By Michele Dillon, Choose Mountains Ambassador
There is a conversation that has been going around recently about the inequality in the sport of ultra running. While I do agree that every podium winner, no matter the gender, should get equal recognition for their hard earned place; I also believe there is a matter that is getting ignored in regards to this topic. Which is that, women and men are completely different athletes. I'm not saying men are better than women or vice versa. I'm saying that that they are just downright different. Men have their own strengths and weaknesses and the same goes for women. I believe that as a women, to try and compare ourselves to a male athlete is selling ourselves short. Equality in the sport should not mean that we are all seen as equal competitors because we aren't; and I think that is something to be celebrated. Women can be amazingly strong, determined and unwavering athletes. We need to step up and own our gender and what we can and can't bring to the sport; equating ourselves to a completely different functioning and performing body doesn't do that. The conversation is good, it brings attention to what is needed, but it has also lost focus and veered a little more toward negative and blaming sentiments. The beginning of the solution is to recognize the problem, which has been done. In order to move forward in a better direction, we need to keep the focus on empowering women into realizing that we are our own inciting force. We are in charge of what we put into our training, our performance and our attitude. Accept that if we want something, we need to ask for it. If we believe in something, we need to stand up for it. Most importantly, we need to support each and every bad ass woman that surrounds us because in the end, success in a sport isn't about the recognition. It's about the sense of accomplishment of having put all of yourself out there and having the real and tangible encouragement of those that are in your life. The competition is best kept for the day of the event and ignored all other times in life. We should not be our friend's opponents, we should be their inspirations and cheerleaders.
I spoke with the women ambassadors of Choose Mountains that are out there crushing life on the trails, in the mountains and anywhere they can get their hands on and discussed their take on this and some other insightful topics.
First off, what is your sport of choice and how long have you been doing it? Why do you love it so much?
Tiare: It's weird when I see the word "sport" in this question because I feel like I don't do any actual "sports". My activity of choice is running. When possible - trail running. I ran in middle school and high school to clear my mind. When I got sober in 2013 running came back with a strong force because it was the only thing that kept me sane. I felt so much happiness.....so even to this day, running makes everything better. Gets yourself from point A to point B faster and helps me stay leveled.
Sawna: My main sport would be mountain running these last 5 years with a mix of climbing and cycling in between. Really anything to do with being in the mountains. I love it because it's a place where you are not judged and are given opportunity to witness your strength. It's constant, being surrounded by so much beauty and its creations while it feels like life's watch has stopped momentarily. I can be my true authentic self when I'm running, hiking or just being in the mountains and that make my heart undeniably happy.
Danielle: Well, that is a bit of tricky question for me, I don't really have one sport of choice per-say, but rather a slew of sports that I enjoy. I guess my journey as a real athlete started with marathon running back in 2009, to which hot yoga was quickly added in for cross training. I suffered a DVT (blood clot) of my right leg, a debilitating injury in July of 2011 that put a stop to my active lifestyle as I knew it.
About 5 years after my injury, I reclaimed my love for the outdoors and hiking, even though it was pretty difficult given my deficits from my DVT, but I pushed onward anyway. I started trying to hike once a week, every week, for the entire year of 2016. Although I didn't reach my goal, I ended up struggling with anxiety and depression for the better part of 2016. I did however, spend countless hours out on the trails and saw some pretty amazing places and spaces. I found a new love for the mountains, unlike anything I had felt before. Now I love hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, SUP, yoga, and the list goes on.... pretty much anything active and outside.
Mackenzie: I wouldn't consider myself an athlete with a specific sport, more of a casual outdoor enthusiast, right now my favorite outdoor activities are hiking and skiing, I've been skiing as long as I could walk, I'm not an expert by any means but I love getting out on the mountain, I always joke that if you live in Maine you have to find some type of activity that you love to do in the winter or your will go crazy! I've recently gotten more into snowshoeing and cross country skiing as well!
My main love lately though has been hiking, mostly in the White Mountains of NH. I started hiking here and there in Maine in college about 10 years ago, but after college turned it into an annual girl hike event with my old college roommate. After living outside Portland, ME for a while a friend invited me to go hiking in the White Mountains with her and I was hooked!
As I got more into it I started encouraging several of my girlfriends to go with me and started a little group on Facebook called "#girlhikes" to coordinate weekend day trips. I love that it gave me a chance to spend some quality time with my friends while doing something active.
