Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Ultra Running and Sponsorship for Women

Thanks for all the support and the kind, thought provoking comments so far on this post!

As many of you know Sage is working on an awesome film called MUT Runner. The subtitle is “A new breed of Mountain Ultra Trail runner has emerged”. In this case the word “new” just means some people are coming from speedier (track/road) backgrounds and that there’s more prize money and sponsorship. Otherwise, the only people in the sport are still going to be people who love the trails and people who are crazy enough to see running and training for ultras as fun.

There’s only one problem, a major problem in my opinion, that’s new and I see as compromising the sport. I indicated that there is now more sponsorship in the sport, which is true, but to be blatantly honest the elite women are getting screwed. There, I put it on the table. Now lets go deeper.

***Before I begin I will acknowledge that my knowledge is limited to only elite American ultra-runners. I am also not acknowledging myself as an elite runner and therefor am making no reference to myself or my sponsors (which I of course only picked because they're awesome!). Also, this post refers mainly to major sponsors (companies with a lot of money to give), as some of the smaller companies are definitely doing it right!

Since I know a lot of elite female and male runners I have gotten a pretty good idea of how much a lot of runners are making…or err uhm…not making. It’s in most people’s contracts to not publicly say how much they’re making so I won’t name specifics or names unless the knowledge is already out there.

Let’s look at the guys. There are probably 5 elite guys who are making enough money in ultras to live comfortably. The top paid guy are making about 4-5 times higher than what the top elite females are making. With prize money matching at least one guy made $40,000 last year from ultras. Then there are quite a few guys who aren’t making enough money to live off of, but are making enough where they don’t have to work full time. It’s easy to look on facebook, read blogs, and watch irunfar race interviews to see that some guys have been able to run for work and travel all over the world thanks to their sponsors.

If we look at New Balance and Brooks they both picked one elite guy to showcase for their trail running lines and gave them a nice salary. Does Brooks even give free product to other trail runners anymore? (I’m just asking here. I haven’t heard anything about their I.D. program in a long time.) The least either company could do is pick one main female athlete as well. No offense to New Balance’s or Brooks’ main trail guy, but they’re not going to inspire me to buy something like an elite woman would. Also, I really hope that Nike improves its 7 men to 1 women ratio for their trail team because it looks really bad. Isn’t it bad enough they’re one of the biggest companies known to treat their foreign employees like crap they don’t care about (obviously me ranting here, sorry! On the plus side Nike has done a great job promoting their female road/ track runners. Maybe they'll do the same for trail runners.)?”

Honestly, I think this is wonderful for the men. I love seeing people live out their dreams and I’m very thankful that companies are giving them enough money to do what they love. It’s awesome! What about the women though?

Does anyone know of a woman making a comfortable salary that’s enough live off of (Not including prize money)? I’m hoping there are at least a few women making close to $10,000 and sure, Jenn Shelton had (has?) a sponsorship with Hundai but that’s only one woman. If Timothy Olsen and Rob Krar are getting a lot from the North Face then Rory Bosio and Stephanie Howe should be too, right? Why hasn’t this year’s female ultra runner of the year gotten a big sponsorship? Pam Smith just killed it in 2013 with a Western States win and a world record, where’s her big salary? She uses her kids as weights and put ice down her pants to stay cool during WW100! She deserves a big salary too dammit!  To make matters worse I know that many of the elite women we saw in the top 10 for Ultra Runner of the Year make a whopping $0. That’s right, no salary, no travel, no bonus. These women won some big races this year and all they got were some free shoes and clothes. I’m not saying shoes and clothes aren’t nice, but it’s not fair when I hear how much the men are making.

I know in almost all sports women make a lot less than men. The salary of a WNBA player compared to an NBA player is a joke. I also know that there are more male ultra-runners than woman and the elite men run faster than the elite women. Let’s move on to why this shouldn’t matter.

A lot of people still consider ultra running as a “pure” sport where people share their joys and pains together. The sport itself is awesome, but it’s not very pure to put the “glass ceiling” on female ultra runners. Companies now put this dreaded obstacle over women. By the way, if you don’t know this, it’s mostly men creating sponsorship deals for athletes. This might not be a good for the company or the sport and both are losing out. Just having a woman helping on the deals would be beneficial.

