Just below Clayton Peak, Kali Hartzold found her momentum.
Since she moved near the mountains from Michigan, the 27-year-old athletic trainer had limited her trail use to hiking. Trail running, the high school cross country runner believed, was for people more fit than she. It’s not that she was out of shape, but Hartzold, who describes herself as having an “athletic softball player build” knew she’d have to walk some segments if she cranked up the pace and the elevation. And that, she told herself, isn’t something runners do.
Yet last July, as she passed through the aid station at the halfway point of the inaugural Women’s Epic Race at Brighton Resort and began the descent to the finish, Hartzold decided to go with gravity. She broke into a jog, and she kept that gait for most of the final three miles.
In that moment, she joined the stampede of women who have begun scampering over, like they would boulders on the path, the barriers they’ve encountered in taking their running off-road.
The obstacles range from safety concerns to societal norms to questions about how to answer most basic calls of nature. But through events like the Epic races and groups like Trail Sisters and Women of the Wasatch, more women are feeling comfortable in the woods.
“I think this is gold,” Hartzold said. “This is the community that we are developing, women that are going to be doing this for however long they want to.”
TIPS FOR NEW TRAIL RUNNERS
• Find a group to run with: Tap into the hive for knowledge of good running routes and trail etiquette. Women of the Wasatch holds weekly group runs and promises no runner will be left behind. A quick search of Facebook groups will also turn up some coed options.
• Be prepared: Invest in proper-fitting trail-specific shoes and seasonal clothes. Check the weather for a chance of storms. Bring water, via a backpack or waist belt, and some food in case you get stuck out on the trail. Bear spray also could come in handy. Debbie Perry, owner of the Salt Lake Running Company, says she always packs along a soft ankle brace.
• Put the word out: Even if you’re going with a group, but especially if you’re going out alone, let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back. Pack your cell phone, but don’t count on having service.
• Pace yourself: Even the fittest trail runners often have to walk sections of the trail.
• Be courteous: Uphill travelers always have the right-of-way. If you’re passing a hiker, do so on the left and let them know beforehand. Don’t go off-trail, even to pass.
• Get dirty: The grime is half the fun.
• Still not sure? Seek out a trail running clinic. Salt Lake Running Company offers an intro to trail running class and Trail Sisters hosts camps around the country.
— Julie Jag
Runners on the rise
Outdoor activities, especially those that allowed for physical separation, experienced a well-documented surge in interest during the crux of the COVID-19 pandemic. Within that burst, trail running’s embers flew the furthest. According to the 2021 Outdoor Industries of America participation trends report, the sport grew at a rate double that of any other wilderness sport. It went from being enjoyed by 1.5% of the active population in 2007 (4,216 people) to 3.9% of it in 2020 (11,854).
Increased participation by women helped drive that growth, though their numbers continue to lag far behind men’s. Whereas women make up more than 60% of participants in road races, that share plummets when it comes to trail races. And the decline generally is steeper the longer the race.
The juxtaposition of those two facets of running hasn’t escaped the attention of Zoë Rom. Last year she became the first female editor in chief at Trail Runner Magazine and prior to that she spent much of her time reporting on women in the sport.
“You’re really seeing a breakdown in that transition over to trail running, and I think that’s for a lot of reasons,” she said. “Particularly, there are definitely a lot of fear concerns that women have about the safety of these longer events. There’s childcare concerns, like, if you’re going to be running a race for 24, 35 hours, that becomes more of an issue to contend with.
“So you’re seeing half as many women running ultramarathons as you are seeing running road marathons.”
Trail running typically takes more time and planning than road running because most people don’t have access to trails right out their back doors. Though cars aren’t a danger on the trail, moose and mountain lions are, and if a runner gets injured, extraction from the wilderness can be tricky.
But those issues affect men and women equally. As Rom pointed out, however, women also are more likely to have childcare put constraints on their time and mobility. They traditionally feel less comfortable in rugged terrain and are more likely to be deterred by issues related to body confidence — be they hangups like Hartzold’s about being judged for walking or worries about what to do if they get their period in the woods.