While I've been hiking for years now I still am in awe every time I hike a big peak, I'm always amazed at how far and how high my body can carry me. Every hike ends with a feeling of accomplishment and a calm from spending quality time in nature. I find it even more important to make time to get to the mountains now that my weeks get so busy; filled with work, time on my phone and computer. It's so refreshing to disconnect from all of that and relax in the outdoors.
I have also been lucky enough to meet someone that shares my passion for the outdoors and love to get out hiking with my fiancé Dan and our pup Fallon. Our pup just turned 2 this summer and we are starting to do longer trips and some overnights which just adds to the adventure!
Ellie: Ultra running! I've been in this sport for almost two years, and it's definitely a way of life. It's amazing to have a little bit of suffering in your life.
Kim: My sport of choice is mountain climbing. Ultra distance trail running goes hand and hand with this. In addition, I dabble in rock climbing. So, ultraneering? I have been involved in outdoor sports for 4 years now.
Michele: The main sport that I always choose to do, even when I'm not in the mood for anything else, is trail running. This summer I dove deep into climbing the amazing mountains that Colorado has to offer and it lit a fire under me that hasn't been ignited since discovering trails. I would say that these two things are what gets me going the most, although I do also love to rock climb and mountain bike.
Do you feel like you have enough supportive women in your life? If yes, how do you keep the relationships strong and encouraging? If not, how has this impacted your attitude toward your chosen sport?
Tiare: You know as I get older I notice the women in my life ebb and flow. I have many wonderful girlfriends yet not a lot of stable, consistent ones that I can count on. I am used to this and I don't have a lot of thoughts about it other than I accept the fact that people move around. People's interests change....it used to be tough because my main hiking partners moved out of this state and I gained new ones but sometimes it's not always that strong connection I was used to. The mountains are wonderful to me no matter what and the situation is and having really strong girlfriends who aren't physically in my state anymore has helped me learn a healthy way to look at non attachment.
Sawna: It's hard to describe the women in my life. Although hell yes! I have strong supportive women in my life, I do have those that, although, are supportive in many ways- may not agree with my particular lifestyle or the amount of time that I put into my particular sport. I've met so many incredible women on trails, in my hometown and traveling around the world that I immediately connected with. These women have been the most kind hearted, most gracious and loving people I've bonded with these last few years and I am shocked sometimes and the endless amount of support they've offered since. My heart knows what makes it happy, to be in the mountains and have my feet take me to these incredible places- but to have such strong, supportive women encouraging my passion, it just makes the stoke so much higher.
Danielle: Yes, I feel like I have a multitude of supportive women in my life. Actually more so then men. I try to build my friendships around healthy activities so that we can learn and struggle and grow together. It makes for better bonds.
Mackenzie: I am so thankful to say I do! Like I said previously I've found hiking and camping with other ladies has always been the perfect way to spend some quality time together and catch up, talk about life and the important things and just enjoy ourselves!
I've also joined several online women specific communities both local and global, including Choose Mountains Women and the NH Women's Hiking Group (nicknamed the purple army for the purple bandannas ladies carry to identify others on the trail). I find these groups both encouraging and inspiring! They have been an amazing way to meet other like minded ladies and also a safe space to ask questions without feeling judged.
Ellie: I definitely feel like I have a solid crew of lady crushers in my life. I think, especially in ultra-running, that it's really easy to maintain good relationships with others. It's such a self-challenging sport, that it's pretty easy to keep the competition low-key and friendly!
Kim: I have some incredibly amazing and supportive women in my life. While I don't have a ton of friends, the women who I consider to be closest to me are inspiring (each in their own unique way) and encouraging of my hopes, dreams, and aspirations in and outside of sports. I feel very lucky to have these three women in my life. It is not hard to keep the relationships strong and encouraging. It is quite simple, I do not compare myself to any of these women and I want to see them all succeed in their intended goals. While we are all runners, climbers, and mountaineers, we have a different approach to similar (while being very different) goals. I think the best way to keep friendships strong is to keep comparisons at a minimum. This can be difficult but I like to feed off my friend's energy rather than envy it.
Michele: Yes! I try to make sure to surround myself with only supportive people in general because I want to equally feel happiness in each other's successes. The only person I am competitive with is myself, seeing how I can improve, beat my times, get stronger, etc. It's not the only thing that drives me though. Even if I am having a rough day out there, I always finish what I start because in the end that is what is most important to me. I try to make sure that is the attitude that the people I hang out with also have and if I feel it appearing to me as anything else, then I will take a step back and focus on the relationships that have healthier mindsets. Sometimes that is easier said than done though.
