in endurance races.

“When you are planning ahead and the races are expensive, some women do not have the confidence to register for an event in case they get pregnant.

“I would like to see deferrals available so you can enter the next race.”

Read more: What women runners are saying

Read: 19 things I learned while reporting on the Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race.

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