But Debbie Perry, the owner of Salt Lake Running Company, said she’s noticed a shift. The generations of girls who have only known a world in which access to athletics is guaranteed by Title IX seem to be more willing to get on the trails, she said. That’s not how it was when she started trail running in her mid-20s, when other women would tell her she was brave.
“I just think they feel like they have more automatic permission,” Perry, 51, said of younger generations. “Like, ‘Yeah, I want to go do this thing and it looks really cool and it’s not just men that do this thing with their bodies. It’s OK if I do hard things with my body.’”
Giving yourself permission
Hartzold, 27, never thought her body wasn’t capable of taking her up trails. Still, she felt self-conscious about it, as though she had to look a certain way or act a certain way to really be a trail runner.
She said the Women’s Epic Race changed her perception. Both women as nimble and muscular as mountain goats and those swollen in the late stages of pregnancy crossed the finish line.
“I think there is a barrier in terms of mentally giving yourself permission to start where you’re at in terms of physical fitness and trail fitness,” Hertzold said. “But, like, once you get out there and once you’ve done it with a group, you kind of [realize] it doesn’t matter. And I think that was kind of a big turning point with me, was doing that Epic race and [realizing] it doesn’t matter if you walk it. It doesn’t matter if you run it. It matters that you are showing up for yourself and you are enjoying it and you’re making it what it needs to be for you. It doesn’t matter what everybody else is doing.”
Ashlee Hinds and Jodi Horton, the founders of the Women’s Epic Race, said the event started as a way to encourage their friends to get up into the mountains. They marketed it as less of a race than a personal challenge and encouraged women to enter even if they knew they’d have to walk most or even all of the 5.8 miles and 2,200 feet of elevation gain around Brighton Resort.
“There’s just kind of a barrier for women to getting into trail running,” said Hinds, whose family started the Bair Gutsman trail race, the oldest in Utah. “So we really wanted to be able to create a community for women in Utah — and all over the nation now — to experience the outdoors in an inviting and empowering way, to explore the mountains that we have right in our backyard.”
The first edition, held last July, sold out its 350 entrants with another 200 on the waitlist.
This year, they’ve added a 5.1-mile race with 1,775 feet of elevation at Brian Head Resort on June 25 and expanded the number of entrants for the July 30 race at Brighton to 500 women.
While women-only road races have sprouted up around the country, the Women’s Epic events are among the first to be held on the trails. Another is the new Thelma and Louise race series in Moab.
While they may not only be open to women, one organization is pushing to make trail races more welcoming and approachable for female and nonbinary racers. Started in 2016, Trail Sisters has morphed into the nation’s biggest club for female trail runners. It has more than 105 chapters from Santa Cruz, Calif., to North Conway, N.H., including ones in Utah and Cache counties and Salt Lake City.
One way Trail Sisters supports its members is by certifying races as female-friendly. To earn that badge, races must have: equal podium spots and prize money for men and women, women-specific race gear, menstrual products readily available at aid stations and space for women on the start line.
Those gestures, or better yet going the extra distance to offer childcare, makes races more inclusive and less intimidating for all women, Rom said, even those that have no hang ups around mountain running.
“I think that a lot of the smaller steps help send a message to women that you’re welcome here,” she said. “You’re valued in this space.”
Another way Trail Sisters nudges women into the wilderness is by holding group runs — something the Women of the Wasatch trail running group also does locally. And, it hosts a blog and forums in which women can find answers to questions like what to do to keep thighs from chafing, what’s the best sports bra or how to strengthen twist-prone ankles.
The objective of all if this is to show both the girliest and grittiest of women, the fittest and the more squishy, that there is plenty of room for them in the mountains.
“It’s just a super empowering environment,” Hartzold said, “that I don’t necessarily feel like I’ve found anywhere else.”
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