There's a conversation out there about the inequality in the sport of ultra running and how it's affected podium recognition, prize money and even actual entry into races. Whether or not you are an ultra-runner, can you speak to any personal experiences you have had with being viewed as unequal in your chosen sport? How have you handled dealing/responding to that?
Sawna: I haven't thought about this too much but it seems as though the talk about gender inequality, although it's been around for- well forever, these days the talk has become louder. With as many incredible women athlete out there I'm pretty shocked that I haven't seen many as vocal as I would think to see. I think women are undervalued in this sport and really this sport is so incredibly underpaid as it is compared to say... track. I support this conversation and hope that it leads to a more positive approach leading away from inequality.
Mackenzie: When I first started hiking I definitely heard comments like "Oh it's just you two girls going camping? No guys? Are you sure you will be OK?" insert eye roll here. And granted it was a college boyfriend that originally got me into hiking, but after we broke up, one of my college roommates and I started heading out for our own girl hikes and camping weekends. We definitely weren't experienced when we started but we were smart about it and our confidence grew the more we went.
On one occasion we were setting out to hike Katahdin for maybe our 3rd time and were appropriately dressed, had all our gear in our packs and were about to head out when a ranger stopped us to quiz us on our gear to make sure we had everything we might need. I appreciate his concern, but as he was asking us a couple guys were heading to the same trail head obviously unprepared in jeans and only had a water bottle but no one stopped to question them. We were just like oh come on? Just because we are girls doesn't mean we are less prepared or less capable! It's funny observing situations like that, but while annoying it hasn't been discouraging, in fact it's just made me more motivated to keep up the girl hiking tradition!
Kim: Several times I have experienced men challenging my sense of direction in the mountains and it has ultimately led to unfavorable circumstances. I have solo navigated quite a few off trail mountains deep in the backcountry of 14 different states and Alberta, Canada. I have taught myself the crucial skill of orienteering (although I still want to take an official class) and feel I have a good sense of direction and movement through the mountains. These men have joked, "You're a woman, and you don't have a good sense of direction." These are men I have gone out with in group hikes or randoms. I don't normally climb mountains with people I don't know but on the few occasions I have, this has been my experience. My male friends have NEVER treated me this way, they respect my abilities and often look at me for safe navigation.
In addition, I have noticed a few times in ultra-distance trail races, men get upset when I pass them and try to speed up and show me they can go faster (happens out in the mountains sometimes too). Ellie and I have a term for it, we call them "try hards." They are going to try real hard not to let a woman pass them.
The one thing I have noticed during award ceremonies is they always do the female awards first. And save the male awards as the grand finale. I do not understand this. Why are the male awards more important? I would love to see this change, I think it would be a huge step.
What are your thoughts on viewing other women in your life as competitors? Have you ever participated in competition with a friend? If so, what was the takeaway from the experience, whether it be good or bad?
Tiare: First off - I absolutely hate competition. That's why I never took for team sports, all the things I've ever stayed interested in are mainly independent. It makes me super uncomfortable to compete with other women whether it's in a sport or in everyday life. I see it in people around me and I find myself distancing from people who do that. When I notice it within myself - I distance myself. I focus a lot on having healthy boundaries because I believe there is enough space in this world for everyone to shine their own light.
Sawna: I'd like to say I'm not competitive- but I'd be lying. I'm competitive with everyone, female and male, but mostly with myself. When I'm racing, yes, I see other women has competitors but it always a friendly competition and it's always about experiencing a shared passion together no matter what the outcome would be.
Mackenzie: I wouldn't consider my hiking a competitive sport but some friends and I are working on hiking all 48 of the White Mountain 4000 footers and sometimes it feels like a bit of a race and competition comparing who has finished more.
But while I am looking forward to finishing my 48 peaks I try to remind myself that I'm working on the list to explore more of the whites, not just to check peaks off before someone else.
Ellie: Like I said before, the ultra-community is so friendly, and understanding. It's always anyone's race, since it's over such a long distance. A little competition is healthy, but I try to not get worked up about it!
Kim: I work very hard not to compare myself to other women or view other women as competitors. Women should support other women. Even in engineering school a male dominated academic field, I support the women I go to school with. I have been in running races with my female friends but I did not feel competition, I wanted them to do great. We are all different ages and we all have a different level of experience. I respect my own journey and I am proud of my accomplishments and my friend's accomplishments. There was one time that a woman I was once good friends with was running the same ultra as me. She once spent a good portion of a long hike making fun of running, describing in detail why it was so "stupid." She kind of personally attacked something I love doing for many different reasons and then all of a sudden decided to start running ultras. While I was excited for her, I wanted to beat her. I spent the entire race focusing on beating her, which I did. It was a terrible icky feeling to have that be my motivator for 8 hours. I swore I would never let something so childish drive me again, and it hasn't. She has run several more ultras and I am so happy she now understands the joy that can be found in a good suffer fest.
