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’.
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Well argued. Amen.
Great article and lots of food for thought here. I have one amazing ultra-running friend (a Spartathlon finisher no less!) who had exactly the same thing happen to her. It must be such a small number of women who would be affected by this that you would think that they would allow it. It seems such a shame for the women involved to have such a happy time tinged with disappointment.
You compare UTMB to Ultra Lavaredo, but it might be interesting to look at other massively over-subscribed races or races that require qualification points/times (apologies if Lavaredo is one of these- I am not totally familiar with its entry requirements). What is Western States’ policy, for instance? Not trying to defend UTMB’s position but these factors do make things more complicated for race directors.
On a slightly unrelated note, I believe UTMB’s deferral policy as a whole needs some thought. I finally have a place this year, having qualified but been unsuccessful in the lottery for the last 3 years. Training was going great until April when plantar fasciitis struck. I was out for 3 months and have only just got back to jogging again, with 2 months left to train. I still have problems any time I run more than about 15km. But I checked UTMB’s deferral policy and it says that in order to defer you need to provide medical images as proof and that chronic muscular injuries will not be considered (the vast majority of running injuries, I should imagine). They also do not commit to giving you a response either way until 10 September, so AFTER the race has taken place. Furthermore, in order to defer to a later year, you still need to have acquire the necessary points in the preceding time period. So this means that if I wanted to run next year I would still have to get the points by the end of this year. Which I can’t do precisely because of the injury that is making me defer. I would imagine this would be even more of a problem for the mother of a new baby in the first year after birth.
So the result of all this? I’m pretty pessimistic about my chances of being able to defer so will just show up the start line inured and under-prepared and hoping to make the best of bad circumstances. I’m just aiming for completion this year and will hope to do better at another time in the future. Which is what they’re trying to avoid. I’m also 95% sure my period is going to start on the Friday night/Saturday morning but that’s a whole different blog post…..
Sorry, that was a bit long. Basically, I know for a fact your friend is not the first person this has happened to, it sucks, but UTMB’s deferral policy as a whole is not great.
I’m seriously considering Ultra Tour de Monte Rosa next year- same time of year, same distance, same beautiful scenery but without the hype and organised by the awesome Lizzie Hawker as a female-friendly race.
I have mixed feelings on this subject. Is it truly a gender issue? Last year, a (male) friend of mine didn’t show up at the starting line of Ultra Trail Atlas Toubkal (Morocco) because his wife had unexpectedly given birth to their 4th son (!), 6 weeks ahead of schedule. Wasn’t he also eligible for the same sort of deferral? However, I’m sure it never crossed his mind. Ultrarunning is always a HUGE commitment. So is having a baby. Aren’t all sexually active athletes aware that both engagements might collide and force them into some sort of compromise?
Wow, food for thought. Last year I was doing a 50km race and encountered a woman who had her first child at 42. She entered this race while she was pregnant, anticipating that she would already be bottle feeding at the time of the race. She had trained right through her pregnancy, but was surprised with the unforeseen ‘your baby is allergic to formula, you will have to breastfeed’ bit. She ran to make target times between aid stations in order to meet her husband at each one to breastfeed her baby. She stopped at 24km because she felt discomfort in her abdomen, but decided to continue and finish the last 15 km’s just behind me. Super respect.
I recently encountered a similar situation – I was registered (and paid for) to run the Prague marathon, only to find I was pregnant a couple of weeks later. No possibility of deferral, there is a possibility of a refund (if you pay an insurance, which I didn’t). At the same time, my partner had to withdraw from TDS (part of UTMB with similar qualification standards and lottery) due to the race being close to the due date.
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“I shouldn’t have to say it, but unlike these examples, pregnancy can only affect women”
Why is that a meaningful place to draw a line? Do you want to be treated as an equal, or some special person who gets special privileges?
Suppose some runner comes down with a case of testicular cancer. Does he deserve a deferral because that only happens to men?