The fact that there are more male ultra runners than female runners isn’t all that important. The number of women entering the sport is growing too and more importantly, women really like to buy running clothes and shoes. How often do you hear a guy say “I love your jacket! Where did you get it?”. With sports bras, running skirts, and headbands there are more things for women to buy as well. Guys are also more likely to wear the same sweaty clothes a few times a week, thus not having as many running clothes. C’mon major sponsors, women are great for promoting your stuff! In road running Kara Goucher, Shalane Flanagan, Desiree Davila, Lauren Fleshman, etc. have done amazing jobs showcasing their sponsors. Actually road/track running seems to have done a great job of treating men and women equally. Shouldn't we carry that over to the trails?

Unfortunately, the elite men will almost always beat the elite women at races. It’s just life. There are a few things that need to be remembered though. When Ellie Greenwood and Timothy Olson both set course records at WS100, Ellie took two hours longer to finish. I GUARENTEE this doesn’t mean that Timothy Olson was pushing any harder than Ellie. That means Ellie is a complete badass for pushing that hard for two hours more. Seriously, she’s a beast and women are tough! Furthermore, while the elite women aren’t beating the elite men, they’re still beating a large majority of the field.

One other interesting thing to note:
I had a conversation with a few female runners this year that really left a bad taste in my mouth. The discussion was about some of the elite women not getting as much attention or support because they didn’t have “the right look.” Unfortunately, as a fellow woman I can tell you this probably isn’t just in their heads. It’s ridiculous, awful, sad, and wrong. Any guy in good shape is considered good looking to a company; it should be the same for women. Any woman who has the mind and body to run an ultra is stunningly beautiful inside and out. Other ultra runners know that but we need companies who give out sponsorships to see that too.

 Again, I think it’s great runners are getting better sponsorships. Most are working as hard or harder than other professional athletes who make millions, so it’s about time some ultra runners are making enough to live off of. Everyone deserves a chance to live out their dreams, or at least see if that dream is right for them. It’s just a shame women aren’t offered the same deals as men.  This is the great sport of ultra running and in my opinion the sport will lose some of its pureness if women aren’t supported on the same level.

On another note completely please vote for Rachel Nypaver, Valley Girl Adventures!!!!

Run Wild, Live Free,


Always try to see the good in people. Its okay to have differences. It's even okay people make mistakes that bother you. The majority of the world has a good heart if we choose to see it.


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  2. Sandi, spot on! You are so right on women being completely avoided (or avoided to a big extent) by sponsorship programs in trails and ultras as a sport. Way to bring it to the surface and spread the questions!

  3. Interesting article thank you for your thoughtfully composed piece, here is some input from a long time sponsor in the sport. At drymax, we do not differentiate. We happen to have more women sponsored athletes than men. Our first two sponsored runners Lisa Bliss and Jamie Donaldson were promoted heavily initially over the men, then we signed Karl Meltzer and promoted Jamie and Karl equally. Our limited incentive programs are geared to be equal to women and men. Runners like Ellie Greenwood, Sabrina Little, Aliza Lapierre and many others are put on the same ground as Geoff Roes, Joe Grant and Sage Canaday. No different. A win like Jamie Donaldson's Badwater record, Rory Bosio's UTMB win, Sabrina Little's 24 hour Record is treated just like Zach Bitter's World Record, Ian Sharman's Grand Slam or Gary Robbin's HURT 100 record. We are very proud to work with women elites in exactly the same manner as men. If you look at our ads in Ultrarunning Magazine there are always an equal amount of women and men runners. The main photo is more a function of having a photo good enough to use and has nothing to do with gender. We don't shrink and pink our products or pander via color to either gender. Hope this gives some perspective from somebody who proudly sponsors about 65 elite ultra athletes. Respectfully, Bob MacGillivray, Drymax Socks

    1. Hi Bob- Honestly I think the non-shoe sponsors or smaller companies (Small compared Brooks) do it best by far. That's all my current sponsors and they do great. Most people would all agree with that. The big discrepency comes from the companies that have major dollars to give out. Thanks for putting that out. I should add that to my post! :)