Michele: Competition is not something I participate in with others. Even in ultras, I try very hard to just run my own race and not think about anyone else. I understand that with elite athletes, they are competing for money and ultimately sponsorships (and it can also sometimes be their job), so competition in that way makes sense to me. Any other type of competition, especially between friends, seems childish and immature. Anyone that cares that much about what someone else can do, rather than what they personally accomplish, is going to be stuck in a very disappointing status quo of their own making.
What are the most important things that you have learned throughout doing your sport that you would have liked someone to give you advice on, whether it be woman specific or otherwise?
Tiare: For mountaineering - "It doesn't matter how fast you go, just put one step in front of the other."
Mackenzie: Don't be afraid to just get out there, especially with something like hiking, there are trails for everyone, you can start with just a short flat walk in the woods and build up from there!
You don't need fancy gear you just need some reliable basics! It also helps to go out with a friend or someone that does have more experience to lead the way in the beginning, so grab a friend or join a group to make new hiking friends!
Kim: I think the biggest thing about climbing mountains as a woman is climbing solo. While a lot of the stigma of women doing things alone has been dropped, thanks to the many women who came before us fighting for the rights we have today, there is still a stigma. Climbing mountains alone as a woman is no different than climbing mountains alone as a man.
The same dangers apply. It is unlikely you will be attacked by a male predator 10 miles deep into a back country bushwhack. Solo climbing is an empowering and enlightening experience and women are just as capable as men.
Michele: I think the most important thing is to just focus on yourself and what you're currently able to do and know that with time, you will get stronger and better. It's easy to get caught up in what others already have experience in and wish that you could already do those things too. But once you just forget about all that silliness, it's so much more fun and relaxing to just do your own thing. Personally I've found that I ended up discovering I was capable of so much more than I thought I ever could be, once I dropped the notion that it mattered what anyone else thought I could do.
Do you have a topic that is important to you that you would like to bring attention to? This doesn't have to be related to your sport, enlighten us who may not be aware of certain topics what we should be keeping our eyes and ears open to.
Mackenzie: One cause I fundraise for every year is the Maine Adaptive Sports and Recreation program, it gives people with physical disabilities the tools they need to get out and enjoy the outdoors. I love that this program helps more people get outdoors when they otherwise would be restricted by their disabilities and I am happy to support the program through their annual ski-a-thon fundraising event.
What is your proudest accomplishment in your chosen sport and what makes you so proud of it?
Tiare: Climbing Mount Baker and Mount Rainier. I did something that at one point in my life never believed was possible and being up there feels like such an accomplishment from the kind of life I used to live.
Sawna: Recently it would be finishing Fatdog 120. A 120 mile point to point footrace in British Columbia, Canada. My most proudest accomplishment because of my uncertainty and doubt I had about my ability and strength and how I even proved myself wrong. It was a roller coaster of emotion and somehow my body continued to fight when my will was ready to give up. A 33 hour event I will never forget.
Mackenzie: Doing a solo mini road-trip by myself through New England and NY, hiking almost every day and camping out most nights. I'm proud of going out and doing it on my own, it was the first time I hiked alone and the first time I camped alone, it was one of those times where I finally realized I didn't need a boyfriend or my besties to go out and have an adventure.
I also am typically a type A planner, and while I had an idea of where I wanted to go and a few stops to visit friends planned along the way I also just let things happen organically too, I drove to a new town or state each day, hiked something and camped out that night, where I would then plan my next stop, it was liberating having that type of freedom to do whatever I want, and empowering to be conquering the peaks on my own.
Ellie: I guess I'm most proud of my last ultra, Ouray 100. But honestly, they're all a bit of a suffer fest, and there's always something to be proud of in finishing (or getting as far as possible)!
Kim: My proudest accomplishment is my latest accomplishment. I ran the Pikes Peak Marathon in 6:19:15 snagged 4th in my age group and 19th overall female in a stacked race with 200 other women. During the marathon I finished the 58 Colorado 14 thousand plus foot mountains on top of Pikes Peak 14,115'. Leading up to this race I had been climbing difficult mountains every single day. I went in exhausted with dead legs. I chose to toe the starting line with a positive attitude and never broke the smile on my face. I effortlessly pushed myself and it was the best race I ever had. Dozens of people came up to afterwards and told me my positive attitude carried them on and that my personality was memorable. It was an incredibly powerful day and a great culmination of the difficult changes I have pushed myself through in the last 4 years.