Does a runner who gets lung cancer not deserve one, since men and women can get that?
Of all the arguments for or against deferrals, making a decision based on the runner’s gender makes the least sense.
I’ve started and subsequently deleted three times now… in the end all I can do is repeat the article: “should not have to choose between being a badass ultrarunner and a badass mom.”
I wouldn’t have wanted to delay having my son because my partner was scared of losing all she had trained for and loved doing by starting a family.
Think before you speak and make our whole gender look bad sir.
I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot in the last six months and have been wanting to write about it so I’m glad you brought it up. I hoped I would get pregnant last fall but still wasn’t by January, so, tired of putting my life on hold, registered for races, including a 100 miler. Two months later I became pregnant, knowing that I’d forfeit my race since their site clearly does not issue deferrals or full refunds. As glad as I am that there’s more awareness of the inequalities in our sport (particularly the numbers of women in ultras v. men and the potential reasons why), this is a prime example of obstacles we have to deal with that just aren’t the same for men. I hope that your post will start a larger conversation, and raise awareness on something that likely race directors have never considered (hopefully that’s the reason, aside from UTMB).
Really interesting. I was told I couldn’t have children (had come to terms with it years ago) and last year started training for my first ultra – I chose a local one called Dig Deep. In February this year I discovered I was pregnant and after getting over the shock I emailed Dig Deep to see if they would defer my place. They couldn’t, but did offer me a refund which I accepted. I have had to do the same with my ML assessment which was booked for the week before I am due and various other outdoor related courses as I am either not going to get the training in or the organisations have stated I am a “risk” and so won’t let me be involved. I have also had to cancel work due to being pregnant as most companies won’t allow a pregnant women to work in the outdoors. My husband has not had to cancel any work, has not had to defer any activities or races and nor has he been classed as a risk – yet he is still having a child, i’m just the one stuck with the burden of carrying it. We do not have different desires, we do not have different needs and yet I have had to put my life on hold to carry the child to term (at least). At the moment only women can get pregnant so only women face the issue of having to make the decision to risk losing money on races, courses, work etc…. when planning a family. I’m slightly different to Jessica in that I wasn’t trying for a baby, but I sympathise and think that the wrong decision has been made by the race organisers here. It takes 9 months to develop and birth a baby, then 6 weeks (absolute min) before you can train again as you have to be signed off as medically fit and add on to that the 11 ish months you have lost in fitness due to not being able to train. What if you want to breastfeed? What if the baby needs feeding every 2 hours, there goes training for any long runs right away. Men do not have to go through any of this so bearing children is unfortunately just up to us women right now and so we should be offered “special considerations” and allowed to defer or gain a refund.
Great writeup and topic, Stephanie.
There are certainly different and complex ways to handle it. I like the Boston Marathon article because it acknowledges the complex landscape while advocating for pregnancy considerations. The complexity seems to be those that have no refunds or deferrals, to those that at least have refunds, to those that allow for deferrals or refunds. The UTMB response you mention is bizarre because they do have a policy, but it seems inconsistent and ironic with how they treat pregnancy vs. injury.
As an adoptive Dad, who has gratefully spent considerable time at home with my son since the day he is born, I am actually somewhat sensitive to over-emphasis on pregnancy/childbirth when it comes to the overall responsibilities of parenthood in general. But pretty much everything you said is sensible: I agree that there is a major (biological) sex issue which disproportionately affects childbearing women. The largest and most reasonable step we could take would be to support pregnancy and childbirth with respect to races. Moreso than injuries or parental duties, pregnancy involves unique and uncertain health concerns to both the mother and developing fetus. This is why pregnancy and childbirth are protected by non-discrimination laws in employment. And, as you probably know, worldwide human rights organizations typically classify healthy childbirth as a human right. Therefore, the comment above that states equates both ultrarunning and having a baby as a “HUGE commitment” is a mixed metaphor of things that aren’t in the same league, let alone ballpark, in terms of health, importance, ability to plan, and social rights.
