Over the last 13 years, I have written many pieces that seek to call others to action, to stimulate important conversation, or to merely offer a differing opinion. In that time, I cannot think of a piece that is as important as this one. I cannot think of a piece that has been scarier to write, but also not more important to publish. This piece is scary to write because it is not meant to offend anyone, but could easily offend. I am terrified of having my intentions mistaken.
The issue in which I am about to discuss is far larger than any one person, and larger than one sport. It is my hope that through this communication, and with help from each other, that we will better understand the issue at large and how to fix it. Undoubtedly, the conversation has to be started in the first place, and I understand the importance of starting it, and am willing to be the one to start it.
The Human Potential Running Series was designed to help people discover what it is to be human. It is necessary, toward this end, that we better treat each other as human, rather than continuing our trends in dehumanizing one another based on our beliefs, our values, the color of our skin, or the gender in which we best identify with.
Trail and Ultra running has a major issue with gender inequality.
The time to start the discussion is long over due. The time to discuss solutions is now. The problems have long been recognized and some of them will be discussed here, but this piece is really focused on working towards solutions. We all share in the responsibility for this inequality, and thus we all share in the responsibility to make it better.
Examples Of Gender Inequality Within Our Sport
I attended the pre-race meeting for this year’s Western States 100, and the post-race festivities at the Vermont 100-Mile Endurance Runs. Before I continue, I need to be clear that this is not an indictment on Western States or Vermont, nor is it a complaint towards them. I felt that they both put on top notch, world class, events this year; and am merely serving up observations that happen at many races throughout our country. I just happened to personally observe these two.
At Vermont, after the completion of the race, the top ten men were brought up to the front of the tent, and each were congratulated for their efforts by having their name, town, and their finishing times announced to the room. They followed with the top women, of which they only asked the top five women to come to the front and be recognized in the same manner. I am still uncertain as to why they chose to recognize the top ten men, and only the top five women; and can only assume it’s because beyond the 5th female in the race the times may not have been “impressive enough” or “the field was too small” to warrant equal attention. Regardless of why, there’s no reason or excuse good enough for the disparity in equality celebrating both genders post-race.
In regards to Western States; as they have in years past at the pre-race meeting, the race committee called to the front of the room, who they felt were the top ten men in this year’s race. After, they then called up the women they felt were the top ten women in this year’s race. It was incredibly clear, at the time and now months later, that the women received less attention, less discussion, and quieter applause than the men. The disparity in the time, attention, and dialogue between the men’s and women’s races could be for a number of reasons. Perhaps there isn’t as much information out there about the women compared to the men? If so, this brings to light that we really aren’t discussing women in our sport, as equally as we are the men.
The “trail and ultrarunning media” all boasted for the few weeks leading up to Western States that, “The women’s field is insane!” Yet I spoke with many women after the race that all felt it was the men’s race that received a disproportionate amount of coverage as compared to the women’s. I feel as though this disparity continued after the race as well; with a majority of the discussion focusing on the men’s race; most notably on Jim Walmsley and Ryan Sandes’ performances. While most of our sport focused primarily on the braggadocios efforts of one man, we forgot to celebrate the brave and courageous performances of many women. Instead of doing our homework on who Cat Bradley is; we asked “Who is she?” Meanwhile, we knew every detail about every male competing in the men’s race before, during, and after.
We cannot hide the fact that the ultrarunning media covers the men’s races more so than they do the women, and disproportionately so. We cannot hide the fact that more research is done on the men, than research is being done on the women within the coverage between the genders in a race. We cannot hide the fact that the men are celebrated far greater than the women, throughout the course of every single year, for their accomplishments. Do you know who Camille Heron is? After this past weekend, now you do. Did you know who she was before? How long do you think we’ll get to enjoy the ride of her accomplishment with her.. before the luster quickly wears off?
We talk about men more. We idolize men more. When you ask ultra runners who is on their “Mount Rushmore of ultra,” they can quickly list numerous prominent male figures from the past and present. When you ask them to list the women, it’s easy to say “Ann Trason,” and then the rest is a naïve attempt to list 3 women you know who are racing currently. This is not a personal problem that runner’s can’t name them. It’s a systemic problem.
Men also adorn the cover of more magazines. Photos of men are more visible in print ads and photo placements within stories. Over the last 5 years, Ultrarunning Magazine has so far produced 49 issues. I took a look at the cover photo used for each of those 49 issues. Five issues (10%) featured no one, or a runner so far in the distance that you cannot determine gender. Twenty-Five cover photos featured a male ultrarunner (51%), where just nineteen featured a female ultrarunner (39%).
To be fair I also looked at the last four editions of Trail Runner Magazine. I flipped through the magazines and counted photo’s that featured exclusively men, exclusively women, and where a photo had both men and women I counted a dash for each. The numbers I am about to present are the total for photo’s used in stories, as well as photos used for ad space. I counted 264 photos where a man and/or woman was depicted in the photo. Once again, 62% of the photos had just a man, while just 38% of the photos had just a woman. Of those four issues, 3-cover photo’s featured a man, with just 1 featuring a woman.
