Head Start

Supporting Female Athletes

September 19, 2023 Race Directors HQ Episode 64
Supporting Female Athletes
Head Start
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Head Start
Supporting Female Athletes
Sep 19, 2023 Episode 64
Race Directors HQ

Racing has come a long way since the days when women were being told that running the marathon would cause your uterus to fall out. And with women now making up 54% of all race registrations in the US, according to RunSignup’s 2022 RaceTrends report, you’d think there’d be very little holding women back from racing in this third decade of the 21st century.

That, however, is not the reality for most women out there, according to today’s guest, SheRACES founder and GB team ultrarunner, Sophie Power. Whether it’s images of uniformly male start lines, lack of reasonable pregnancy deferral policies or unnecessarily aggressive race cut-off times, races still - knowingly or unknowingly - put up more visible and invisible barriers for female athletes than they should - or realize. And that means fewer women at start lines, fewer women signing up for races and fewer women thinking they belong in the world of endurance sports racing. 

So what are those barriers holding women back and what can race directors do to remove them?

Well, the good news is we have a fairly good grasp of the former and some very easy fixes for the latter that in many cases require only a little thoughtfulness and little to no extra cost. Things like providing basic sanitary products for female athletes at toilet facilities and aid stations or trying harder to give female competitions the attention they deserve and female race finishers the properly fitting finisher shirt they have paid for. Simple things, in other words, that when implemented and communicated right can make female athletes feel more comfortable and more welcome in races.

In this episode:

  • Why inclusivity is good for business
  • The importance of using inclusive race imagery
  • How the wrong marketing copy/language can alienate participants
  • The effect of tight mid-course time cutoffs on slower runner participation
  • Using cut-off pace instead of cut-off time in race communications 
  • Thinking harder about toilet facilities
  • Should race directors make sanitary products available on race day?
  • Offering female-fit finisher shirts
  • Why a lack of a pregnancy deferral policy is stopping women from signing up for your race
  • Could races be offering childcare support for athletes on race day?
  • Calling out verbal and sexual harassment in racing
  • Setting out race etiquette and a clear anti-harassment policy

Thanks to RunSignup for supporting quality content for race directors by sponsoring this episode. More than 28,000 in-person, virtual, and hybrid events use RunSignup's free and integrated solution to save time, grow their events, and raise more. If you'd like to learn more about RunSignup's all-in-one technology solution for endurance and fundraising events visit runsignup.com.

You can find more resources on anything and everything related to race directing on our website RaceDirectorsHQ.com.

You can also share your questions about some of the things discussed in today’s episode or anything else in our Facebook group, Race Directors Hub.

Show Notes Transcript

Racing has come a long way since the days when women were being told that running the marathon would cause your uterus to fall out. And with women now making up 54% of all race registrations in the US, according to RunSignup’s 2022 RaceTrends report, you’d think there’d be very little holding women back from racing in this third decade of the 21st century.

That, however, is not the reality for most women out there, according to today’s guest, SheRACES founder and GB team ultrarunner, Sophie Power. Whether it’s images of uniformly male start lines, lack of reasonable pregnancy deferral policies or unnecessarily aggressive race cut-off times, races still - knowingly or unknowingly - put up more visible and invisible barriers for female athletes than they should - or realize. And that means fewer women at start lines, fewer women signing up for races and fewer women thinking they belong in the world of endurance sports racing. 

So what are those barriers holding women back and what can race directors do to remove them?

Well, the good news is we have a fairly good grasp of the former and some very easy fixes for the latter that in many cases require only a little thoughtfulness and little to no extra cost. Things like providing basic sanitary products for female athletes at toilet facilities and aid stations or trying harder to give female competitions the attention they deserve and female race finishers the properly fitting finisher shirt they have paid for. Simple things, in other words, that when implemented and communicated right can make female athletes feel more comfortable and more welcome in races.

In this episode:

  • Why inclusivity is good for business
  • The importance of using inclusive race imagery
  • How the wrong marketing copy/language can alienate participants
  • The effect of tight mid-course time cutoffs on slower runner participation
  • Using cut-off pace instead of cut-off time in race communications 
  • Thinking harder about toilet facilities
  • Should race directors make sanitary products available on race day?
  • Offering female-fit finisher shirts
  • Why a lack of a pregnancy deferral policy is stopping women from signing up for your race
  • Could races be offering childcare support for athletes on race day?
  • Calling out verbal and sexual harassment in racing
  • Setting out race etiquette and a clear anti-harassment policy

Thanks to RunSignup for supporting quality content for race directors by sponsoring this episode. More than 28,000 in-person, virtual, and hybrid events use RunSignup's free and integrated solution to save time, grow their events, and raise more. If you'd like to learn more about RunSignup's all-in-one technology solution for endurance and fundraising events visit runsignup.com.

You can find more resources on anything and everything related to race directing on our website RaceDirectorsHQ.com.

You can also share your questions about some of the things discussed in today’s episode or anything else in our Facebook group, Race Directors Hub.

Panos:

Hi! Welcome to Head Start, the podcast for race directors and the business of putting on races. Racing has come a long way since the days when women were being told that running the marathon would cause your uterus to fall out. And with women now making up 54% of all race registrations in the US, according to RunSignup's 2022 RaceTrends report, you'd think there'd be very little holding women back from racing in this third decade of the 21st century. That, however, is not the reality for most women out there, according to today's guest, SheRACES founder and GB team ultrarunner, Sophie Power. Whether it's images of uniformly male start lines, lack of reasonable pregnancy deferral policies or unnecessarily aggressive race cut-off times, races still - knowingly or unknowingly - put up more visible and invisible barriers for female athletes than they should - or realise. And that means fewer women at start lines, fewer women signing up for races, and fewer women thinking they belong in the world of endurance sports racing. So what are those barriers holding women back and what can race directors do to remove them? Well, the good news is we have a fairly good grasp of the former and some very easy fixes for the latter that in many cases require only a little thoughtfulness and little to no extra cost. Things like providing basic sanitary products for female athletes or toilet facilities and aid stations or trying harder to give female competitions the attention they deserve and female race finishers the properly fitting finisher shirt they have paid for. Simple things, in other words, that when implemented and communicated right can make female athletes feel more comfortable and more welcoming in races. So if you're one of those race directors who may not have thought so far about this aspect of your event or may have already considered it and need some practical advice for getting there, stick around for an episode full of insights and practical tips for making your event a little female-friendlier. Before we get into this amazing episode, I'd like to give a quick shout out to our amazing podcast sponsor, RunSignup, race directors' favourite all-in-one technology solution for endurance and fundraising events. More than 28,000 in-person, virtual, and hybrid events use RunSignup's free and integrated solution to save time, grow their events, and raise more. And we'll be hearing a bit more from this great company a little later in the podcast. But now, let's dive into our discussion on supporting female athletes with SheRACES founder, Sophie Power. Sophie, welcome to the podcast.

Sophie:

Thank you for having me.

Panos:

It's a great pleasure to have you on the podcast. It's a discussion I have been really meaning to have. Where are you joining from today?

Sophie:

I am based in Guilford, in the North Downs, which is about 30 miles from south of London and the first kind of decent piece of countryside outside the city. So it's beautiful here.

Panos:

So for, I guess, US-based folks, you're one of the many satellite towns around London, right? Is that a fair description?

Sophie:

Pretty much. And we are half an hour on the train so that everyone can meet them. But we live here because it's rolling hills and forests. And everyone lives here because the trails are awesome.

Panos:

And did I hear on the news you guys are having, like, a heatwave or something just recently - hottest day of the year or something I saw on the news somewhere?

Sophie:

It's not too bad. I think we think of heat-- we have quite a temperate climate here because we're so close to the sea. It's only an hour's drive to the sea. So compared to what's been happening in the US, I think we've been very, very lucky. And I've got the World Championships in Taiwan in December for 24-hour running, which can be really hard to actually-- some of the recent weather has been really good heat training and working out kind of the kit and nutrition. So I shouldn't really complain as a runner.

Panos:

It's been a very weird summer actually. I mean, living in Europe, it's been a very, very weird summer all around the globe - really crazy stuff happening. So you are the founder of SheRACES, which I came across I think a year or so back, which is the time at which I started trying to contact you. It took a while to get as here. So do you want to tell our listeners a little bit about SheRACES, the mission behind it, and how the whole thing came about?