The additional angle you suggest is how this might impact women’s participation in the sport. Whether we can measure it directly or not, I fully agree that a better world would allow women to sign up for races with reasonable accommodations for pregnancy. We could see more participation of women of childbearing age that otherwise have uncertainty about family planning. At minimum, I think it’s worth it to accommodate pregnancy as well as send a positive message of support within the sport. Although such accommodations incur a small cost of overhead, I suspect some women who are planning for pregnancy, even now, might wait and miss early registration deadlines (and cheaper prices) in a way that affects them unequally. That is, there already is a cost, which is borne (sorry!) disproportionately by women planning families.
So what does a solution look like? Here is one thought: maintenance of race registration is really the biggest hurdle (cost and time) for directors. Within ultra-distance sports specifically, ultrasignup.com is heavily used for race signup. Cost percentages aside, I think it works pretty great…why don’t we suggest ultrasignup creates features for easy deferral requests and maintenance? Could be a win-win-win: for ultrasignup (or any race reg company), for races that do this, and for women and the sport in general.
Thank you for bringing up this topic! I used to have a lot of concern about this when I was trying to get pregnant and still entering races with tough lotteries. The only way to make it equal is to tell men whose partners are pregnant that they cannot run. I jest, sort of, but I think it does point out how ludicrous it is not to defer the entry for pregnant women. I think many major ultras need to reexamine their policies on this. I imagine if the race committees were made up of 50% or more women, it would not be an issue.
Good luck with it. Totally agree deferral for pregnancy should be standard – as you say it can’t always be planned time wise and why should you be put in a position of choosing between a family and ultra running?
However, I think the injury comparison is a little false (although I see why you use it) Injuries are never planned or desirable and pregnancy is not an injury or illness!
Let’s hope more race organisers become more understanding.
Upon first reading the title of this my initial thought was that pregnancy should be treated just as any injury would be. So basically your standard male reactionary response cause like you pointed out my thought was pregnancy is at least a choice. Queue eye roll to my ignorance and lack of empathy.
I can certainly understand why many races don’t allow deferment or even refunds due to injuries. Especially the small races that simply can’t afford to do so. It sucks all around for both runner and RD but thats just the financial and man power reality. I’m injured right now and just went through this with my remaining four races this year. But as you wrote.. injuries and pregnancy aren’t even remotely the same so they should be treated as such.
So thanks for penning your thoughts. Honestly I just never gave it any thought. I mean I just learned that only woman can get pregnant (I googled it to verify, my education ain’t so good). But jk aside for the reasons you pointed out that we should all want to promote a woman’s ability to participate. We should all have some compassion for the tough realities that are uniquely their own. And we should do better to support them.
100% agree! I qualified to run Boston 2017 & 18 . I’ve never run it before. I got a stress fracture right before 2017 and now an pregers. I’m missing out on both of them! Makes me mad they won’t let you defer.
I am very sad to hear that UTMB will not allow deferment for pregnancy as I am also keen to do CCC and at the same time trying for a baby. It’s a tough choice. I do not like the situation I am in. Not sure when will I be able to get pregnant so I might waste all my race points just to be on standby mode. If I do get pregnant it will be worth it but what if I don’t? Then both my desires for CCC and being a mom will not be possible for at least the next year or more. Actually more like until I have given up on trying for a baby.
It’s just too bad that I have found my love for ultrarunning in my 40s and also got married late (42 years old) and thus it’s urgent to start trying for a baby ASAP. Frustrating choice. Bad enough that it is not within our control as to when we can have the baby and to top it all off, utmb wouldn’t allow deferment which makes it worse. I am a frustrated female ultrarunner and wife. My only consolation is that my husband understands my frustrations. But that doesn’t make it any easier as we still have to make a choice. Why can’t we give more support to female runners going through this?
Mad respect for the mums that are also ultrarunners. I think UTMB does not deserve you.
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Thank you for sharring this