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Leah Yingling on the state of women in ultra running

By Henry Howard

For Women’s History Month, I reached out to an expert in ultra running to get her view on progress in the sport, what it needs to do to improve the gender balance and more. Leah Yingling, who I profiled last year after she picked up a Golden Ticket at Canyons 100K, is a talented ultra runner herself.

She also demonstrates her deep knowledge of the sport when guest hosting on Finn Melanson’s Singletrack podcast as well as handling live race coverage at some of the sport’s most popular events.

I took a similar approach last year when I shared a Q&A with another strong woman runner, Corrine Malcolm. To get her perspective, check out this article from last year.

For now, let’s dive in with Yingling. We cover topics such as her early role models, ideas for improvements for women ultra runners, how men can help the initiative and more. Here is our question-and-answer session:

Question: As a runner yourself, who were some of the women runners or other athletes who inspired you as you grew up?

Answer: I grew up a multi-sport athlete, with soccer and basketball taking up most of my time. No headlining athletic moment from my childhood is more vivid than when Brandi Chastain scored the final penalty kick to lead the U.S. women’s team to win the World Cup in 1999. She ripped off her jersey in pure joy and fell to her knees in front of the world. I remember watching this game with my three sisters at home, sharing in the pure elation of the moment. I’m pretty sure this was a moment we would re-enact every time we'd score against each other. Seeing a female athlete, on the big screen, on the front of the sports page, in advertisements was powerful. It was the first time that I can remember seeing a woman temporarily be the face of a sport. But how could we make it permanent?

When I first entered the sport of ultra running, women like Pam Smith and Liza Howard were my Brandy Chastains. They were not only performing at a high level, but they were paving the way for the future of women in ultra running as moms and runners who were also balancing careers. At the time, I wanted to go into medicine, and following Pam’s blog filled me with inspiration that I could do that while pursuing ultra running and still having a family of my own someday. I'd consume every blog they’d publish and follow their performances, not for the metrics or the numbers, but to see how they balanced it all while still being an active part of the circles they existed in.

Question: What needs to happen in trail and ultra running today to keep improving it for women runners?

Answer: Several things. Visibility, equity, diversity, more resources, women-specific research. The ultra running demographic is largely dominated by white males. We need initiatives that lessen the barriers to participation for marginalized groups of women. These barriers may be cost, accessibility, child care, and safety among others. A few solutions include trail running scholarships from brands that help to eliminate costs of participation in the sport, entries into races that are reserved for BIPOC women, exposure and access to the sport in under-represented communities, race organizations that advocate for equal participation. High Lonesome 100, Scout Mountain Ultras, and the RUT are just a few races that have implemented strategies to increase equity for women and marginalized groups at their races. I'd love to see more races instituting child-care options on race day, something we haven't seen gain significant traction yet.

Question: What can men (other than those already in the media, coaching or race directing) do to create a more inclusive environment for women runners?

Answer: We need men to be allies and to join women in the fight for equity. We need the male-dominated construct of sports to be broken down, and we need a concerted effort from all involved. All men have a platform. They can elevate women's voices, performances and initiatives. Money talks. Men, who aren't in media, or coaches or directing races, can support those races that are working toward equal numbers of men and women participants. They can speak up against media, race directors, brands and organizations that voice opposition to equitable sport. They can join forces and organize and provide child care on race day. Men can be more mindful about how they speak about the sport and engage with women in the sport and on the trails. I've lost count of how many times I've heard, “No American has ever won UTMB.” Many Americans have won UTMB, and they’ve all been women.

Question: Who or what are you looking toward to help create meaningful change for bringing more women in the sport?

Answer: I'm looking to communities like Gina Lucrezi's TrailSisters, FreeTrail and their sub-group the Freetrail Femmes, organizations like the Professional Training Running Association and their working group on Women Equality, advocate-journalists like Zoe Rom, commentators like Corrine Malcolm, and race directors like Caleb Efta and Luke Nelson. They've been calling for change and actively creating change, and we need more people to follow suit.

Question: What do you want girls/young women who may be interested or thinking about the sport to know about their own possible participation? Why should they consider running as a sport?

Answer: I want women and girls to know that they are strong and they belong. They can be gritty; they can dig deep; they can turn themselves inside out and work harder than they think physically possible. And, it's a life-long pursuit. Even when you're done competing, you will still be able to put one foot in front of the other and be part of the greatest endurance community that exists, and that's special. I want running to be something that girls can turn to, for empowerment, across their lifespan.

Question: Looking ahead, what would success look like to you in terms of equality for women when it comes to trail and ultra running?

Answer: Success will look many different ways, but would hopefully be some combination of more diverse women in advertisements and representing brands, equal pay for sponsored female athletes compared to their male counterparts, equal participation on start lines, women on boards in organizations and in leadership roles, local communities (like my local organization Women of the Wasatch) that are built by women and for women. Success will ultimately be all men standing up for all women. And, we're not there yet.


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