It’s no big surprise that women are hugely under-represented in ultrarunning – I’ve seen estimates ranging from 30% in some of the shorter 50km ultras down to 8% or less for the bigger ultras like the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB). But stats aside, all you have to do is show up to the start line of any ultra and you can see it for yourself. You’ll immediately notice that the lineup snaking out of the men’s washroom goes for miles, while the female washroom lineup is virtually nonexistent (score!). But aside from this one obvious perk, having a low proportion of women in the sport sucks. It means less mentorship opportunities, less media attention (based on the fallacy that the women’s field just isn’t as competitive as the men’s), less sponsorship opportunities (because of less media), and less clothing and gear options (due to the small market size that makes it less profitable for many companies to produce women-specific products).
I could write pages upon pages speculating why there are less women in the sport. Intimidating to break into such a male-dominated sport? Difficult to devote the time to training given that women are still shouldering most of the household duties, childrearing responsibilities, etc? Less ability to train at weird hours due to safety concerns about running as a female at night or in the early morning? There are a billion possibilities. All I can say is that lack of interest ain’t one of them and neither is lack of ability. Frankly, whatever the reasons, if women are so drastically under-represented in the sport, shouldn’t we be doing whatever we can to encourage female participation? At the very minimum, shouldn’t we be making sure that there aren’t unnecessary obstacles that prevent them from participating?
You’d think so. Which brings me to the point of this post. It’s a topic that I haven’t seen or heard discussed a lot, maybe because it doesn’t affect a ton of people… but it was brought to my attention by a friend. I was outraged when I heard the story and I think it is important to tell.
Let’s call this friend, who wants to remain anonymous for now, Jessica (no, it really isn’t me, I swear). Jessica trained incredibly hard to qualify for UTMB last year – a 100 mile mountain race through France, Italy and Switzerland. As most runners know, in order to even enter the UTMB lottery, you have to accumulate a number of points through other races. It is a massive time commitment. At the same time, Jessica was trying to get pregnant with her husband. She wanted a child, but she was really worried about having to give up ultrarunning and racing as it was such an important part of her life and her identity. She didn’t want to have to choose – mother and family or ultrarunner. After she qualified for UTMB, and then managed to make it through the lottery successfully to secure a coveted spot, she found out she was pregnant… She immediately emailed the directors of the races she was scheduled to do in 2017 to ask for a one-year deferral. The organizers of the Lavaredo Ultra Trail responded positively and allowed her to defer without question. They allowed deferrals for injuries – temporary medical conditions – so why not? However, the organizers of UTMB had a different response.
According to UTMB, deferral was only allowed for osteo-articular injuries. The UTMB organizers offered a refund upon medical proof of pregnancy, but not a deferral.
Jessica was disappointed, obviously, and requested a reconsideration. The possibility of requalifying once she had a baby would be even tougher, and even if she did requalify, it would be unlikely that she’d be successful in securing a spot again. She wrote:
“It is quite unfortunate that something like pregnancy, which should be considered a happy situation, creates these difficult choices and circumstances for us women runners… Please let me know if there is any way to reconsider. Not allowing me to defer creates a penalty for being a woman and becoming a [sic] pregnant, which is quite unfortunate in today’s society. This is something that women runners should be celebrated and supported for, not discouraged from.”
After two weeks, she still did not have a reply, and wrote back again. UTMB responded:
“The reason why, 3 years ago, we started to give the possibility to register another year avoiding the draw is because we noticed that some runners started our races with an injury not totally healed. And this can be dangerous for them.”
UTMB’s response is non-sensical. As Jessica pointed out to me, if they were worried about people running injured because they couldn’t defer, which they considered dangerous, then by that logic, they should be even more willing to defer for pregnancy due to the potential risk to both the runner and baby if she decided to run.
I started looking into this more to see what has already been said on the topic. Frankly, very little. I’m not surprised – if the percentage of women in ultrarunning is so low to begin with, the percentage of those women who are actually of child-bearing age and who manage to become pregnant around race time would be miniscule.
Some races don’t allow deferrals for any reason, including pregnancy. Personally, I still believe that these races should still allow pregnant women to defer because of the clear link to gender discrimination, but others aren’t as sure. As pointed out by the author of this article in relation to the Boston Marathon (who still ultimately argues in favour of deferrals for pregnancy), “[h]ow can the BAA [Boston Athletic Association] offer deferments to pregnant women but deny a deferment to a qualifier severely injured in a car accident three months before race day? What is fair when it comes to determining who deserves a deferment and who doesn’t?”
I’ll answer that. It is terrible if a runner gets severely injured before race day, obviously. If he or she isn’t covered by a general injury deferral policy, then it would be wise for the race directors to be flexible on a case-by-case basis. There are always going to be extenuating circumstances or weird one-off situations that might warrant exceptions. Or not. However…. pregnancy is clearly in a different category than many of the other reasons runners might want to defer, like military deployment, family emergencies, or injuries, whether chronic or traumatic. I shouldn’t have to say it, but unlike these examples, pregnancy can only affect women.
Dave McGillivray, the race director of the Boston Marathon since 2001, wrote in this Runner’s World article that “[o]rganizers who do not offer deferrals to pregnant women may feel that pregnancy is a choice, and that women could simply choose to get pregnant after the race.”
* sound of my head hitting the table *
Jessica, why didn’t you just ask your husband to get pregnant instead so that you could run UTMB?
Or maybe you should have scheduled your fertility around the off season?
The more I read, the more upset I became. No, I don’t think it is fair or reasonable to expect women to have to “check with a race as to its policies before you even enter it” to see if deferrals for pregnancy would be allowed, as McGillivray suggests, so that you won’t be disappointed. That’s a ridiculous solution. Women can be surprised with unplanned pregnancies, and even if they do plan a pregnancy, it isn’t as if they know if or when it is going to happen.
The fact is that UTMB made the wrong decision in Jessica’s case, and they failed again when she asked them to reconsider. It can’t be the first time they’ve done this. However, it is hard for people to talk about because, like Jessica, many women choose not to reveal their pregnancy to others until their second or even third trimester (or after birth!). To me, what UTMB did is a clear case of gender discrimination and I am appalled. I have run UTMB twice and loved the race, but this has made me never want to sign up again.
I’m bringing this up as I firmly believe that UTMB, and any other race that does not have a firm policy on this already, needs to get with the bleeping program. We should not have to choose between being a badass ultrarunner and a badass mom. Just sayin’.