These are just a few examples that I can speak to, backed up with evidence to further the point of this discussion. I am certain that the women who are reading this piece can list many more, while the men may not be able to adequately address this subject. I assure the men reading this piece that women are more than able to mention these same examples, and more, and accompany those examples with the same kinds of facts I’ve presented here. They’re also able to discuss this issue, with facts to support their point of view, without the need to put in the effort like I have here. I ask for their forgiveness for my ignorance; Myself, a man who sat down and flipped through magazines to obtain the evidence to prove a point, that women don’t need to prove for themselves because they live it daily. The truth is clear.
Previously this year, I wrote a piece where I briefly brought up the disparity between the coverage of men and women’s races at Western States. The only response my thoughts received came from a popular, and influential to our sport, male podcaster who immediately walked right by the discussion. This, I feel, is a major part of the problem, as not having the discussion prevents us from offering any solutions. Trust me when I tell you I get it. I’m shaking at my desk, wondering if I am going to regret sharing any of this with the running world, out of fear of persecution for even having the conversation at all. Most would tell me to do the same thing, walk away. This accomplishes nothing, and is nothing more than feeding into the problem by turning a blind eye and hiding the facts.
Despite the risks associated with being a man discussing this issue, and potential ignorance, I’d like to try. So let us move on to some of the solutions I alluded to at the beginning of this piece.
The Importance of Having A Discussion
“Start with the end in mind. Seek first to understand, then to be understood. The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” ~Dr. Stephen Covey
Last week an article was shared with me that discussed how we as American’s are facing an Epistemic Crisis.
“Epistemology is the branch of philosophy having to do with how we know things and what it means for something to be true or false, accurate or inaccurate. (Episteme, is ancient Greek for knowledge/science/understanding.) The US is experiencing a deep epistemic breach, a split not just in what we value or want, but in who we trust, how we come to know things, and what we believe we know — what we believe exists, is true, has happened and is happening.”
I am certain that there are many who are reading this who believe that there is no disparity between genders in our sport. They’ll come to argue with numbers that show that there are nearly as many women as men in ultrarunning, that women nearly outperform men at every distance; and with those facts they’d be right. But they’d be wrong in using those numbers to say that we treat women within our sport equally; that we discuss, celebrate, and support the women in our sport the same as we do the men. Their numbers would actually tell us, unequivocally, that because there are as many women as men, because women out perform men, we owe it to women to treat them as we do the men. Yet, we don’t.
It is important to not approach this topic dogmatically. We all, men and women, must be willing to step forward to shoulder the blame. We all must step forward to be vulnerable, to be brave in admitting our shortcomings, and to also accept that neither gender is perfect within this issue.
In September it was brought to my attention that some women in our community have called me a “pussy shamer.” This is a derogatory term used to describe a man who shames women, of which I cannot argue enough against that I am most certainly NOT. It is also a term that when used, is dehumanizing, and demeaning. The use of this term to describe anyone solves nothing. It is a hurtful and hate filled term used to provide the same; hurt and hate. I’d like to use this as a personal example of the missteps in education and lack of understanding.
In September 2017, it was brought to my attention that I was first called a “pussy shamer” in March of 2015. For 17 months, I had no earthly idea that I had done anything to offend women. There was no discussion, which sought to educate me about how I offended anyone. And when this story finally came to light, and the true culprit bravely admitted his mistake; we were both brushed off with “alright guys, finish this tear in your beer and let’s hit the trails. [laughing emoji]” by the woman we initially offended.
We must understand the importance of discussion. When I first heard that I was labeled a “pussy shamer,” I sought to find out why, then I sought to understand why. To this day, the evidence has still never actually been produced to me; evidence which I’d expect to show what I said that offended women so deeply. All feelings are valid, but not all behaviors are. With this in mind, I felt it was my duty to step up to the plate and offered my sincerest of apologies to those affected by what they alleged I did.
My apology was then dissected, and ridiculed, as not being enough. Once the true offending party stepped forward to shoulder the blame for what was actually discussed in March 2015, it was met with the same kind of ignorance, and additional demeaning remarks towards men, that incensed these women to begin with. Obviously it is only men who put tears in beers prior to a run….
We must all be willing to listen when others share their stories, especially those that hurt and offend us. We must all be willing to admit wrong, and apologize for our mistakes. We must all be open to accept apologies, and not determine the sincerity or value of an apology based on someone’s poor word choice despite their best efforts. We must all be willing to educate one another, and to do so from a place of compassion, love, and graciousness.
In other words, we must be willing to step up and tell someone, with love and compassion, how their words have affected us, and what they can do to be better. Simply being offended to the point of having no discussion, attaching labels/names, walking away, and being hurtful in return; does nothing to solve these or any issue. Where each of us is right, we are also wrong. We must stop using hate speech and semantics to prove a point, and instead use compassion, love, and accurate information to better educate one another.
