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The future of women and ultra running

By Henry Howard

In the spirit of Women’s History Month, I wanted to highlight women in the sport with a look at the future. Earlier, I had written about inspiring more women to try trail and ultra running.

But I also wanted a perspective from someone who can speak to being a woman in the sport from a first-hand experience. I could not think of anyone more suited than Corrine Malcolm, who has established herself as a top ultra runner, coach, thoughtful podcaster and commentator during live events like last year’s Western States.

In 2018, Malcolm became the first runner to start on the Western States wait list but finish in the top 10. Shortly after her seventh-place finish that year, I interviewed her about her start with running, top 10 finish and more. And now, she graciously agreed to answer questions about her inspirations, how to make the sport more inclusive and what’s ahead.

Here’s our interview:

Question: As a runner yourself, who were some of the women runners who inspired you?

Answer: I’m a child of the 90s so Mia Hamm, the soccer star, was definitely the first in a line of female athletes who inspired me along the way! That list continues in the ski and biathlon world that shaped my high school and college years with strong women like Marit Bjørgen, Charlotte Kalla, Anna Haag, Magdalena Neuner, the list goes on.

I came into trail and ultra mentored by Bozeman, Mont., friend (and badass) Nikki Kimball — literally guiding me through long runs on winter roads and trails and welcoming me into her home for post-run breakfasts with friends. My other early running inspirations include Krissy Moehl, Anna Frost, Caroline Chaverot, Rory Bosio and Lizzy Hawker.

Question: What needs to happen in the sport today to improve it for women runners?

Answer: There are a lot of initiatives in the works — but I think the key is representation — seeing people like you doing the things you are not sure you can do, be it getting in AND finishing Hardrock 100 or doing your first ultra. While this is important for all women, this is especially important for athletes of color.

This is being championed by groups like Trail Sisters and individual race directors like High Lonesome and Hellbender that are setting aside 50/50 spots for women, races like Hardrock that are making sure the number of women starting the race represents (at minimum how many women put in for the lottery), and WSER bringing about their pregnancy deferral policy.

Question: Along similar lines, as a 50something white guy, what can or should I do to help fuel this effort? (Note: Here is what I am doing, a scholarship offer to aspiring women trail and ultra runners.)

Answer: I was chatting with some friends about this recently and I think the answer to this comes down to helping champion us (women, gender non-conforming, people of color), elevate and amplify our voices. Put us on your panels and boards. I’ve turned down panel spots that I didn’t think were diverse enough and tried to put someone else on that stage instead.

Hold the megaphone, educate yourself, listen, don’t shy away from uncomfortable conversations, support businesses owned by us, fund spots at races for minority representation, fight for equal coverage of the women’s races, etc. I don’t think there is one way to do it, but you can’t be a passenger — you have to help drive.

Support these initiatives, champion these initiatives, support and elevate women’s voices so that the sport recognizes there is both a need and want for more women to be involved in the sport.

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

Answer: Running is such a great sport but I encourage young women, particularly girls to be athletes, to try it all. I’m all for well-rounded athletic experiences over early specialization. Sport should be fun, and that includes running.

For the women who might be thinking about trying their first trail race or first ultra, I want them to know that they can do it. It’s OK to be scared or nervous (that generally means you care, and that’s a good thing). I’d encourage them to find mentors in their local communities, join group runs either community wide or women specific. I feel so fortunate to have gotten to spend the past four years in the Bay Area with groups like the SFRC group run, Trail Sisters of Marin, etc.

You’ll find your people and I think that’s who helps to foster your love of the sport, your curiosity for the trail or the distance, and having that on the ground support system makes every goal feel a little more attainable.

Question: Who would be on your Mount Rushmore of women ultra runners?

Answer: I won’t speak to Mount Rushmore because of the controversy you can read about here.

But I think it’s important for us to remember our running history. We all have such short memories — we’ve forgotten about great performances from 2019 already but what about 2009, 1999 and 1989, etc. It’s easy to think every race, result, phenom is novel — never been done before — but that’s generally because we’ve forgotten our history.

Question: What's ahead for women in the sport today?

Answer: Women are going to keep crushing it, and again because we don’t always remember our history there will be a lot of “most competitive race(s) ever” talk. But I do think that as more and more women come into the sport that the races will continue to be more exciting because it does take getting enough women on the start line to produce the head-to-head competitions that we have gotten to watch play out over the last couple of years.

For example we’ve had three years in a row at WSER now where the women’s top 10 has all finished within 20 hours. That had only happened once or twice on exceptionally cool years before 2018. I hope some big long standing records go down, WSER, Leadville, Hardrock. We’ll also get more women mixing it up in the overall top 10 and competing for outright wins at certain races which I will continue to celebrate even as it becomes old news.

I expect we’ll see some impressive times on the road side of things as well at the 50K and 100K distances as a little more road talent comes into the sport, and I sure as heck hope in the next decade we get to watch the first woman finish the Barkley Marathons as well.

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: I really hope that more races consider, even if it’s “artificially” doing so, tipping the scale to increase the percent of women that get into races. I think races like Hardrock that are now allocating spots to make sure the percentage of women starting representing the percentage of women in the lottery is a good first step. But when races (particularly over 50K in length) average 9%-20% women, it can be disheartening.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy —> you treat the women like their race matters —> people get excited about the women’s race —> there’s more coverage of the women’s race —> there’s more sponsorship dollars that go towards women in the sport —> more women can be in the sport —> races get more competitive —> races get more exciting —> people get more excited about women racing —> and on and on and on.


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