A Finger on the Scale

The 2020 High Lonesome 100 will be the first ultrarunning race to achieve gender parity.

The starts to most 100-mile ultra-running races look very similar. Runners, barely visible beyond their headlamps in the rising dawn, slowly shuffle toward the start line. They twitch with excitement. Their anticipation is sated by the bang of a gun, and they take off at a relaxed pace, mindful of the hours to come. For the first few hundred feet, the runners enjoy the cheers and sounds of bells and noisemakers in the hands of supporters and members of the public who have arisen this early to see them off.

The scene continues: Rows of runners, mostly white men, funnel onto a singletrack trail and disappear into the wilderness. They embark on a rite of passage. This is the world of 100-mile races, where the awards come in the form of belt buckles rather than medals. The appeal of such a grueling feat is whether and when the competitiors will arrive at their destination in 36 hours. 

The pre-dawn start is one of the beautiful moments, when everything is going well and the absurdity of running 100 miles hasn’t kicked in. Soon the combined challenges of altitude, elevation gain, and digestion will cull large portions of the field.

There’s just one glaring problem with this scene—there are not enough women. The fields of these races have been overwhelmingly male since they began, with the rare race making a big show when a paltry one-quarter of its field are women. But one race in Colorado may change everything.

In late June, The High Lonesome 100 Endurance Run shook up the ultra status quo when its directors announced that next year’s race will have a lottery weighted to encourage and accept equal entrants from women and men. In essence, the start corral of the 2020 High Lonesome will likely hold as many women as men, making it look different than every 100-mile race that came before it.

A Changing Demographic

The High Lonesome 100 is a loop course that winds through the southern end of Colorado’s Sawatach Range, beginning and ending at the base of Mount Princeton. Only in its third year, the race’s directors, Kelsey Banaszynski and Caleb Efta, were reluctant to adopt a lottery process for such a nascent event. But last November, the available slots for this year’s race sold out in eight minutes. The waitlist, nearly as big as the field, filled up an hour later, and hundreds more were shut out—calling for a lottery process.

Before the organizers implemented one, however, they wanted to address issues that have been rumbling in the trail running community in recent years. These ranged from equity in sponsorship (podium spots, and prize money) to inclusion (low female turnout and gender determination).

Banaszynski says they had been watching their own registration and participation percentages hover around 20 percent for women and started to have conversations with the ultrarunning community on how they could get that number closer to 50 percent.

Banaszynski and Efta had partly avoided a lottery because they are often weighted toward past finishers or the number of years applied. “We didn’t want to create a system that perpetuated low female registration,” Banaszynski says. “If you have a point system put into place at a time when you have 20 percent or fewer females, that’s just going to stay in place.”

Data from Ultrarunning shows this is common. Races around 50K and 50 milers see female participation rates of 30 to 35 percent, but once the distance stretches to 100 miles, the participation dips to 20 to 25 percent.

So why aren’t women as likely as men to race more than 30 miles? Finding the time to train can cut into an already demanding family life, where by cultural norms or other factors women most often play the dominant role. More women are also likely to be raising children on their own, according to Census data. And pregnancy can cause a runner to defer a year or more.

Efta acknowledges that more women are interested in and have the capacity to run longer distance races yet they are impeded by reasons well beyond a registration form. “We can’t solve society’s problems as a 125-person race, but we can prevent our race from having that imbalance before we get too far along,” Efta says.

The High Lonesome 100 is allowing women more time to register; that is the finger on the scale.

A welcome change

With a much smaller pool of women running 100-mile races, the odds to gain entry to the High Lonesome under the new policy will be far greater for women than for men, who make up the vast majority of participants of other ultras, including Bear, Leadville, and the Hardrock 100.

The High Lonesome 100 is a qualifier for the well-established Hardrock 100. Along with Hardrock’s prominence in the ultra scene comes a large, multi-tiered lottery pool that weighs entries toward veterans and those who have entered multiple times. Some runners spend a decade waiting to “win” an entry into that race. (With this year’s Hardock canceled due to snow pack and avalanche debris, it’s current lottery and waitlist will carry over to next year’s.)

The couple also knew they had a popular race without the burdens of success and precedent that races like Leadville, Bear, and Hardrock have. To qualify for the sport’s most prominent 100-mile races (or longer) runners must qualify at other 50-mile or 100-mile races. New runners have the odds decidedly stacked against gaining entry into those races. “By virtue of how many people enter and how long they’ve been around, they don’t have the mobility to make these kinds of changes,” Efta says.

The High Lonesome lottery weighs only gender, not past performances, and only for a week. When the lottery registration for the 2020 race opens up for a week November 4-10, the 124 entries will be divided into two pools—one for men, one for women. (Yes, there is a non-binary policy, but for this aspect of the registration process they are asking runners to use the gender they were assigned at birth.)

Based on last year’s registration, the 62 slots allocated for men should fill up within five minutes and begin accumulating reserves. What organizers will monitor closely is when the 62 slots allocated for women are filled. “The demand is there. We’ve got the female capacity to fill the spots, we’re not worried about that,” Efta says.

What that all boils down to is this: Next year’s race will give 35-40 more women than average a chance to qualify for the next season’s ultras. The math of that could start to counter the prevalence of locked-in imbalances in the sport’s most prominent races.

BEYOND THE STARTING GATE

Training for ultras takes up a lot of time, as do new additions to a family. The High Lonesome already allowed deferments for pregnant women and now the race directors have expanded its new child deferral policy to include both partners. The policy also includes the adoption of children under the age of five.

This years race will also create more exposure and encourage more female participation through an aid station fully-staffed by women, and not just those with previous experience running an ultra. The idea is to allow a small group of women to check out the community and be a part of the race and without running in it.

The race directors and their advisory board also brainstormed ways to address how transgender or non-binary runners could register but the team couldnt reach a satisfactory conclusion. Then the Western States Endurance Run (WSER) board adopted a policy to allow runners to compete under a self-identified gender, and the High Lonesome decided to adopt the same policy. (WSER does require trans women that finish in the top ten to provide documentation of undergoing hormone therapy). Non-binary entrants, while only eligible for place awards in their birth gender pool, can select a desired pronoun in the registration process.

Efta says the online feedback has been mostly supportive, though there are critics. Some have complained that the policy unfairly takes away race entries from men—though “taken away” is poor language, since none of the lottery entries have been awarded yet. But such a male-dominated sector of the sport, anything to grow or shake up the status quo is seen as “taking away” spots from men.

“Well see where it goes,” Efta says. “Theres already talk of some other races adding similar transgender and pregnancy policies. Not every race needs to make a hard 50/50 split, but races that have no risk of not selling out are the perfect ones to do this because they are not going to lose entrants.”

For more info on the High Lonesome 100 Endurance Run and the 2020 registration process, head to highlonesome100.com

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