Sophie:

I rewind about five years, I guess, when I was photographed breastfeeding my 3-month-old baby whilst running UTMB, which is a 106-mile trail around the Alps. And the reason I was there was because I had been denied a deferral by the race director and actually I lost another place four years earlier when pregnant with my first son, and I knew I didn't want to lose my opportunity again. It's taken four years to get there. So I thought I'd just try and get to 10K, get halfway around the course, and I managed to finish with my 3-month-old baby kind of expressing, feeding. And it really made me realise-- the photo went viral around the world, and it made me realise that there's a massive barrier to women in racing. And all these race directors contacted me and said, "We just didn't think about pregnancy. We didn't think that these women were losing their places, and we weren't supporting them back." So I started kind of working with some of the races on pregnancy policies and managed to drive change at London Marathon, and working most recently with Chicago, and now UTMB. But it came to me that the barriers are more than just about pregnancy. The women face embarrasment, they're different to men in all aspects, and they're stopping us from getting to the start line. And people say, "Well, kind of, there's more women runners than men runners. Why do you need to race?" But we all know racing is special, that feeling of being together, that feeling of training for something, and crossing the finish line. So I set out to really understand what these barriers were. Did a big piece of research. Over 2000 women from 5K runners to ultra-marathon runners, running on an average of four races a year, a good spread back of the pack, front of the pack, kind of diverse age range could have-- not enough diversity of colour, but we since then had kind of reach out to these organisations to really understand more. And it was really clear these barriers were, and so many of them can be addressed by races. We can't address the societal barriers - the fact we have babies in the first place, the fact that we take on the caring responsibilities - but there are so many simple things racers can do. And so working with an awful lot of race directors on what can be done really easily, what is free, what is so simple to do that it's just a no-brainer. I create a set of guidelines, put them on the website, and that's really what SheRACES is. We give these guidelines to directors. We support them in making their races more inclusive for women. And we do campaigns for change, especially the big organisations where it needs to be done, where there are organisations such as UTMB, such as London Marathon that's really setting the standards for other organisations within the sport. And now, I also sits on the board of the International Trail Running Association, and is starting to work through the guidelines to the trail races, it's everything from 5K upwards, triathlon and swimming. It's such a commonality, but it's so important that, when races can put the guidelines in place, you get more women on the start line and that's great for business too.

Panos:

Yeah, absolutely. And that is a great point to end on. I know many people try to wrap their heads around inclusivity and, like, encouraging women and minorities and all of that, and I did for a while as well until the whole thing about needing all of these people for good business, to be honest. That struck me. Right? I mean, it's whatever you may think of, like the moral issues or whatever involved in this. As an industry, we need to just broaden the appeal of racing to all kinds of people. I mean, we need them, given how the industry is plateauing.

Sophie:

And that's I think that's a great point. I mean, we know that kind of phase of signups are down. Is it easier to get more of the 80% that you have in your start line or look at the 20%, 30%, kind of, if you can make some small changes to attract them. But industry-wise, brands are waking up to this as well. We have a lot of races where I look at some of the changes. We've managed to drive in some big races that initially said no. The brands who said,"Well, if we're going to continue to sponsor you, you need to be inclusive of women. You can't discriminate against them. You can't give them T-shirts that don't fit in and men get a better price." You can't cover the men's race more than the women's race. You can't do that. We're not going to evolve as a brand." So I think kind of the race is getting in front of this, and being able to attract more brands because of it, because you're seeing these amazing kind of diverse photography from the races and the great feedback of people involved. And I think it's also kind of-- we talked about women but a lot of the barriers are there for men too. Like, a lot of men don't feel that they belong, there's a lot of men that are at the back of the pack. This is not just about women. But we know that when the changes are made, they affect everyone in the race and you just get a better event as a result.

Panos:

Yeah, absolutely. Another great point we'll be exploring is when we go in detail through the guidelines that you guys have issued. Before we move on from you, there are two other things I want to dwell on briefly, because I just think they're super interesting. One is your athletic credentials - because you also run for Great Britain - and also what you've been doing before SheRACES and all that. I mean, you were at Oxford doing PPE and stuff.

Sophie:

You checked out my CV.

Panos:

Yeah, I hear it's the staircase to Westminster, and here you are. So where did it all go wrong?

Sophie:

I like to think I'm adding more value to society than most of my peers. And that's quite funny. Running-wise, I was second last in the mile at school. I was overweight and I identify with a lot of the women I speak to of not really feeling I belonged in sport. And now I said, I'm a trustee of women's sport, who's all about getting women and girls kind of into sport and being recognised and be empowered to do so, which is kind of quite a big change, given that background. But yeah, I started running by accident. I'd lost my job in finance, so I went from PPE to private equity and investment banking and became a global CFO and then before kind of that photo was taken, a CEO of a tech company. So that's my background. But when I started running was in 2010. I accidentally signed up for the Marathon Des Sables, which is the 250K Desert Race.

Panos:

Accidentally, did you say?

Sophie:

Yes, because I'd lost my job. I'd be made redundant in a really awful way and I just didn't know where to go. And I would do some kickboxing to take my stress out, and a friend had done it. And when I was at university, I actually trained in the Air Force as a navigator and pilot alongside my studies, and we've done this long march called the Nijmegen March, which is 100 miles over four days. And when my friends did the marathon, and he goes, "You could do this. Everyone walks." They say it's the toughest, baddest race that everyone's gonna die in, but 90 plus percent of people finish and you just have to walk, which is-- actually I draw on that a lot when I think about language races use because everyone walks. And so I trained from having never run a mile in my life to Marathon Des Sables in nine months - and realise that I was a pretty good endurance athlete. And since then, I did the stage races all around the world as my holiday every year from Bhutan, to Cambodia, to Iceland, to Utah, the Grand to Grand in the US. And then I have my kids realise I can go away for weeks on end. But I'll just run the whole distance at once. So now I love the 100-mile distance - longer than that. But yeah, when I was 14, I'd had 3 babies. I qualified for the Great British twins by running team. So I ran 235.7 kilometres in 24 hours a few weeks ago, and after the World Championships in December. So yeah, it's a big change of being the one kind of second last in the mile, and it's a big kind of-- I wouldn't call it a career change, I call it a career break. I think, kind of, I'm not paid for any of this. This is what I do is a passion project. But it's so important. And yeah, back to PTSD, Phil, and probably adding more value than some of the people that went into Westminster.

Panos:

I'm sure there are many listeners who would agree with you. I mean, it's remarkable because, usually, I mean, anecdotally, what I tend to see is that people who do very well in endurance sports later in life generally tend to be sporty from a very young age. And it's interesting that you mentioned that wasn't your profile, which is quite interesting.

Sophie:

I think. And we see that. So one of the things women in sport find is that most of the women in executive positions in the UK, there aren't enough of us, but most of them played sport as a child and team sport because-- they're running or they have that kind of sense of athleticism, and it teaches you so much, and then you hold that through life. But what I'm seeing is a lot of women that weren't sporty at school. But then you realise that in your day-to-day life, especially Ultras, you have the part that was you as an athlete, and then actually often the bigger part is you as a person and how you handle the logistics and handle yourself and pace and feed yourself. I mean mothers are brilliant at this. And I look after five people on a daily basis and, on an ultra, I just have to look after myself. It's easy. Whereas I see some guys just forget to feed themselves for hours and they do their feet and they don't really go out too fast. And so there's definitely some upside to being a woman. But yeah, there's a lot of us finding kind of a second wind and it's brilliant. The more races can appeal to those women and start them off at the 5K and then you can hear these women that started with 5K, or the Couch to 5K app we have in the UK, and then a few years later, you see them doing an ultra or a triathlon, and it's amazing.

Panos:

Yeah. Chrissie Wellington, which is one of my all-time favourite athletes who's a triathlete - used to win Ironman contests all over the place. So the very similar actual trajectory to use. I think she was working at some kind of civil service job or something. And then one day, in her 30s, she wakes up and then she just goes out and crushes it, which is amazing. That's gifted people for you.

Sophie:

She's absolutely phenomenal. Oh, yeah. She borrowed a bike and some shares and went up winning a triathlon, and then went from that. It's phenomenal. But I think because we don't have so much access to sport as well, and the US is far better than this because you have the equal scholarships that we do not have in the UK. But yeah, there's a lot of women out there that haven't run before, that haven't done sport. That whole kind of untapped market, for races, especially can benefit from them kind of giving us that strength through the rest of our lives.

Panos:

Let's get into the subject of women athletes and races. And I want to start off with sort of just taking a view of where we are today. Hopefully, we've come some way from over the last few years, and we're going to get into how most races can do even better than that. But I'm just curious now that you mentioned also that famous photo of yours at UTMB Breastfeeding that sort of went viral. That was 2017, was it?

Sophie:

2018.

Panos:

2018. Okay, so you sitting there - and you look pretty knackered, by the way - breastfeeding your toddler and then your baby, I should say, and then the bunch of 100-mile running men and women, I guess, around you. Do you remember at all how you were viewed, just sitting there at the state at the aid station breastfeeding? It must have been fairly strange- like a strange scene for people back then.

