I recently registered for my first gravel bike race and noted that, of the roughly 100 entrants registered, only six were women. This shocked me and raised several questions. Was this common? Were women similarly underrepresented at other Midwest gravel bike races? …and what about mountain bike, trail running and cross country ski races? How many women were participating in these other disciplines?
To answer these questions, I compiled lists of the most reputable endurance trail running, gravel biking, mountain biking and cross country skiing races in the Midwest. I defined “endurance” events as events that are longer in duration than a road marathon. I included running races that range in distance from 26.2 to 100 miles, bike races that range in distance from 50 to 200 miles and cross country ski “marathons” that are approximately 50 kilometers in length. I did not include road running or road biking races. Instead, I focused on races that take place on scenic trails and gravel roads, races that appeal to those who enjoy spending time in nature as much as they enjoy testing their physical limits. I looked solely at data from 2017 races. While it would be interesting to explore how women’s participation in endurance events is changing over time, I focused on taking a snapshot of current participation.
I found that women are underrepresented in endurance gravel bike races throughout the Midwest. In 2017, women made up only 29.5% of the field in 50 to 99 mile gravel bike races and only 12.5% of the field in 100+ mile gravel bike races.
Women make up an even smaller percentage of the field in mountain bike races. In 2017, women made up only 15.5% of the field in 50 to 99 mile mountain bike races and a mere 7.3% of the field in 100+ mile mountain bike races.
Women’s participation in trail marathons and 50k races is nearly equivalent to men’s participation, with women comprising 48.5% of the field in these races. However, women are underrepresented in longer races. In 2017, women made up 32.1% of the field in 50 mile races and 25.1% of the field in 100 mile races.
Women are also underrepresented in “ski marathons,” races approximately 50 kilometers in length. In 2017, women made up approximately 20% of the field in cross country ski races. This trend held true for both skate ski technique races (18.3%) and classic ski technique races (21.4%).
In general, women are less likely to participate in running, biking and skiing races the longer the races are. Women make up a smaller percentage of fields in 100 mile races, regardless of discipline, than 50 mile races, and women make up a smaller percentage of fields in 50 mile races, regardless of discipline, than 50k and 26.2 mile races.
Women are also less likely to participate in “gear-intensive events.” Women make up a smaller percentage of the fields in gravel biking, mountain biking and cross country skiing races (all gear-intensive events) than they do in trail running races.
Finally, women seem less likely to participate in “technique-based events,” events that require mastery of a new skill to participate. Women’s participation rates were the lowest in endurance mountain biking races, which require participants to learn how to mountain bike. Women were also less likely to participate in skate ski races than classic ski races. Most skiers learn to classic ski before they learn to skate ski. Thus, skate skiing requires participants to purchase additional gear (skate skis) and learn a new skill (how to skate ski) in order to participate.
I could speculate about why women are underrepresented in endurance running, biking and skiing events. Perhaps women are less likely than men to take risks and try new things. Perhaps women are less likely than men to participate in races that they are not fully prepared for. Perhaps women are less likely than men to devote the time required to participate in endurance events, feeling pulled to spend more time caring for their families. Perhaps women have not been encouraged to fiddle with gear and learn the skills required to participate in endurance events, like how to change a bike tire or how to wax skis. Perhaps women feel intimidated to show up at races where the vast majority of participants are men. Perhaps women’s low participation in endurance events in the past is to blame for their low participation today. Perhaps women simply do not see other women they know participating in these events. Most likely, women’s underrepresentation in endurance events is explained by a combination of these factors.
With Onward, I explore possible reasons for women’s underrepresentation at endurance events via photography and storytelling. I share stories of women who participate despite.