In this example, what I wish would have happened is that the woman I offended would have approached me directly to express her hurt, and better educate me on her point of view. In this instance I would have been able to offer a proper apology and we could have moved forward with a mutual understanding and potential partnership in advocacy for women. Instead, the way things happened broke us apart, and you know that they say “two heads are better than one.” Instead of being unified in fixing a problem, we are now divided and have solved nothing.
Let me ask.. would you rather live in a world where no apology is ever good enough? That we use extreme words and labels to describe those we don’t agree with? A world where we walk away from one another, when someone simply does not understand on our level? -or- Would you rather live in a world where we talk to one another? A world where we can approach one another with the same calm, respect, and civility we so obviously seek ourselves? Would you rather live in a world where we approached conversations with one another, over things that offend us, from a place of compassion, rather than a place of irrational dislike for those who we assume don’t see the world through our own lens?
All feelings are valid and right. Not all behaviors are. You can be offended, because that’s a real feeling; Your feeling, valid and true, no matter what. But your behavior to turn around and attack someone, or not allow them the opportunity to change for the better, is not an appropriate behavior.
I realize this comes from a man’s point of view, but forward movement towards gender equality needs support from all men and all women. I think that it is important for men to be better educated in how to support this issue, rather than shut out and down from the issue simply because some think “they’d never understand.”
What Is HPRS Doing About It?
1.) It was men who designed the first HPRS logo, and the logos for our initial set of races. However, since 2015, HPRS has been deliberate in searching for talented women, within the field of graphic design, to complete all of our logo work instead. Most recently, six logos have been created new, or updated, and have all been designed by talented women. These women also happen to be talented ultra runners, who strive to give back to their sport, but are often overlooked for the opportunities to do so despite their specific skill set.
2.) This year, HPRS welcomed it’s first transgender athlete. She signed up to one of our races as a woman. She competed in the event as a woman. I listed her in the results as a woman. I welcomed her to the event with open arms. I thanked her for coming as I did every single other runner. I referred to her significant other as her wife, and when speaking to her wife, I referred to her as “wife” as well. Yet, after the race I received two emails; one from a man and one from a woman, both asking me to list her on the results as a male. I cannot state strongly enough; she is listed where she belongs, and it is not up to us to determine for her, which gender she identifies with.
3.) HPRS has long used the “HPRS Running Man” logo on stickers, merchandise, advertisements, and other. This year, I requested that one of our female graphic designers create an “HPRS Running Woman” logo. Every woman who signed up as an HPRS Adversity Member for 2018, have-and-will receive a member’s t-shirt with the “Running Woman” logo on it, while the men will continue to have the old Running Man logo on theirs. This has been done in order to be more inclusive of women and to continue to celebrate the female ultra runner as an integral part of our sport.
4.) In my race recaps, I have been very deliberate in speaking about the women’s performances, equally as I have the men. Admittedly to that end, in some cases, the women have received more coverage and a better story, than the men. In races where we feature multiple distances, I have been deliberate in alternating the discussion between men and women, between those distances, as a way to be fair and inclusive. The story of a racer depends on the experience that they had, and the adversity that they faced, not their gender.
5.) HPRS hosts 3 events in Fairplay, CO, which account for six different races. Over the last 3 years, I have asked a local female artisan to hand craft a set of earrings for the first overall female in each of these races. HPRS has always stated that we do not offer special awards to the front-runners; and that each runner, from first to last, receives the same finishers award. It has been a pleasure to go against this stated belief, to celebrate our female athletes with this personal touch, and one I intend to continue.
6.) When ordering shirts for our races, despite it being more cost effective and easier to manage, I have been deliberate in not ordering unisex, or one-size-fits-all clothing for our runners. I understand that unisex, or one-size, clothing typically does not fit women well. I order women specific sizing to ensure that female athletes can wear their shirts with the same pride and remembrance of the event as the men.
7.) When creating online and print advertising campaigns, I first look for photos in my possession that feature women. I look for the photos of women with the biggest smiles. I look for photos of women accomplishing epic, facing adversity with undeniable determination, as easily read on their face. I do this because I personally feel, that it is more unique to see the women of our sport in their moments of triumph, than to continue to overemphasize the tradition of capturing the men.
Each and every one of these things that I’ve listed above is easy to do. None of it takes extra time. None of it takes extra energy. There is no reason, absolutely none, why every other race director in our sport cannot follow these examples. Thus, I call on every race director in our sport to play a pivotal role in being more inclusive of women.
“Start with the end in mind.” My end in mind is that all humans realize their potential and in doing so treat each other as equals. “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” I hope to listen first, so that I can understand another person’s worldview and then to be heard equally so that person can understand mine. “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” The main point is that we are all humans struggling to make sense of it all. The struggle would be a little less arduous if we instead worked through it together.
If you have any solutions of your own, I’d love to hear them. Let us work together to better understand and bridge the gaps. I can be reached at SherpaJohn@gmail.com