Michele: I could pick a few accomplishments that I have been proud of, but I'm most proud of the fact that I've never put limitations on myself. Once I decide that I want to do something, I don't let anyone else tell me that I can't, and I work my butt off until I accomplish that goal.
Who is your favorite woman athlete and why?
Sawna: My favorite athlete, and really inspiring lady would Alex Borsuk; trail runner, mountaineer, climber, skier. A girl I've been friends on social media for the last year or two that really inspires me to get outside and be more active with my dog. Not only that; but to see a girl my age doing what she is 100% passionate about is inspiring and truly motivating. An authentic human being who is enthusiastic for life- who wouldn't be inspired by that!?
Mackenzie: No specific athletes I follow, but my favorites are my ladies that keep me company on my mountain adventures!
Ellie: I think one of my favorite woman athletes is Anna Frost. I tend to have a greater appreciation for people who move efficiently and smart in the mountains, since I think that's some of the most difficult terrain! I have a tremendous respect for every single person in this sport though...
Kim: I have 3 favorite women athletes and they are not elite or famous, they represent every day women who crush.
1) Allison Snyder - Allison used to run collegiate track but an eating disorder and injuries led to an incomplete career. She turned to the mountains and running ultra-marathons. I have climbed dozens of mountains with Allison and she is not only capable but a beautiful climber. Allison moved into her car and spent 1 full year solo road tripping (running and climbing) all over the country. She is the strongest female presence I have in my life and is encouraging and supportive of my goals.
2) Michele Dillon - Michele will try anything, literally anything with zero fear of failure. This is what initially drew me to her and this is what keeps me hooked in the friendship. I am in awe of her ability to respect her mind and body while pushing far past her limits. She is a great runner and is becoming one hell of a little mountain climber. Oh, and she is the nicest person on the face of the planet, so there is that.
3) Ellie Hacker - I have spent more time with Ellie over the past 8 months than I have spent with any other single person in the last 4 years. She is stubborn and her stubbornness and inability to quit has led this young lady to some seriously impressive finish lines (the Ouray 100 with 42,000 feet of vertical gain!). Ellie is an all-around tremendous athlete who has a seemingly endless well of energy. She is an absolute blast to climb mountains with. If we are being honest a couple of bad climbs with some random men made me appreciate having a female best friend who is so capable of moving safely and efficiently through the mountains. I expect Ellie to do tremendous things in her life and you can bet I'll be there to support every single one of them.
Michele: Anyone who knows me, knows that my answer is most definitely Clare Gallagher...and there are so many reasons why she is my favorite female ultra runner. She has a radiating positive and passionate attitude and uses it to not only lift other people up but also to spread the word on important worldwide topics. She is very intelligent and also extremely talented but also doesn't rely on those two things to just get her through life. She works hard for everything she accomplishes and I take a lot of inspiration and encouragement from the way she lives life and crushes trails.
Who is your favorite male athlete and why?
Sawna: Again, this is a difficult one. This last year I've been quite obsessed over Adam Campbell and his recovery and comeback. He's an overall extraordinary mountain lover, runner, climber, skier- you name it. Learning about him breaking his pelvis and spine last year during a climbing was devastating! However, through social media, watching his recovery and strength to get back to the mountains and his passions was such an incredible thing. I stood in Silverton, Colorado as he finished Hardrock 100, the most difficult one hundred mile footrace when not even a year ago he was unable to walk. It was inspiring and gutsy to say the least. I could name of tons of Male Athletes that are my "favorite" for any particular reason. But Adam, his passion for the mountains shines through him and is incredibly contagious.
Ellie: This is a hard one. But... I mean. Killian. Because Killian.
Kim: My favorite male athlete right now is Mike Wardian solely because he is kind, humble and an all-around well balanced runner/mountain athlete
Michele: Before Hardrock this year, I would have been on the fence about this question, but after witnessing Kilian Jornet run through the Ouray aid station (mile 60) with his arm in a makeshift sling from his own hydration pack after having dislocated his shoulder, and popped it back in himself some 40 miles prior...then going on to WIN the race with the most amazing attitude and style, it's no contest. On top of all that, he does everything with an extremely infectious smile on his face and you can just tell that he just absolutely loves what he is doing.