Sophie:

I mean, no one noticed me apart from the photographer. When you're at the 50-mile point of a 100-mile race or 56, whatever, call my errors, you're so wrapped up in your own world, you don't see anyone else. And so no one really noticed. And I was outside kind of getting on with that. I mean, my baby Cormac was only three months and he was exclusively breastfed, and we had to kind of-- that's the only way I was gonna get around the course and pumping and expressing and kind of squeezing out behind trees just to relieve the pain, and there was just nothing unusual. I think someone came up to me at the finish - I was feeding him again - and go, "I'm a midwife and this is really cool." But no one noticed. And it was only when the photo Alexis Berg was-- he's one of the best travel photographers in the world and he happened to see it. And I actually met him in Chamonix a couple of weeks ago to actually talk about what happened, and we put it out there. And it just spoke to so many people on so many levels and the race organiser's side of what they could do more was such a tiny part of it. And there was the breastfeeding in public and women not feeling comfortable to do that. And there was just the difficulty of getting back to who you are after you have a baby, and setting your goals and going after your goals and society telling you that that's unacceptable as a mother. You just need to be only focused on your baby. We know that when you're an athlete, you're actually a healthier mum. When you train through pregnancy, your baby comes out fitter. We should be encouraging this, but society doesn't yet and the research is catching up, but it takes a long time. So that's why no one noticed. And I asked for a deferral but didn't get the deferral, but I'm just gonna be on the start line because I'm going to lose my place otherwise.

Panos:

Well, one of the reasons I asked that is because-- and I totally get the whole, like, on a 50-mile aid station - everyone's sort of doing their own thing. But my question was mostly because what I realised from these kinds of discussions is how difficult it is - for me, at least, I won't speak of all men necessarily - to basically connect with the experience of women during races and to connect with, I guess, the grievances and the sort of internalised complaints women may have during races, and you mentioned that during the setup of SheRACES, you had a chance to speak to a lot of women. I'm just wondering, what does it feel like to be a woman showing up at a race and feeling a little bit kind of out of place, like the kinds of things that someone like me showing up at a marathon or something won't even notice? Like, how does that feel from a woman's point of view?

Sophie:

I mean, a lot of us don't show up in the first place. If you look at kind of some of the race websites, you don't feel you belong from the imagery, and you get there, and you're in the real minority. I'm a fairly silly, so young, white, athletic female, and I often don't feel I belong when I'm surrounded by men. And DTB start is, until this year, it was under 10% women. So it's very intimidating to not feel that you belong and to not have the confidence to be there. And the language you have-- often, when men realise there aren't many women, they're like, "Oh, you get to be here. Oh, it's amazing kind of that you're here and you feel that you belong even less on that start line. And I understand and I loved learning from so many different women and learning about their experiences. And I guess the insight where we did had a lot of free flow-forms. So women could just write stories about it. And I had a lot of men saying, "There's no barriers to my race. There are no barriers to my race. Anyone can sign up for my race. There are no barriers. I'm giving everyone an equal experience. I've given the women equal prize money. It's an equal race." And when you tell some of the stories of what happens and how women feel, they're like, "It's not equal at all. Women are not having the same experience with cut off from signing up in the first place. And our competitive race is undervalued." And I think when you tell the stories to race directors, they're like,"Ah, I get it." And actually, this is so easy to fix. And I'm just going to fix it because not only it's the right thing to do, but also in my race's business.

Panos:

Yeah, we're gonna go through a couple of those kinds of blind spots that turn into kind of light bulb moments because, as you say, it's something I was discussing with Amy Charity, a female race director I had on doing the Steamboat Gravel race in the US- very prestigious, very large race. It's really, as you say, things that can very easily be fixed and, hopefully, by the end of this episode, people are going to have lots of tools in their toolkit to go out and make the races a little bit friendlier for women. One thing I want to ask is-- and you sort of touched on this before yourself, obviously, UTMB Ultra running and trail running are definitely sort of behind the curve industry-wise in female participation, but I was just looking at the RunSignup's race trend report from last year just to remind myself of the numbers and, in the US, at least, a very large percentage of runners are women - actually, in some disciplines, sort of like shorter distances in road running. In many races, they may even be the majority. So when you're thinking of SheRACES mission and the things you want to be doing and the problems or the issues in the industry, are you including those races? Or do you think we can go further even in races where participation is sort of almost 50-50 or better for women? Do you think there are improvements to be made there as well?

Sophie:

Oh, absolutely. There is. And I know that women are the majority in 5K and in a lot of the 10Ks. And when you go to the longer races where the barriers are often kind of more obvious, a lot of Ultras are kind of below 20%. UTMB is only the first time I think above 10% in the longer race. But I still think that there are things that can be done. And if you look at the thinking about running as a progression journey, people often thought of the 5K. Let's get more women into those 5K's. If we give them a great experience, they might sign up. If we give them a great experience and give them so much confidence at that race, then they're gonna look at that 10K, and then they may push up to the marathon, or they may run more and more 5K's. So if we think about really inclusivity, we want a woman to feel comfortable at a stoplight and have a great experience, no matter what the race distance is. But there are more obvious barriers for the longer races, and we think about things like safety and going into remote areas. When we think about the kind of period products and we think about what we need as women and places where harassment may occur, it's longer races. But absolutely for the 5Ks. There's an elite competition in 5K and the women's race is often kind of an afterthought to the men's and you can't feel the result. So how do women feel that we're equally valued as athletes if we can't see our competitors race?

Panos:

So in terms of I guess, representation, where do you think should the endpoint be? I would sort of, like, try to make the percentage of women in races equal to the percentage of men who, let's say, take up Ultra running as a hobby kind of thing. Like, is that where we sort of want to be?

Sophie:

I don't think that should be a target because I think there'll be certain bases that kind of NATO motor kind of women, they probably for two men. I would say that a lot of people say, "Women don't want to run the longer races." And I'd argue very strongly that women do want to do hard things, and we're very capable. And if you look at the races that have kind of put in place clear policies that are female-friendly, as American SheRACES ones that we could have accredit, there are 50% women. The Lakeland 50 miler in the UK is gnarly. It's a really tough running course. It's hard. It's got 50% women. We have that with 100Ks. could have the race to stay in state races. 50% women. If you make races kind of attractive to women, we all want to race them. So I think kind of aiming for certain percentages is the wrong thing to do. Removing the barriers and making them attractive and making sure that there's nothing that a race can change that a race is doing that's off-putting in some way. I think that should be the focus because, if we start focusing on percentages, I think the ballot races that are very tight at the ballot that can adjust the percentage that way. It's a great way to start doing that just so we see more of us there and then more of us going about the next year. But now, we just want women to have that equal opportunity to be in those start lines.

Panos:

And in terms of your discussions with race directors, where do you think the typical mentality of race directors you get to speak with about these kinds of issues is right now? So how aware are race directors of the barriers that you share with them later?

Sophie:

I think they're not aware. I have a lot of messages from race directors who go, "I just read your guidelines. I thought I was doing everything I could. I didn't understand why they weren't moving on the start line. And now I understand why they weren't moving on the start line." And it could even be that they actually are doing everything and it is a great race experience, but they're not telling you anything about it on the website when you sign up. And they've put their main image as the start line, which is generally skinny white men. No woman knows that there are great toilet provisions. No one knows that there's kind of a female-fit T-shirt. No one can see any evidence that they're valuing that there are female runners. So I think there's a light bulb moment for a lot of race directors when they read it. And a lot are thinking, "How did I have such a blind spot before?" And we know a lot of race directors are men. We know that they're designing their race's course. We're just giving them support to say, "Think about these things." And when they do, the changes that happen are a ery quick because race directors go, "I can change my website today and I could do this today" and, kind of, I guess we'll get on to what it means SheRACES that we just make race directors commit to basic principles of kind of quality and no harassment, obviously, the equal prize money and the equal coverage, but also communicating it on the website that you do believe in a fair race and you do want women there. And that alone is huge for women.

Panos:

So let's get through those guidelines, sort of, in greater detail. This is, by the way, a document that is available on SheRACES.com under--

Sophie:

Race guidelines.

Panos:

Race guidelines. It's also a document that we've put up on our site under the Documents section. There's a link actually. We don't have the actual document, but it links back to the same thing in case it gets updated, so people can download it there as well. And it's basically, like, a couple of pages long. And, as you say, it's sort of looking at all those barriers that races inadvertently put up that hold women back or make them feel a little bit less welcome. So let's look at some of those. The first one, which I think is a very common complaint from minority groups and others, is making the startline more inclusive - the imagery that you were mentioning there - like just seeing, basically, just white men there, right? And we've been through that before but, again, in your own words, why is this so important for someone who's looking to join the race and doesn't see themselves on that start line?

Sophie:

And then we don't sign up over that. That's why a lot of women-- you may have men that this doesn't matter so much to you kind of expect a lot of women of colour about this, and especially for them, and plus size women as well. They're in the race. And if you look at the finishes, there are people there, but they're not in that imagery, and if we don't see it, we think it's kind of an elite men's race, and that we're going to be lost and we're gonna get cut off really soon. And I've seen races that I feel uncomfortable and I shouldn't be- there's no reason for me to feel uncomfortable. But from the research we did, one in five women have directly not signed up for a race because of the imagery, and half of women think it's a real issue and sign up for it and they want that better imagery. And part of it is the start line. If you're going to reserve a part of your start line for women, at least we see the women and competitive women can see there are other competitive women there. So a lot of races will split their start line and have a little line down. So just the start-- women who want to really kind of go for the win have that space for themselves and they're not pushed back in the pen. Making sure that there's a really great carousel of all types of women and all types of men too - this is not just about women - on social media and some of those stories shared of those women that are running their first race, or kind of encountered later in life or running with their friends or have a great story, something that makes us feel there's someone like us running the race. And when I get there, I'm not going to feel in the minority.

