Sophie Power made the headlines in 2018 when a photo of her breastfeeding her baby midway through the 106-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) went viral. The world was rightly in awe of someone who could complete one of the world’s toughest footraces just three months after giving birth.
But one of the reasons Power chose to do so is because the UTMB didn’t allow runners to defer their places due to pregnancy and she had already lost her place back in 2014 for the same reason. Had she not taken part that year, she would have had to go through the lengthy process of re-qualifying. The UTMB is not the only race with this policy; the Boston Marathon also doesn’t allow deferral for pregnancy.
But the problem of negative racing experiences for women is a much broader one – and it’s something that Power is hoping to address with the SheRaces campaign. Its aim is to make the racing experience – from sign-up to results – a more welcoming and positive one for female runners. RW caught up with her to hear more.
What motivated you to create SheRaces?
After the UTMB photo went viral, quite a few race directors contacted me and said, ‘We’re really embarrassed – we’ve never thought about our pregnancy policy, because we’re all men.’ So I ended up talking to a few races, focusing on pregnancy policy. At the same time, I was receiving messages from women who have not been allowed to race, or have had problems in races.
We have a minority of women on the start line, particularly as races go longer, so we should be doing everything we can to help women get there. Because there’s something special about racing more than just going running. We get that competition. We get that sense of achievement. It gives us a reason to go running. For a lot of mums, it’s hard to get that time for yourself if you can’t say, ‘I’ve got to do it, I’m training for something.’
Specifically, what are you hoping to achieve?
There are three parts to this. The first is an equal opportunity to race: getting more women on that start line. The pregnancy policy is part of it, but a lot of it is in the marketing of the race. When you see pictures of only athletic white men on the start line, it sends out a certain message. This is about women of all races, shapes and sizes feeling welcome and included. Language matters, too. Ultras often talk about being the ‘toughest’ or ‘hardest’ or ‘most dangerous’. Show us that women can do it, and the same goes for having more generous cut-off times.
The second part is the experience when we race. Yes, that’s the T-shirts (which are called unisex, but are really made for men). It’s thinking about toilet provision and changing provision. It’s safety, too: in ultras, that could be buddying-up or looking at how you’re going to get home if it’s late at night or early in the morning. It’s being prepared to change women’s names in the results to prevent any harassment or stalking. It’s sanitary towel provision in first aid kits. It’s simple, basic stuff that isn’t currently being done.
The third part is respect for our competition. When results come out, they should separate men from women so we can easily see our podium. Race previews and write-ups should focus equally on male and female competitors. And, of course, there should be equal prize money and number of age categories offered, which still isn’t the case in some races.
What role can brands play in this?
A lot of brands give more coverage to women now, telling inspirational stories which make us believe we can achieve our goals. But some of these same brands are still sponsoring events that are putting barriers in our way, or not treating us equally to men.
I don’t think it’s enough for brands to talk about being pro-motherhood and pro-women. They actually have to help women; they have to give us kit that fits and use the massive power they have in sponsorship to make races equitable for women.
It makes sense for race directors, too – if you can show you actively welcome women, you’ll get more women on the start line. At SheRaces, we want to highlight races that are inclusive. Race directors simply have to contact us with how they meet our guidelines (on the website) and testimonials from female runners.
You’ve been in discussions with the London Marathon. What’s the race’s current policy?
For general entries, London Marathon allows deferral for any reason, and it should be congratulated because lots of races don’t. It’s the good for age (GFA) and championship places where they insist that your qualifying time has to have happened within a one-year time period. So if you get your place and you’re pregnant, you might have to run very soon after pregnancy. Jess Welborn was allowed a championship place eight weeks post-partum, but she wasn’t going to be allowed a place at a year and eight weeks, when she’d obviously be fitter. Their rule is that the further you are away from your qualifying time, the less likely you are to be able to achieve it, which holds in almost every situation except if a woman has had a baby in between.
What we ended up achieving was that those people who had championship and GFA places were allowed a general entry. They weren’t allowed on the championship or GFA start line, but they were allowed to do the race. For most of the women, it was a dream to run London and they didn’t want to lose their opportunity to do the race. But Jess wanted a championship place, and she deserved one, too. So that was frustrating. [The London Marathon] hasn’t changed this rule this year, but I’m hoping that it will.
What role can race directors play?
If race directors are looking at the start list and don’t have a competitive women’s field, go and invite some competitive female runners. Look at where you’re marketing your race. Are you putting it in male-dominated magazines? Are you describing it in the right way?
There are lots of race directors that are pro-women and trying to get more women on their start lines. Lakeland 50/100 is a pioneer in this, weighting its ballot towards women to increase participation. But even a company like Threshold, which puts on Race to the Stones and has lots of female participants, is charging £25 to defer a place, even if you’re pregnant – a time when a lot of women don’t feel they can spend money on themselves.
How can people support the SheRaces campaign?
Head over to sheraces.com for the race guidelines and follow us on Instagram @she.races for how you can get involved. We want you to call out races (and the brands that sponsor them) that aren’t valuing women equally.
Share your experiences of great races with us so that we can promote them and help other women vote with their feet. Share your worst experiences, too, to highlight what doesn’t work.
Race directors – provide details of how you are welcoming women, just as Impact Marathon has done. We’ll be creating a directory of races that do, as well as giving awards for the best races.
I’ve been working to make races fairer ever since that photo of me at UTMB went viral, speaking to hundreds of athletes about what can be done. This campaign isn’t just about pregnancy deferrals. It’s about creating a more inclusive race experience overall – and that’s something that will ultimately benefit both men and women.
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