Recently I was on a sports podcast with other women and we were asked if we thought women should receive special treatment in trail running. I admit I was triggered. Badly. I remembered every single award ceremony gone wrong just because I am a woman. I also remembered how up until a few years ago UTMB only awarded the top 5 women, while awarding the top 10 men. And I remembered the “Race Organizers Forum” in 2014 in Chile, with 16 male speakers and… guess how many women? That’s right: Zero. Nada.
Do we want special treatment? Heck no, we just want respect, equal opportunities, representation, and a chance to tell you how trail running events keep messing up without being ignored or insulted.
But maybe it’s hard to understand where all this anger is coming from in a community that so many see as non-discriminating and welcoming. So I am going to vent and tell you about those award ceremonies in Chilean running events where gender was an issue (that is, where being a woman sucked). And while prizes were involved, my rage goes way beyond that, because this is a symptom of a bigger problem, a reflection of a society where we, as women, do not get the same rights as men.
So there was my very first trail race in 2011, X-Trail Puchuncaví, which promoted itself promising prize money for 1st thru 5th place. It did not specify this would be for both men and women, but of course we, as women, assumed we would have a separate division, given the known biological differences in strength and speed among sexes. But the race organizer (male) had only contemplated giving five awards in total, regardless of sex. Erika Olivera, the best female runner our country has had, won the female division, but not the overall race, so she very calmly went on to explain how running and awards should work to the organizer. I think they ended up giving the prize money to the first man and woman, and promised the rest of us that we would receive our prizes later. Of course, that never happened, but this first experience was eye opening. Even if I were to become the best female runner in Chile, I would still have to fight for my rightly deserved award.
Then, in 2012, in Patagonian International Marathon, I got second place in the women’s division, but they never called my name during the award ceremony. I had to go and ask for my prize and we couldn’t help but laughing at what it was and thinking about how I was going to take it home. A year later, in a race from the same organizer, Ultra Fiord, a friend that came all the way from the United States to Patagonia, never got the medal that recognized her as a finisher, because they called up to the stage every other women finisher except for her. But there was so much that went wrong in that race that she didn’t even have the energy to complain about it.
In a 50k in Conguillío Park in 2016, Ultra Sendero de los Volcanes, they recognized our category and gave us medals, but told us they didn’t have the prizes at that point, and that they would mail them to us. That, again, did not happen.
In Viña del Mar International Marathon in 2016, they called my name to go up to the stage. I got to the secured area and the guard in charge, after letting the other two runners pass, looked at me from head to toe and decided, apparently, that I didn’t look enough like a runner and started arguing with me telling me I could not go into that area. I know this may sound a little paranoid, but not having the stereotypical runner body, I always have to address comments that question my belonging to the runner category, or my ability to perform in running. The one-second decision that guard made was, I can say with almost complete certainty, another example of that. But he was probably part of an outsourced security company. How could the race organization address sensitivity training in them? Are we even there as a country? Should I just have taken it, said “Yes, I’m the runner” with a smug face, and gone on with my life? (after all, it’s not like I don’t have to address annoying comments from men every time I leave my house).
But if fat girls and women are going to be mistreated when participating in sports events, then maybe this IS an issue, and we have to consider how awful it could feel to receive the message that you don’t have the right to participate in sports and compete, and the possible repercussions of this. Yes, boys and men also suffer this, but we know of the higher intensity and ubiquity of the pressures that women receive to conform to an ideal body. And in Chile, it’s widely common for men of all sizes to play soccer as part of their weekly routine, while women don’t have such a close relationship with sports, with body issues being something that can prevent them from participating in any type of physical activity. We should, then, work on making these sports events safe and welcoming spaces.
This next problem I really tried to prevent. I just had a feeling it would happen. With a friend we signed up for the relay category in Vulcano Ultra Trail, a 100k race in 2016. They had all male, all female, and mixed teams. But to be sure about them being considered different divisions, I sent an email to the organization a month before to inquire. I received no answer, so when I picked up my bib the day before the race, I asked again. No one seemed to know anything beyond the fact that you could race in teams. We ended up beating all the female teams and all the mixed teams. But then again, the award ceremony only considered a general division. After complaining to the race organization the day after the race (where we could see there was a lot of confusion), they promised to mail us the prizes. I don’t know what happened with that.
And a couple of weeks ago, in La Gran Travesía, a 100k race where they offered a Garmin watch for the fastest men and women in the final 20k of the race (a downhill section), I decided that I had a chance of winning the watch. I decided this 10 weeks before the race, when they informed of this special prize, and I told some friends about it (for added pressure). I’ve been running for 10 years, I’ve never had a watch, and this was a good one, so I really wanted it. I knew other female competitors could beat me in the overall race, and when race day came, I was injured from a month of heavy trail running adventuring, but I felt I still could give it a go. But then my very worst race day took place. I’m talking 8 hours for a 10k section, getting lost a couple of times, and having to take a nap mid-race. But when I got to the last aid station, 28 hours after starting the race, I wanted redemption. Even if, I had a feeling, the award ceremony might have already happened. So I asked about the timing for the prize at the aid station and the information was not clear. The volunteer looked at me, head to toe, and asked if I thought I could run. “I know I can run downhill, I want you to register my time, I have to at least try”, I said. Imagining the award ceremony already happening and me having to fight for the rightly deserved watch fueled me with hypothetical rage (to each their own method to get in the zone). So I got to the finish line, 91 minutes later, and explicitly stated that I had done the last section really fast because I was going for the prize, and someone inquired and told me that there had been a faster time. I was pissed that they didn’t wait until the last runner to award it, but I accepted my defeat. But then, the next day, I read that the fastest woman in the last section had not been who I thought it was (the race winner). And when you run with someone during a race, you can gauge their pace. I just had a feeling I was faster than her going downhill after 80k (you can start calling me crazy or obsessed here, but wait for it). To confirm this, I looked up her marathon times, and this provided additional evidence.
What kind of insanely competitive person would go on these detective antics? To settle my mind, I asked the race organizer for the official times for the last section. He avoided giving me that information for a week, and instead I was told I had a crazy fixation, that I was the only one questioning the facts, and that the other runner had unmistakably won. I just kept amassing my doubts and rage. And then, the truth made its way to me. The last aid station had been moved 2k after the first runners had passed, which made my time non comparable since I had to run 2k uphill before starting the section that counted. And no one bothered to tell me that at the aid station. That was why I felt I was going crazy, that was the reason for my “fixation”. I just knew something was wrong and it was. I knew I had given it my all in those last miles and that my all was enough to win what I had set out to win, but they made me doubt myself, made me believe that I was making up a petty battle and that I had no capacity for sorority or sportsmanship. Many books have been written on how women learn to deny what they know (see Carol Gilligan, Deborah Tolman), but I had never experienced it so clearly. Later, the race organization acknowledged what had happened and that I had won, but by then I was just exhausted, I did not want to explain how this was a larger issue, and how it wasn’t just about a watch. I guess that is why I am now writing about all of this, to make the case for paying attention to what happens in award ceremonies and with prizes in running from a feminist and critical perspective. To explain that we have reasons to be angry. To expose the importance of talking about these issues and working toward improving them. Because while they may seem menial in the grand scheme of issues affecting women, they contribute to a sports culture where women’ sports and divisions/categories are not seen as important as men’s, and where women are subtly pushed out of outdoor sports.
About what will happen with this prize, I’ll let you know. But I won’t hold my breath.
Andrea López Barraza