Panos:

Just playing devil's advocate for a minute, do you think using that kind of imagery may then dissuade a certain type of man from taking part in that race? Would they look at that image and think, "This is not the race for me" and they'll go on and look for something tougher or with that kind of image of, like, the old elite-looking men at the start line kind of thing?

Sophie:

We've never had that feedback and we've never seen races that do put up kind of great imagery, then suffer a fallout, at the competitive level. It's probably safe to look at it very much that we've never seen that for most directors, and I think it was happening because some race directors have made big changes, then we'd be aware of it. But we think the super elite man is a very small minority in the field, and maybe you take a hit of a few runners out but you're getting hundreds of runners on the other side. And there are race directors that want their races to be an elite-only race and they're not very interested in having women on the start line, and they're an absolute tiny minority. I think, at some point, brands are going to realise that they shouldn't be sponsoring these races and they'll die out.

Panos:

Because closely tied to this representative startline point is the other point you have on the guidelines about language, which again, many times - and I've seen it a lot having organised an ultra myself and been in that community for a while as a spectator, I should say - the whole kind of toughest race this, the toughest race that, whatever, it sells a lot with a certain crowd. But you're saying that using that kind of language and actually-- that makes quite a lot of sense to me. Actually, it puts a lot of people off, right? I mean, you can advertise a race as the toughest race this and that and then expect, like, a beginner Ultra runner or even a beginner marathoner if you do it for a marathon or something, for whatever kind of race. You can't have it both ways. If you position it and you advertise it as the toughest this and that, you are going to put some people off.

Sophie:

And a lot of people off. I mean, I think, in a research, 46% of women haven't signed up for a race because of the language and I think it's linked to kind of cut-offs. They think they won't make it because they can't do the toughest race. And I think it is really important if a race is tough to make that very clear. We've got races in the UK that I'm not technically qualified to run the Skyrunning. I'll fall off a cliff somewhere. And you've got to make that clear. You can have kind of this as a tough race and I think people want to feel a very tough race, but not a dangerous race. And I think this is where you come to the language involved going, "This is a 50-mile race. We have a 15-hour cutoff. This is how fast you need to go to meet that cutoff. It's very tough. It's a long way. But this is what you need to be able to do." And then kind of, as a woman, I guess a lot of men go,"Well, I know I can cover this ground in this. I know I can walk the speed. If I break that down, yes, I think there's a good chance that I can finish that." So enabling people to believe that it's not taking away from the toughness. 50 Miles is tough. Marathons are tough. But making them realise,"I can do this because I got these concrete steps that I need to take. And I need to get to this point by this time, and I can practice it in my training." And in the same way, not putting training plans up that say you need to run 70 miles a week to finish a 30-mile race, which I've seen before, which is crazy. And it puts so many people off because they can do it, and they can actually walk it tomorrow. But we're putting these people off and even women that will be way in front of the cut-offs, just giving that seed of doubt, because you're saying,"It's dangerous and tough. Maybe it's not for me."

Panos:

Yeah, I think the whole training plan, I'm sure you'll agree, is generally meant in a nice kind of way, right? I mean, people put up training plans, generally as a courtesy to participants and basically to help them out. But I do agree that if the training plan has a running load of 200 hours a week or something, yeah, it's gonna freak some people off for sure. Cut-offs, you mentioned, is a very important part of this, actually, and it's another thing that I was discussing with Amy back in the Steamboat Gravel episode. Some races just choose to be very aggressive with cut-offs and some races choose to be more relaxed about it. And honestly, I can't really make out why a race would want to have very, very tight cut-offs other than bragging rights, or maybe just not realising that their cut-offs are too tight, right? I mean, from your point of view, also having race stuff, is there any reason why you wouldn't extend cut-offs by an hour or two just to accommodate more people?

Sophie:

I think, I mean, from a race director standpoint, there are often logistical reasons. So if you've got road closures, if you've got kind of crew out there for a long time, the question is, "How long do you go?" And I think we have to think about what race directors can do and what's going to be within budget. They've got volunteers out in the courses as well. That said, there are very few races that need to have the tight cut-offs they do. I think there's one race in the UK that had a 10K cut-off of an hour and 10 minutes. Most women can't run a 10k in an hour and 10 minutes. The ones that can would be so scared of missing the cut-off that they won't apply anyway. I'm thinking of it's not just about the cut-offs, it's about the mid cut-offs as well. So some race directors have a very aggressive first cut-off that you have to run or go all out, and they don't have even pacing. So cut-off should assume an even pace, which maybe could have women - kind of the back-of-the-pack - more likely to be keeping to than fantasy sprint off and then run out of steam as soon as I do. And I think it's going to, thinking creatively, if it's a restriction. So we had a fell race in the UK. And they had a very tight cut-off for the race because of volunteer safety on the mountain. They didn't want the volunteers up the fell. So we were thinking creatively. Well, actually, why don't we have a start time an hour earlier for people? You don't have to open the first checkpoint any earlier because the faster runners would have made it out by the first checkpoint, and that just opens up the race for so many people. And then they realised that the next year, it doubled the women over 50 years old registering. Many more men over 60s are registering because of this kind of new inclusivity game. And it costs the race directors nothing. It costs no more volunteer time. The race signup was already open, so they weren't opening the code of registration any longer, and it made a huge difference. So I think it's understanding where the cut-offs are, explaining them, explaining them to people, this is what you have to do, and try to enable people to finish that race. And then at the back of the race where the cut-offs are, not closing down the race by the quarter. So if you allow people to be in your race, getting them that same experience as the people at the front, they'll come back again next year.

Panos:

It's amazing to be able to see the impact of these very subtle tweaks to things like that in actual participation numbers. I mean, it sort of makes the case quite clearly for making these little tweaks. As we keep saying, another thing to remember is-- obviously we're looking at women today specifically, but lots of these things are barriers to slower men, right? They're barriers to so many people. Lots of men would be intimidated by exactly the same kinds of things that are putting women off - that we're discussing today. So it's a much broader thing. Now on cut-offs, one thing you mentioned to me the other day that I actually went back to the guidelines, and I don't think it's there, which I think is a brilliant idea, quoting cut-offs in pace terms. I think that's like a much more natural way of quoting cut-off, right? I mean, because everyone at the end of the day, what does the cut-off mean, right? It's an arbitrary amount of time. Everyone does the back calculation in their mind. So I think that's definitely a very helpful thing to at least have the pace next to the cut-off time. It just helps a lot of people understand what we're talking about.

Sophie:

So take the guidance, like, There's a few bits to add. I love adding bits and pieces all the way. We always get feedback and I love hearing things that aren't in there. I definitely can have anyone listening. Like, if you have ideas to make them better, please let us know. We just add everything in because we have blind spots, too. We haven't talked to every single woman and every single race director, but it really is. If you look at some of the pieces needed, I mean, you can walk and I always joke kind of when I got around UTMB with breastfeeding, my pelvis wasn't actually back together yet, properly, and I don't need take running steps, very few running steps, before I set out for 106 miles, and I hiked. I hiked almost the whole race. I had to jog at the first step to make the first cut-off. But then I hiked and I was, I think, in the top half of us could have started finishing. I have three hours before the cut-offs. I hiked. A lot of arches aren't running races. A lot of 5K races, you can walk. And I think we're starting to say that they're running races, but it's movement of body races in a way and just people going,"I can do that." Whatever you can say to people to say, "I can do that." You're going to have kind of the toilets you need. You're going to have all these foods at the aid stations. This is how we're going to support you. And I think this is what the language as well. The cut-offs are there for a reason and having this feeling that races want you to finish rather than we're going to take you out. Like, if you are one second over at the aid station, we are going to take you out and say we're going to do everything we can to help you to finish. If we don't feel that you're in a great state leaving and it'd be worrying to get you to next checkpoint, that's when we withdraw you from the race. But I think flexibility, you miss it by five minutes but you walk really well, let them go through. These kinds of feelings is just an atmosphere of a race that comes across in the language that's on the website, you know whether they really care about you. We have these lovely races in the UK called X energy races and they're about 33 miles in trail, and then you stay over in a school sports hall and your sleeping bags, and then you go back the next day but they didn't have a cut-off. If you're moving, you keep going and then everyone's had that dinner and you're cheering the last finishes in and it's beautiful. And those people then realise how fast they can go and then they'll have the confidence to sign up for something that's maybe a bit tighter.