  4. Emilie Forsberg and Anna Frost almost certainly have their travels and lodging taken care of, in their worldly adventures. Emilie practically lives in Switzerland all summer, and it's likely she stays at Solomon-sponsored housing. Actually, I'd be surprised to hear if North Face did not sponsor some or most of all of Rory Bosio's trip to UTMB this year. I'm behind on my news but if Michele Yates doesn't yet have a major sponsor, surely she will have one soon, and that should provide some relief to her travel budget. Trail running is booming, as we know, but the women are a little behind, no doubt, in recognition. That will change over time, and we're seeing it already with Stephanie Howe on the cover of the recent Running Times. Here's where I think the big difference is right now: Most back-of-pack weekend warrior male trail runners know who Anton Krupicka, Killian Journet, Scott Jurek, and Sage Canaday are. This is the target audience for all of the manufacturers that you mention. The same is not true, in my experience, for the female runners. I was surprised the other day when the name Ann Trason drew a blank when I was chatting with a woman on the trail. How can that be? Like I said, all of this will eventually change with increased publicity, and my hope is that everyone in the Saturday morning running club will know about runners like Rory, Michele, Darcy, and Emilie.

    1. Thanks for the great comment Pete! You're probably right about Emilie and Anna, which is why I focused on American runners for this post. :) I'm guessing (although it's probably not good for me to guess) that Rory did get help with her trip to UTMB, but travel money is different than a salary. I'm really hoping you're right on the last part! I think it's good to be positive and I do think companies do a good job promoting female road runners (especially marathoners). Here's to that coming into ultras as well! :)

  5. Hi Sandi,
    All you say is true and doesn't just apply to the sporting world but in this instance doesn't the answer and the power lie with women? Sadly, fairness doesn't cut the mustard in the race to maximise the corporate dollar but the idea of lost sales and missed opportunities does. As you rightly point out, the female market could be huge for the gear companies and it is being taken for granted; isn't it time that women started using their voices (as you are here) to make the shoe manufacturers etc. sit up and take notice?

  6. I guess it all comes down to the target group of the sponsors. At the trails I've ran so far, the majority of the participants are still male. And they look up to their male examples: Jornet, Krupica, Jurek,... and buy whatever they're using during their runs.

    However, there's a whole lot of women out there, running. They might not be entering the races, but they still watch them and I'm quite sure many check whatever Forsberg, Frost & yourself are wearing before they buy a new hydration pack, shirt or whatever.

    From a marketing point of view, I guess it still makes sense. But companies claming to be doing it all out of "love for running" should reconsider.

  7. Great point! I wonder if Killian, Anton, and Scott are just so well known because of sponsors pushing them though... Killian often has a team of camera guys with him, New Balance really, really pushed Anton with the minimus and flew him around the world, and Brooks really pushed Jureck with his own book and in Born to Run. I wish more elite American women would get the support like that. I think it would make a huge difference. Thanks so much for your comment! :)

  8. Great article, I'm going to share this.
    I agree with your statements above, I know the names of so many more MUT males than females...but I would say I also know of many more male athletes than female (Olympic, collegiate, or professional) is it is this sexist, or just because the main ultra running community demographic is still so heavily male?
    As a female ultra runner, I am lucky to be part of a local (ultra) running group where there are other female runners...each time a new female shows an interest in ultras we all help her figure out clothes/gear/bras/etc. Of course out of the maybe 100 runners in the group, we females are a small group of maybe 10. But when one of us finds something that works well for us...you can bet other ladies in the group ask about it and are quick to try the gear or clothing too.

    1. Thanks for your comment and your great example of women talking about products! I was just discussing your first question with another female runner. I don't know the answer but we discussed that maybe men are better promoted or that society is just used to following the careers of male athletes (maybe b/c of the NBA or NFL?). I think road running has done a decent job with promoting top women marathoners though, so hopefully that will start in ultra running as well. :)

    2. Sexism is discrimination against someone equally qualified, based on gender. If you have a personal preference to follow men's running, and therefore know the elite men's names more readily, it doesn't necessarily require you to be sexist (e.g. having a preference for sport is simply a preference), however, this preference could be rooted in the sexism in our sport, which Sandi points out in the original article.

