The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc has been defiant for years in not allowing women to defer their entries due to pregnancy. Pregnancy is seen as a choice, unlike injuries for which runners are allowed to keep their place. Why does this matter? This article by ultrarunner Stephanie Case puts it beautifully. But with women making up such a small minority of entrants – in 2021 fewer than 8% of the UTMB race itself - surely the race should be doing everything to encourage female athletes?
This has finally been changed. Though it still isn't in the terms and conditions, or on the website. There hasn’t been an announcement. But UTMB as an organisation have confirmed to me that women will have the opportunity to defer their places for up to 2 years – if only we can raise awareness to let them know to ask!
For many this may seem like a small win. You still have to pay the race fee again. But for me and the many women I’ve spoken to, it is having the opportunity to be on that start line that matters most. The years we peak as endurance athletes often coincide with when we start families. Without race directors holding our places we can miss out on our dream performances entirely. As the biggest race series in ultrarunning, UTMB sets standards that others will follow.
It’s an issue close to my heart as I was unable to defer my UTMB place twice. In 2014 I lost my place as I was pregnant with my first son. It took me 4 years to gain another as I struggled to recover postpartum to collect the necessary points then missed out twice in the ballot. Falling pregnant again took longer than I wanted – I have to admit that my first calculation on seeing those blue lines was that my baby would only be 3 months old on race day! But UTMB by then still gave no allowances for pregnancy or postpartum. Unwilling to miss out on my dream a second time I chose to run, and the photograph of me breastfeeding Cormac mid-race went viral around the world.
The image sparked a conversation about the difficulty mothers face in having our own goals, as well as taking on our new role as carer. In sport this is magnified by the challenge of getting back to fitness after having our babies.
It also drove positive change within our running community with races around the world putting in place pregnancy policies. In most cases, the race organiser just had not thought about it (more on that later).
I received thousands of messages from women around the world, mostly about how the image had empowered them in some way, but some in similar situations, asking for my help to defer race entries.
Last year I approached the London Marathon , who were denying women who had earned Good For Age places (places with a qualifying time) the right to defer if pregnant. After much discussion, they accepted that their previous standpoint that equal rules (no deferrals for men and women) did not achieve equality. They allowed women for the first time to defer for pregnancy/postpartum though, similar to UTMB today, would not make an announcement or put it in writing.
This led me to try and publicise the change myself through a column for Telegraph Sport and a lot of Instagram work – work that uncovered many other women that would have missed out otherwise. (London Marathon has now reconsidered and in July of this year published a wide ranging inclusivity policy that I hope other World Majors take notice of).
Frustrated at the initial refusal by London Marathon to put its policy in writing and set precedent, sports lawyer (and world record breaking Atlantic rower) Victoria Evans challenged Ironman Group. To their credit, they worked with her to develop a new written policy, which also includes allowances for adoptive parents and athletes with a race close to their partner’s due date.
With the strong link between Ironman and UTMB, I was then more hopeful for change and tried to get in touch through sponsors and directly, but had no luck. At the same time more women were messaging me reporting refusals. However a few months ago I had another message with the same story "congratulations on your pregnancy, but no deferral". I asked her to try again – asking again for the reason – and second time around she got a yes!
I checked the T&Cs but there had been on updates so I contacted the UTMB press office where I arranged a call with Marie Sammons, the Sport and Regeneration Director. To my delight she confirmed that UTMB are finally allowing women to defer for pregnancy!! This will be for up to 2 years depending on their pregnancy timing.
It is fantastic news and hopefully leads to more change in our sport. The only reason I agreed to share Alexis Berg’s beautiful (yet quite intimate) photo was that I hoped that no other mother would have to lose her chance to race when fully fit. I’m so glad this will no longer happen.
But sadly this news will not be communicated by UTMB (hence this blog post). It is not yet in the Terms & Conditions. Women have to ask – to challenge the rules on the website which (perhaps famously now) do not permit deferrals. This is something we are not conditioned to do. So I am asking you all to share this however you can to ensure no woman misses out for having a baby.
Deferrals for pregnancy are just a small part of how races can support women to achieve our athletic goals and level the start line. In June I set up SheRACES – a campaign to get more women on the start line, where we belong. Our survey had almost 2000 responses with women sharing their experiences and from those we created a set of guidelines for race directors to make racing more inclusive. Helping them give us an equal opportunity to race. The right experience when we do. And respect our competition.
It has had an incredible reception so far with many race directors committing to making simple changes. The majority have admitted they just hadn’t thought about certain requests that we raised; from diverse imagery on websites, to proper toilet provision, female fit t-shirts and separate results for the women’s race. It all makes a difference.
What I didn’t know is that UTMB had been making their own steps to understand female runners too and how they can encourage more to participate in their races. Marie and her team have surveyed 2000 female runners with an interest in trail running, but who have never run more than 30km. She will be sharing their insights during UTMB week, though we will have to wait for their proposed changes to ensure more women feel welcome at the start line.
They may have taken years to make the simple cost-less change to allow pregnancy deferrals. But maybe they will now become an icon for inclusivity. After all, our SheRACES survey showed 88% of women would be more likely to sign up for a race which committed to our guidelines and UTMB is a business after all.
As for me, Chamonix holds very special memories. I dream of returning, racing fully fit and crossing the same finish line with my now three children. As soon as I feel that female athletes are equally valued, I'll be putting my name in that ballot.