Panos:

Well, my impression in some of this that I see in many other places is that the industry is slowly shifting from looking at what we do races as more focused on the competitive aspect of it, and the more popular it becomes and more it opens up, shifting more towards the experience side of things. And obviously, races are always going to be races. There's going to be first and last and times and all of that stuff. But, as you say, shifting from a mentality of the cut-offs are here, sort of, to catch you out and basically drop you out of the race, it would be more helpful to look at the whole point of providing a race as an event director that we want you to finish and we want you to experience the race. Okay, we need to have cut-offs for, as you say, logistical reasons and we need to give the roads back to traffic and stuff like that, but it needs to come from a point of view of wanting participants to finish and wanting them to have a nice time and not necessarily putting a race on, which I know some races are and they have their own audience or just being a torture just for the point of it.

Sophie:

It's bad enough for them in some of the races. You don't want them to make it any harder than it needs to be. And I think that there's a culture around it and you can make a lot of that come through in the communications. We care about you. This is about being together. It doesn't take anything away from the front end. I mean I love having a friendly race, but I'm going to race and I want to do well. But I still want to go to those races where I feel comfortable being and I want to be around other women and I want to kind of cheer everyone on. And I love kind of some of the bits where you have live courses. One thing that really attracts women is timed events. We see huge participation in timed events because you're often on a loop, and you see so many more people. You also can't DNF. You cannot DNF a timed event if you step foot on that race course. So we also like that. It takes away the pressure of, "I didn't finish the race." But just being around that environment, I love-- I mean, I run 24 hours around athletics tracks for fun, and I love it because I see everyone, not just the people that are around me at the same speed. And that's a lot of what we want as a race. We want to experience and then a great atmosphere afterwards where everyone mixes and chatters about kind of the course and how they took the wrong turn and could have a whinge about the signage and say how good the pizza banner is, and it is. This isn't our job. Unless you're an elite, this isn't our job. This is what we choose to do. Let's make it as fun as possible.

Panos:

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Sophie:

So I mean, women love toilets in general. But when we ask people, "Is it impacting your race?" Almost 70% of women say, "The races haven't got the right toilets." And if you think about startline, a lot of races, especially trail races, they have an open start line, and the men could just go pee. Some women - myself included because I've done it before - I'm quite happy to go behind a bush and pee. Especially first-time runners or if you need to change a tampon, or you need to do more than that, you want a toilet. And it's not just women that want more toilets. Some men, especially with medical issues, come and say, "We want cubicles on course." So it's thinking about where women want them. It's also been very clear beforehand where they're going to be. If you just had a baby and for many of us kind of with pelvic floor disasters, we want to know how far they are in between because we're going to need the toilet. And we had races where there'd been loads of public toilets on course, but they weren't in the logistics. So a woman would see that there aren't any toilets and just would not sign up for that race because they couldn't be there. You have to be very clear on kind of, you've got female toilets and then you can have unisex toilets and making sure that everyone's gonna be comfortable using a toilet but there are ones with sanitary products in, especially in long races. You don't know when your period is going to start. It can be a week early, a week late. When you're pairing morning puzzle, you've got no idea when it's gonna start. It could be a few weeks apart, it could be a few months apart, and we can't put the burden of just carrying in the case on every single woman, so having the period products available or having the disposal facilities available-- these are things that I think sometimes are uncomfortable conversations for men to have. So just go and ask female runners, "What do you want? What else can we do? We try to have the best practice among race directors is going to taping things to the inside of a quarterly doors. It says a lot about a race when they think about women separately to men in this way. That goes across and how women feel about the race in general, I think, kind of stopping kind of the men jumping into our queue, we don't like that. We have to queue longer than men in all aspects of our life for a toilet. They can queue a few seconds more than we can and it's something that girls are going to kind of giggle out when they're so few of us in a race. I guess, maybe we don't want more women in these races because then we might actually have to queue for toilets. But changing facilities is a big one. And kind of having somewhere to change that's in private makes us more comfortable, especially when there's a dropback situation in Ultra, and there are women that will say they just can't be in a race for personal reasons, if they don't know they're going to have these safe spaces. So it's really simple. It's nothing to add, I think. This is a one-guideline work and race directors have said, "I've had an additional cost to my events, meeting the guidelines. But I've been able to put a toilet at a really important point that hasn't left women three hours without a toilet, and it's got such great feedback that I know I'm going to recoup that cost on more female entries next year."

Panos:

Definitely, the jumping queues which, by the way, happens in real life toilets as well, not only races - just men going into female toilets whenever they can't wait, basically, is an important issue and the separate toilets, I find because, sometimes, you go into a unisex toilet and it's a bit of a mess. And men generally tend to handle that kind of mess better than women for physiological reasons. Now, the sanitary products I want to return to because there are two points I want to ask you. First of all is how far has the adoption of race directors making available sanitary products come so far? Do race directors actually do that? And secondly, are you getting any pushback on that, speaking to race directors, because I guess I could see, perhaps a perspective on this that-- although, actually, to your point about a period can come at any point, I can also see a side of this from the race directors point of view saying, "What else are we going to be on the hook for? Should I have, like, bee allergy medicine for the guy that gets stung? Like, on every aid station for the guy that gets stung by a bee or something, do I need to basically try and prepare for everything? Is everything going to be on me?

Sophie:

And I think that's a good pushback that we haven't had, I'll be honest. I think it's been a blind spot for a lot of directors. And in the last year, since the races were founded, there's been a huge shift in races in UK providing period products because there's no reason not to, because they're very cheap. And you can put them in the toilet seat, put them in there but, at a minimum, in kind of the first aid kits on the station and have them available. Showing they're available is great on an aid station. Having kind of a basket out there that they're just there. They're not expensive and they do make women feel seen. And I think it's not just about the periods, it's about feeling seen as athletes in the race. Men often want to know how to do it. I think that's the kind of, sending someone else out to buy them if you have to. But it's material what happens. If your period comes in the race-- we had a lady who was in the 100K and a UTMB, the CCC race and she DNFed because up she came and there was nothing. There's nothing for her. There was nothing from anywhere there. she'd flown over to France. She trained all year for it and she DNFed her race. Now, for the sake of one person your race DNFing because of their period, what that does to them, what that does to the race and the race credibility. Spending 10 pounds, $10 on period products that don't expire that can be reused is an absolute no-brainer. There's no reason why a race wouldn't do it. And it does take your worry out of if you're racing kind of three days away from your period or it's late. Is there going to be something there for me? There's enough stress. We're going to start line without worrying whether there'll be period products or if you need them.

Panos:

I'll have to ask a very dumb question here. When I go to the supermarket or something, the sanitary products aisle is just endless. Is there a way for race directors to provide sanitary products in a way that would help all women or most women without having to come up with 15 different versions of it or something, like, practically?

Sophie:

So women tend to use one of two things when they're racing. You either use a pad or you use a tampon. When you're racing, it's much better to have the tampon with the applicator because you're not going to have the cleanest hands when you're racing. You can't really kind of get them as clean as you want them to. A tampon and pad and a place to wash your hands as well- if women are using moon cups or things like that - that's enough. If people have other ideas, then please let us know. But that's what we say kind of. A pack of tampons, a pack of pads, encourage people to take a few more with them when they're going. That's enough. It is a minefield. There's an awful lot out there, but between those two, you pretty much cover all bases.

Panos:

Now, the one thing that you mentioned in the guidelines that has been-- it's something that I just haven't been able to wrap my head around, even though the same statistics come out year after year is women's tech shirts, women finisher shirts. And I went back again to RunSignup's RaceTrend report from last year and the number is crazy. Like, only 3% of races in the US offer female-specific shirt sizes. 3%. And women are like-- across all races, they are like 35%. In some races, they're up to 50% or more. I sort of get the point of adding another dimension to the shirts that you have to order. You have to deal with the uncertainty of how many people are going to be there, what sizes am I gonna order, then you add men versus women on that. It's just an added layer of complexity. But it must be very annoying from a female participant's point of view to go home with a, like, a terrible baggy T-shirt. Most race T-shirts are not really good to begin with, to be honest, these days, but to have to go home with something that doesn't fit and it's like wearing a sack of potatoes or something, it must be pretty damn annoying.