      I think women are less visible in the sport, and make less money with sponsorships for three main reasons, listed in order of importance. 1) Ultrarunning results, websites, blogs and news don't report equitably in terms of men's and women's race results. 99.2% of the time, the men's race is reported first, headlines the article, and described in much greater detail. I have personally seen one irunfar article that discussed the women's race first, and men's second (instead of the standard men-women order) but I hope there are more that I have missed. Ultrarunning magazine is the same. One could argue that this reporting style is due to the logical chronology of events (i.e. men typically finish before women), which is a fair comment, however, I believe that a reader is less likely to continue reading after the men's results are presented, thus influencing the reader's subconscious about the relative importance of the men's vs. the women's races. 2) the fan base for elite men is bigger, mostly because the only fans of ultrarunning are ultrarunners, and 70% of ultrarunners are men. This pool of men are older and slower than the elites, and in my general observations, men are keenly interested in the men's results/races, and less so in the women's. (Not always, I am generalizing based on my own observations). Therefore, "hype" surrounding men's performances gets elevated relative to women's performances of equal or near-equal caliber. Two recent excellent examples are the Desert Solstice Track Invitational, with Smith's and Bitter's records, and the wins at the NF50 by Yates and Krar. I followed both on twitter, forums and facebook, and the men's performances got roughly 10x as much traffic as the women's performances (I kept tabs on the actual data of comment traffic, this is an estimate based on my calculations). And finally 3) women are less likely to self-promote. Elite women do not blog, and write articles for magazines and website, nearly as much as elite men do. This could be attributed to several factors- i) there are less elite women, so they have a weaker journalistic presence, and ii) they are busier, with non-running jobs and families, and thus have less time to self-promote by blogging, writing and interviews.

      I think that changing this (if one was inclined to do so) begins with changing #3 listed above, and #2 and #1 will follow, with effort by all, and in due time. Thanks to Sandi for writing this post, and getting more women's voices out there, influencing the sport with thoughtful discourse.

    3. Thanks for your great input Melanie! You really have some great thoughts on the subject that I couldn't agree more with.

  9. Hi Sandi,
    Great post. It seems like team Salomon does it right. It would be nice to see more American companies step it up. God knows they make enough money.

  10. Great post Sandi! I agree that there is a huge divide of corporate support between males and females in ultra running. I pay attention to the women in the sport. I actually pay more attention to the women now than I do to the males because the male runners only seem to stick around for a year or two before they disappear. The women seem to be longer lasting and have way more interesting blogs. I've read Liza Howard's blog for years. I'm sure she doesn't get the same support from NB that AK does. I love reading race reports from Meghan Arborgast. She does the best race reports. I know she has a sponsor of some sort, dried fruit I think? She's been dominant in the sport for how long and she probably gets nothing compared to men that have similar results to her. I am glad to see that Kaci has a shoe sponsorship. Someone had their eyes open there. Who knows why women are continually handed the short end of the stick? Our clothes are too small for logos? Most of us can't run in bikinis like Jenn Shelton. Maybe it's that women don't speak up for ourselves? Maybe you writing this article will bring some accountability to major sponsors, like when Ellie called out the RD of Indiana trails for not offering prize money to women initially. I hope this is the beginning of some sort of change

    1. Thanks Sarah! Liza Howard and Meghan Arborgast are such great examples of inspiring women who have been in the sport for awhile and are consistently pretty amazing. I hope a little change starts... it's the main reason I even wrote the blog after talking to so many great women who all had the same concerns.

  11. Spot on Sandi. I know one elite woman ultra runner that won most of the races she entered last year and had to pay for everything herself, no travel money, no salary, no matching prize money, no shoes and no clothes. Had one small sponsor step up some this year and received interest from several major sponsors that do give guaranteed dollars to the guys but the contracts they sent her were a joke and not even worth signing. It is sad to see for our American women who tend to outperform the American men as a whole on the international level. Hopefully some day it will change.


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