Sophie:

I tried on some of my race T-shirts when I was 37 weeks pregnant, and they fit beautifully. Like, the smallest size available every time 37 weeks pregnant. I mean, they actually were really handy. My husband has a great wardrobe of all these kinds of quite tough ultramarathon races that he's never run, but there was no option not to have the T-shirt. So the first were very much in line with the green miners and that. There are tens of thousands of race T-shirts that go to Nashville every single year. So there has to be an option not to have a T-shirt. And we'd rather that races charged them as an add-on so that someone definitely wants that T-shirt. And there are other options like donating to local charities or Trees Not Tees - we plant a tree instead of having a T-shirt. We absolutely support that because the environmental side of race T-shirts is horrendous. But our argument is women should have equal experience in the race, which means a T-shirt-- it doesn't mean a T-shirt. I mean a T-shirt that fits and that's better for the race director too because if someone's going to take a T-shirt, it's advertising your race. You want them to actually wear that T-shirt and be able to be proud of their race and be able to talk about their race. And they're not going to do it if it's this baggy monstrosity, and there are women that prefer that fit. So if you're ordering T-shirts before the race, then there's no wastage. Going for a higher quality option that will last and then giving men and women the choice of different fits and what we like to have as well as the sizing because UK and US sizing is very different to European sizing. So where would I go for an extra small in the UK if I'm doing a European mountain race? I'm a medium - that's absolutely tiny. So putting the sizing on that - just the chest measurement - is so easy. You've got it anyway from the manufacturer. Why would you not just put it on the website and then we're comfortable that, if we're going to order a T-shirt, we know it's going to fit us? And I think there's nothing so devastating at the end of a race when you're absolutely knackered and your T-shirt doesn't fit, and you look at the guy and he's wearing his and you can't. I did this race called The Spine in the summer which is 268 miles up the Pennine Way, and I got to the end, and I was exhausted. I'd had four nights with no sleep - very little sleep - and the T-shirt was huge. It was down to my knees and I cried in front of the race director. I said, "I didn't deserve this. I just didn't." You're so tired. There's no filter on your words. That was pretty much. I was,"Why? Why? I've paid hundreds and hundreds of pounds for this race and you just give me this?" And I felt so much of the enjoyment - how great I thought about the race - just wiped away in that one second that you actually don't care about me as a woman, as an athlete, because I'm not a man, and you'll only cater to men. That was such a miss on the race director's side, and they could have fixed it. So yes, I think, in the UK, the numbers are much more positive on races giving female-fit T-shirts, because we've campaigned for it. And women, I think one of the big things that SheRACES is, at the start, we had lots of messages that go, "This race did this. Could you message them?" And now it's like, telling me I've gone to the race, I've told them,"This isn't acceptable. I've given them the guidelines." And so races are getting this in feedback because we've put the guidelines out there and say this is what women deserve. This is what equality is, equal opportunities, equal experience, and women aren't going to do races that don't have female-fit T-shirts anymore.

Panos:

Is that feedback that you're getting, actually?

Sophie:

Yeah, I think race directors get the direct feedback that a woman has come to sign up for the race, and they haven't had the female option, and also that they haven't had the "No T-shirt" option, which is actually what a lot of runners want now. We want not to have a T-shirt. We don't want to have that impact on the environment. If we own enough T-shirts or you want to have something different, that's a buff or something that we're actually going to use kind of more in real life or the medals that you plant in your garden, they grow into flowers, things like that, things that are really making races stand out for being different and for being maybe more aligned with our values.

Panos:

So let's talk about the thing that was the trigger, at least. for your journey in all this, which is pregnancy. What do you think is a reasonable pregnancy deferral policy for races? Like, what have you advised London and Berlin and Chicago and all of those races to go with?

Sophie:

So this depends on the race. There are races that women are happy to run whilst pregnant, and you may want to walk around your 5K, but you're certainly not gonna be doing a long-distance ultra. There are two parts - races that you can sign up for, and race, you have ballot a different. So basically, you can just sign up for, so you have the opportunity to race at a later date. You don't lose that opportunity. We say can achieve a deferral or a lot of races just actually refund. That's a simple thing to do and most races had back, and then we just love to see on sightline. Some great races can kind of look into refunds and then give a discount code to really try and actively get that one back to start line. And it's a small gesture, but it means so much and they'll probably bring their friends and their family. It's probably a really commercially great thing to do, but it's also a lovely thing to do. So that's with the free entry. Ballot is different. And ballot is about opportunity. And for London, it's so difficult to get into London Marathon. And they've actually always had the one-year deferral. But this way, I think we have a three year deferral at London now because if you just find out you're pregnant just before the race, and we're working with Ironman on this too and we're speaking to them, because they put a policy in place that was a one-year deferral. That's not good enough because, if you just found out you're pregnant before the race, then you have three months to get back on the start line. And I can say from experience that most people should not be racing at three months and have that stress on them. For me, I did it because I was going to lose my opportunity, and that was what was important to me - not losing opportunity and holding that place. That place has to be free. As in you don't have too much to pay again and New York came out with their policy and it was like, you can have this policy for quality, inclusiveness and socially responsible, and you have to pay again. I mean, that's not equal, that's not inclusive, and that's definitely not socially responsible to say, "We'll just hold your place for you for a couple of years, but you're gonna have to pay us again to enter the race." When we think about the quantum kind of the whole of UTMB who we've worked with, they have a phenomenal policy of direct refund, but you have five years to have the opportunity to be on the startline where you want to be on. For a race like that where you're Germany travelling to the finals, and it's a big thing for the whole family, and it rolls if you have more babies is just brilliant and we'd love that. But it was only 25 women taking it this year. There are only 10,000 runners. So I think some of the pushback on is it's expensive, etc. for women. It's very few women, but what it stops a lot of women from doing is signing up for the race in the first place, because you don't press a button when you're pregnant. When I had my kind of guaranteed UTMB place because I missed out twice on the ballot and I finally got it, I thought I'd have a one-year-old at the startline and pregnancy wasn't so easy, and I had a three-month-old. So it's actually not having that policy. So thinking not about the cost of deferral, but actually not having that policy deters women from signing up in the first place. And for us, not having that policy says something about the race, and it says something about every other aspect of the race that they're refusing to do that for women. What's the rest of the race gonna look like? And that's really off-putting. So it's the most obvious thing that can be done. If it's a refund, that's great. If it's a cheer to Pharaoh, that's also great. If it's a transfer, a free transfer, if it's within time that the woman can do a free transfer or deferral, something that doesn't financially penalise a woman for having a baby because that's just not acceptable.

Panos:

Yeah, all that makes total sense. And back to your point about yeah, okay, it's not commercial. I think it's perfectly, commercially sensible to have a policy that is as generous as it can be with cases that, as you say, affects, like, half a percent of your women population, like, .25 of all of your runners. I mean, like, why split hairs there, to be honest, and come across as a jerk, to be honest? Like, it's just totally pointless to do that. And I would definitely think it's a great idea to say to women,"We're going to defer your race. Here's a refund." And as you say, just because women also struggled to get back to racing after pregnancy to just tell them, "This is what I'm gonna do. This is what we as a race are going to do for you. We're gonna give you an incentive through a discount or something to come back and do this race, and I'm sure they would appreciate it massively. And honestly, it's so dumb to just split hairs over this thing, like, "Oh, what? You should have thought of that before." I mean, yeah, you can go down that way, obviously, because at the end of the day, I mean, it's your race, but you shouldn't. And I also totally see your point that-- for people, for women who want to enter these races that you do once in a lifetime - London, so hard to get into, UTMB, all of those races, and you're also trying to have a family or have a second child or whatever, I mean, you're not going to time that to perfection, and you don't want that to hold you back from signing up. You want to have that insurance policy in terms of the race that says,"Okay, if that happens, great. They're gonna have me back in two years' time or whatever." I can definitely see how much comfort it would give women to have that in place.

Sophie:

And we choose what we sign up for based on that. I've had women asked me, saying, "I'm trying for a baby, but I want to do some races. Which ones have the policies? I'm gonna sign up for them and give them my money." The other point I make is, when people say I'm pregnant, I mean, women don't lie about being pregnant. And we see a race that asks for very detailed personal medical information, scans, and everything. That's just not necessary. So you can either have, "You just told us you're pregnant, and we will take that at face value." And that will be the right decision in 99% of cases. Or you say we just want a signed doctor's note. In the UK, you have to pay for that doctor's note, in some cases, if you don't have it. And then, you're also getting into-- if you miscarry. So in the UK, you don't have an appointment with your doctor until about 13 weeks, and most miscarriages occur before then. About 25% of pregnancies end in miscarriage. So putting that emphasis on a woman to go to a doctor to get a note when she's kind of pulled out of a race but then she's miscarried and doesn't have any evidence, that's hard and it's happened to me and it's awful. I think if race directors are like, "You're pregnant. We'll take that. Here's your deferral." I think the race directors that don't ask are going to get-- or is the case of a medical note if you have one or you at this point in time. gonna say a medical note, whatever you have. Giving women the benefit of the doubt on this is always gonna be massively appreciated in these circumstances.

Panos:

Yeah, I can sort of also see what you're saying there. When there is a way to game the system, some people are going to try and game the system. But on balance, you need to have something practical, simple that works for everyone and isn't very intrusive in the end. So, there's a balance to strike there. Now, before getting pregnant or, actually, after getting pregnant, I should say, there's also the issue of child care, which I feel a little bit more invested in as a father of two myself. I saw this while I was researching this episode. I saw this post on Medium by a trail runner called Jesse McLaren - that I think was involved also in some related activism and kind of initiatives in the US - and he was suggesting very radical, I thought, but makes perfect sense, that races somehow-- I mean, she wasn't really big on detail because it was more like a bullet point list, but she mentioned childcare there - offering some kind of childcare support, during races. And again, as I say, I think that's something that fathers could equally appreciate, in some cases. Do you think that's reasonable and something that would move the needle further for women participating in races, having that kind of support net? And by the way, by childcare, I mean, you can't have a race, like, "Mind your children when you train" or something. For a marathon, for a longer race, just having some kind of option like that, like, is it even feasible? Does it make sense? Would it make a difference for women?

Sophie:

It's a great question. I think it's a differentiator. I think we can't expect races to have childcare. But I think races that want to do more in certain areas and attract certain kinds of women and make it easier for us, great. I mean, the ideal is that most kids can get looked after by kind of their dads. I mean, it doesn't feel like it's the same barrier for dads to get to start line as women. And I guess that's because we take most of the childcare duties, but where there are race-- so we've seen kind of 5K to 10K races where there was a kids club on site, which is great, and it just really speaks to kind of-- and there's family activities, and there's a playground, and it's great for the vendors because they're gonna sell more food, they're gonna sell more things, that everyone's around longer. And there's a great race of a Big Bear Race in the UK that was a 6-hour timed event around a forest school during school holidays on, like, a Wednesday. So you had your kid for the day, but you put them into the forest school, which they're probably happy being in the forest school, and with you all day. And you've run a 6-hour marathon or a marathon or whatever you want to do in six hours, or run a 10K and have a cup of tea. So there are things that-- we're always concerned about what's most asking too much. For race directors, there are loads of ideas, there are always ideas to go further and to signal that you really want women on the start line or you want families in the start line. And I think it's very similar to breastfeeding. So breastfeeding, the absolute minimum should be that someone wants to breastfeed. On the website, it says that if you need to breastfeed or you have any other needs to make your race more comfortable, contact us. Without that, women don't ask, unless you ask us to ask, we don't ask it. So many race directors said,"Well, why didn't you ask?" Women don't ask unless you let us know it's okay to do that - breastfeeding at a private place to pump before and after to feed the baby. And Mother, which is a great organisation in the US, is really pushing the boundaries for women getting back up after pregnancy and having marathons, kind of breast milk transported around the course and pumps, and it's phenomenal. And it's absolutely, if I was having another baby, what I'd want to go and do. It's not feasible for all races, but we'd love to see it in more races, so those women had the option to have that brilliant experience. And I guess we don't want to get offered the world when, actually, race directors may see or feel it overwhelming, where 80-20 approach, adopting the guidelines, which are pretty much free, gets us so much of the way towards that kind of more balanced participation that we want to see.

Panos:

And by the way, the thing that keeps coming back here is that even if you can't do any of this, which you should be able to do quite a few of these, but even if some of these feel out of reach, the thing you keep bringing back is communicating, right? I mean, even if you can't do anything about breastfeeding, put something in your FAQs or something, right? Put something on your website that basically signals that, "Okay, we've thought about that. We're unable at this moment to do anything about it. But just so you know, unfortunately, we won't be able to have, like, a breastfeeding station or something or facilities or separate staff or we won't have women's specific changing facilities for this or that reason." Just communicate that. That should go some way to making the race a little bit more transparent and friendlier for women, if they can at least see the information on what's going to be available on the website before they sign up, right?

Sophie:

It's huge. I mean, we can have any insight-- kind of 40% of women. A huge amount of women have not signed up for a race because they're uncertain of the logistics and uncertain of what's there, what's not there. In the same way, how you get to the start, making sure that they're going to feel safe, they're not going to be finishing a race in the middle of a field late at night with no safe way of getting home, really going through every aspect of questions that you might want to ask and putting them on the website, putting all the things you're doing to make women's and everyone's races a better experience on the website, so that you know everything, and then you click sign up. And I was like, "Isn't this the same for men?" And I joke about my husband signing up for a cycle race, and it was kind of a sunrise or sunset or kind of race from one side of England to the other. He had no idea how he was going to get to the start line. There was nothing on the website. He had no idea how he was going to get home from the finish line with his bike, but he signed up anyway. A woman would not do this. And what surprised us, we actually couldn't make it work without spending about 1000 pounds on everything and transport, and so we're not doing that. And he's a local sporty. If that starts at this time, you can drop the kids off for their sports things first, and you can do your 100K, and then I'll pick them up." And I was like, "I need to know this before you sign up for races." So he's not allowed to sign up for anything unless I say yes now because we lose money. But it's a huge thing and it helps everyone. And I think when you think about the questions, I ask people, "What do you want to know?" If it's quite hard to step back from your own race, team up with another race organiser and look at each other's websites and go, "What would I want to know if I was to participate?" We always can go and get a few trusted female runners I've done the race before to look at it again and say, "This is great, but we don't tell people about this. Or this is a bit difficult. Or even the course itself. This is the profile of the course. These were the aid stations on a graphic. This is where it's quite difficult. This is a footwear that you want to need. It's a dry race run on your road shoes. If there's a heavy downpour, we'll let you know." It's all these small, small things that just take very, very little effort, but make a huge difference to not only people signing up, and this is men and women, but also then having that great race experience knowing that there's a long distance between two checkpoints. You may want to have bottles that carry quite a lot of extra water, or these exact snacks available for those who have different intolerances. It's all done in the race-organiser's plan. You just have to communicate it to us so that we are more prepared for our race. And then we can more focus on actually running rather than everything else.

Panos:

One thing you mentioned there is safety. There's also a fairly extensive passage in the guidelines about this. And I want to sort of wrap up on this. Because I think this is going to get us into into a sad place, I just wanted to have it last of everything else, so it doesn't bring the mood down too badly, but it is a very concerning aspect of the circumstances that women find themselves when racing, and that is the fact that, as in many other walks of life, there appears to be quite a non-negligible issue with harassment in racing. And when we discussed that offline, actually, I was really sad to hear from you that it's far from being simply non-negligible. It's actually a big thing. So what has been your experience with sexual harassment in races and other women's experience that you speak to about this?

Sophie:

I mean, I don't know a single woman that hasn't had a negative experience racing, not a single one. And that's what we put out. It's everyone. And for a lot of us, it feels a bit of a part of life, whether that's physical. For example, if you're pending very tightly with lots of other people and lots of other men, you may well get groped. That's quite typical for a woman. So when there are bigger pens and there are some reserved women who would want a women-only pen. That's really appreciated. There are women that are really triggered to be so close to so many others. And then pushed-- so a lot are being pushed off trails and pushing past quite physically. I've nearly been knocked off my bike during a sport by a man wanting to go through a gap that didn't exist, and I'm a lot smaller than the other guy would be. I was punched in my first Ironman and my only Ironman because of this. I was punched by a guy in the swim and had half a tooth knocked out. I've a pink cap on. They'd known I was a woman. They punched me and then swam over me. It's endless. And I think that there's a physical one. And then when you're running on trail, a man might let another man pass, but he's not gonna let you pass as a woman. And these are the minority of men, such a minority. But we pass so many men in a race. And so you're going to have these encounters. And then it's language. So it's from the, "Are you good for a girl?" Or commenting on performance or "Are you trying really hard?" It's things that they wouldn't say to men. And volunteers, the same thing. There are ones that are meant well to the ones that aren't meant well. So a volunteer, say at the end, she didn't get the T-shirt that she'd ordered. And he's like, "Well, if you want the T-shirt, you should have run faster." You've just finished this race and this is the comment. Language is so important. And harassment is such a difficult thing to deal with and it shouldn't be there. For race organisers, you cannot control what everyone's doing out on course, but you can educate them that you're not going to tolerate it and heavy penalties, time penalties for if there is harassment, to call it out. So people call this out and stick up for women and acknowledge the behaviour that I think is okay. So you running at night, tailing a woman at night is not okay. When I've done mountain races, having someone at my shoulder that won't speak there for ages and you turn around, and they're there, and they're so close and you can use them as a pacer. They just say,"Can you pace me up the mountain?" Yes, but they didn't speak or they run with you for a long period of time and you fake a toilet break to get rid of them. I faked a lot of toilet breaks. And so it's really small things. But I think, basically, it can feel like too big of an issue for race organisers. But having a very clear anti-harassment policy, briefing volunteers about unacceptable language, especially the person on the tannoy at the end, because they're often the worst commenting on how people look and outfits and how the girls are done so well. Anyone that's making public announcements, really small, simple steps can change these things. And the same thing kind of commenting on the women's race equally to the men.

Panos:

The volunteer thing is just totally inexcusable, to be honest. As you say, I guess, I don't want to put it back to the thing that people usually say about, like, "Oh, it's people of a different generation or this or that." I mean, it has to be sad culturally to have moved on so fast that some people struggle to keep up. And I would probably give the benefit of a doubt, at least, particularly with British humour, which is so subtle sometimes in terms of what people actually mean. But yeah, I mean, berating back-of-the-pack runners, whether it's women men or whatever is just totally dispiriting for runners and it just, I mean, it sucks to be on the receiving end of that. No one would want that. I think a good race sort of distinguishes itself with how it treats the back-of-the-pack runners, not the elites in the front. Everyone can do that. But being courteous to everyone who's still in the race is really, really important - and common like that doesn't help. On the announcers, I hope these days people don't fall into traps like that, the announcer that I know of that I can think of wouldn't do something like that, but I can also equally see why, perhaps, there might be some people out there who may make comments about appearance and stuff like that. On the other thing you mentioned about men just wanting to let a woman go past or tailing a woman, stuff like that, which moves more towards race etiquette, I guess. What is going on other than tailing people, I mean, how do you educate people, right? What kind of race director do-- what is the bottom line of this podcast in situations like that? What can they say? Should they say that if a woman comes from behind and is faster, just let her pass? Like, what should we do? What can they do - race directors - on this?

Sophie:

I think you have a race policy that is like, "This is unacceptable behaviour in our races and we don't tolerate harassment." I mean, it's gonna block anything that's negative to your fellow competitors, and it's very simple. It doesn't have to kind of be very serious. It's like, we want everyone to have a great race. This is just not acceptable. And it makes people think twice. And I think when it's a race policy and someone else hears it, then they'll be more, "Sorry that you can't say that. That's not appropriate." Getting kind of the male allies on this is important. And I don't want to feel that this is a huge part of the races, but it is just a part that would make, I think, especially the back-of-the-pack runners-- having them celebrated rather than, "You're so slow." Well, actually kind of reverse, you're lapping everyone else that sat on the couch, and celebrating kind of achievements. There's the Dragon's Back Race in the UK, which is a phenomenally difficult stage race over the Welsh mountains. It's beautiful. I hope to do it one day, but they give the biggest trophy to the person who spent the longest on the course. That just says everything about the race. That person who spent the longest out there, that has fought the hardest, comrades in South Africa, a bigger celebration for the last person in and then the commiseration - the first person is not because the cutoff is really tight. It's a wonderful thing to do. And I think that reflects on the whole race as to who's valued and, at the other end, making sure the female winner is equally valid. And now, I know the open winner - if that's the category - and the same coverage, and the same kind of podiums, the same announcement, the same pre-race and say, "It's two races and that woman is respected the same way as that man." That makes a lot of difference to the women that are further down the field, to say, "My race is a separate race and I'm acknowledged for being an athlete, for being me."

Panos:

I think that the whole issue of race staff and volunteers, sort of, getting out of line is totally on the race director, and it's something that they can work on. My sense is that probably the whole race etiquette thing, as you say, it has to be more kind of bottom-up. I think other men in the race have to take responsibility for that and for, sort of, calling out fellow racers who do that kind of thing. I don't think it's something that-- I mean, obviously, you can put something in a document or something as a race director, but I don't think the objective is to actually change things. I think it's very difficult for a race or a single race director to do anything to affect that. I think it has to be the trail running community, or the running community, or whatever who takes responsibility for that.

Sophie:

I think the race directors, if you call it out on the mic at the start, say,"We're having a great race. Respect everyone. Encourage every runner. This is what we do as a race." And then, I think, if there are issues, then they're dealt with and that you're confident that they'll be dealt with. I think some things were great. And on each aid station, make sure there's a man and a woman. If you can do that, make sure there's-- because if there are any female issues, you've got someone to go to, also to ask for the period products if you have them on the table because a man would be like, "What?" I think that's the gender balance and having people go there and just being sensible. We have a lot of work to do in the community. I hope it's getting better. I think there's definitely kind of-- if men just stopped to ask women about their running experiences and why we're worried to go out at night, and why we're nervous in certain places, I think that there'd be a greater understanding because if my own husband-- I used to go to a gym in town and late at night, and I used to call him on the way back and have my keys in one hand, and he said, "Why are you calling me? You're gonna see me in 10 minutes." It's like, "I need to know that if something happens to me, you're going to know about it." And he just doesn't understand as a man. So the more conversations people can have, I think, the more we'll realise. And this is magnified for kind of women who live in the middle of cities and women of colour as well. We just have to be nice to each other. But I think a lot of races, having that fun atmosphere and having that inclusive atmosphere, that does nip a lot of it in the bud.

Panos:

I find great comfort in what you told me last time we spoke that, generally, race directors that you speak to are more on the side of, "Oh, I didn't think of that. Well, thanks a lot for the suggestion" rather than "Oh, that's total bullshit or whatever." They're not dismissive. So I'm really keen that that's sort of the response you're getting, and I'm sure after this last hour and a half, we would have had tonnes of people with tonnes of questions. So how can they follow up on any of this if a race wants to do more on any of the aspects that we've discussed? How can they do that through SheRACES or get in touch with you?

Sophie:

The guidelines are on the website, SheRACES.com. And then we do have kind of an accreditation, which is free, because we don't think there should be barriers to taking down barriers, which is really just committing to the basics that any race could do, which is the equal kind of equal respect for a race, the inclusive imagery, the telling people stuff on your website, and sufficient toilet. It's very, very simple. And then we put your logo on our website, and then you can use as a SheRACES logo to signal that you are an inclusive race and you want more women there and that's been really effective especially for a lot of women looking for their first, kind of, stepping up races in the UK going, "Okay, this is a SheRACES race." And organisers use that with brands as well to say, we follow the SheRACES guidelines. We're Instagram @she.races where we share about what we're doing and a newsletter, and I'm@ultra_sophie, if they just want to see that for our running. But I do a lot of the work behind it on my own account, which is a bit of a bigger platform than SheRACES. We're always answering questions, always getting things through-- race directors say, "I don't know what to do about this." Always happy to help. It's tough out there being a race director at the moment. And if we can help you make your race better, then that's exactly what we'll do. I would say we're kind of privately funded so far. So now we're out looking for brands to partner with so we can expand the reach, and we can kind of support more races and do more insight work because there's a gap in our insight between the women that want to be on the start line that aren't. So we've really got a handle on women that race that we don't understand the women that aren't signing up for the races - even one race on the first day. So hopefully, as soon as I work, we can get some funding to do it. But yeah, reach out. We're very friendly.

Panos:

Absolutely. And having been on the site, I remember, on the partners page, if I'm not mistaken, all the races I found there - some great names - were UK-based. Do you guys do or take part-- obviously anyone can go and download the guidelines as I did. And you know, there's plenty for every race across the world to learn from, but do you take on partner races from outside the UK or do you leave that to more, like, US-based organisations?

Sophie:

The guideline is universal. It's universal and they do go across-- we have some event organisers that do triathlon and swimming and cycling races because they're all-- and we're looking to see if there is anything else we could add for those races, but very much kind of-- the barriers. I think different groups have different barriers, and we're like, "We all have the same barriers, we feel them in different ways. So they're mostly UK because I'm UK and it was easy to get the message out there. Now, I'm getting lots of international races being interested. So I think it's a funding issue because I need some help updating the website with all the new logos to add. But there are loads and anyone can sign up. We'd love to have you as races. We've got some Australian races coming on. We've got some Canicross, which is really exciting to learn about the barriers there and support those events. It'll be logos, but it's also the signing event contract, which is committing to very basic things, and then putting them onto the website, sending me the link to show that the info is on the website. And then we send the logo across. And it's just designed to be very, very simple, no cost, but just a way that races can show that they are supporting these women and, from the women's side, a place that we know that we're going to have a great experience and both kind of having this kind of signalling is great. But in the US, you've got Trail Sisters, which do a bit of work on the races as well, and they do a lot of work of engaging and getting women to the start line. So we absolutely love what they're doing. The guidelines are quite deep across to the start line at the race and the competition. Any steps that races can take, we really appreciate it.

Panos:

Yeah, absolutely. We should give a shout-out to Gina at trail sisters and the rest of the crew. They're doing some great work, and I know you're collaborating. I hope we could have had Gina actually alongside you on the podcast to give a bit of a US perspective, but she was busy with other stuff. So if you are based in the US, if you're into trail running, you want to do more around this kind of space, Trail Sisters is also a great website to check out. And I hope that SheRACES gets to have some funding, which I'm sure, knowing you, you'll get it in no time to get your research up and running, which would be great for the whole industry, actually. What you're doing already is fantastic. As I said, lovely to see lots of races that I know from the UK being part of your partner roster there. So I want to thank you very, very much for your time today. It was really educational, I hope, for listeners - definitely for me - and I want to wish you all the best with SheRACES. I hope you enjoyed the podcast.

Sophie:

That's great. Thanks for talking. It's great to have the opportunity to actually address race organisers. I think that's the first time-- and I've talked to a lot of podcasts, we can do runners, but to talk to race organisers directly and try and put myself in their shoes is a really helpful thing to have to do. So thanks, everyone, for listening.

Panos:

Well, thank you. We all really appreciate it. And thanks to everyone listening in, and we'll see you guys on our next podcast. I hope you enjoyed today's episode on supporting female athletes with SheRACES founder Sophie Power. You can find more resources on anything and everything related to race directing on our website RaceDirectorsHQ.com. You can also share your thoughts about some of the things discussed in today's episode or anything else in our Facebook group, Race Directors Hub. Many thanks again to our awesome podcast sponsor RunSignup for sponsoring today's episode. And if you enjoyed this episode, please don't forget to subscribe on your favourite player, and do check out our podcast back-catalogue for more great content like this. Until our next episode, take care and keep putting on amazing races.