It’s time to admit we have a “female problem” in adventure racing. And not a “For Pete’s sake, you broke another one?” problem (yeah, this has happened), but a bigger, systemic issue: there are not enough women in adventure racing. And without intentional intervention by all race directors, the problem is not going away anytime soon.
Just over half the general population is female, but within AR, it’s under 25%. How do we account for the dramatic decrease? And once we identify the reasons causing the lack of female participation in AR, what can we do to fix it?
Here’s why you should care:
- AR has a serious demographic problem – With many adventure racers in the 40-50-year age group, lots of our best and most dedicated racers’ remaining years of racing are probably in the single or low double digits. We need fresh blood for the sport to keep going, let alone grow.
- The low participation rate amongst women shows a huge opportunity for bringing in the new racers the sport needs.
- If you love AR and the incredible experiences it provides, finding better ways to market to groups of people who currently aren’t exposed to our sport should rank high on your list of priorities.
- Finding new ways to market to specific demographics helps professionalize our sport, elevating our collective skill sets and helping transform the AR community.
- We all suffer from unconscious biases, meaning we unintentionally design and market our races to suit the desires and needs of ourselves. No big deal at the start, as “scratching your own itch” is a great way to get started, but if you’re constantly just making a race to satisfy you and your friends’ interests, you lose out attracting a broader audience. Adjusting our efforts to account these biases helps improve the quality of our races and ourselves.
Why should you listen to us? Well, we have both been in AR for a while now—Michelle since 2005 and Liz since 2007—in every different capacity: volunteer, racer, soloist, team member, race director. We’ve also been involved with getting women into adventure sports: Liz started a women’s only mountain biking group in 2003 and ran it for several years; and Michelle has been producing the Buff Betty Women’s Adventure Race since 2012, which is the only AR in North America that is for women only. Our cumulative experiences provide us some valuable insights on women and AR.
(We don’t feel it’s necessary to go into why women are important to adventure racing teams. Suffice to say that each team member brings unique strengths, knowledge base, and point of view to a race. Diversity is good. And benefits to race directors of attracting and keeping an entire demographic are obvious!)
There are plenty of women in other endurance sports (mountain biking, ultra-running, long-distance triathlon, to name a few). Women make up more than 50% of customers in adventure travel. Cynthia Dunbar of REI Adventures was quoted in Condé Nast Traveler as saying “since 2010, women traveling with us has grown by 60 percent, and we continue to see this figure grow steadily each year. Last year alone, 58 percent of all our guests were women.”
So, therefore, we can assume that women enjoy and participate in endurance sports and that they also enjoy and participate in adventurous pursuits. According to the American Time Use Survey for 2011 to 2015, the participation numbers for men and women in the components of AR, while weighted toward men, is not too far from the middle: cycling 54% men to 46% women; running 61% men to 39% women; hiking 59% men to 41% women. 
In the 2016 census compiled by Adventure Race Hub, out of 443 respondents, 335 were male and 108 were female. While these results admittedly suffered from “a high degree of selection bias,” it’s a great start to aggregating data within the sport. Women were 24.3% of respondents, though women make up 50.8% of the total population (according to the 2010 census). It’s our opinion that a higher percentage of adventure racing women answered the AR census since we’ve never been at a race or other AR event (except the Buff Betty) where 25% of the participants were women. It’s generally closer to 10-15%. So something is clearly amiss since women are participating in outdoor and endurance activities at a much higher percentage of the total than at AR. What’s happening to cause this disconnect?
So why not AR?
As with all complex issues, there’s not one reason for these rather dismal numbers. Here are some of the major factors that we see:
Societal: In the U.S., at least, cultural norms definitely play a part. For better or for worse, it seems to be more acceptable for Dad to run away for the weekend to play in the woods than it is for Mom to do the same. Women already have a balancing act between work and home life; just getting out to train can be difficult… and participating in a 3- to 5-day race a logistical impossibility.
The Bravery Gap: Outside Magazine’s May 2017 issue was titled “The Future of Adventure is Female.” Among other excellent articles, one discussed the future of Girl Scouts and included this:
“I think we’re overprotecting girls while encouraging boys to take risks, be tough, and learn sound decision-making,” said Caroline Paul, a former firefighter and white water competitor, and the author of Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure. “We are failing to prepare girls for life.”
Behind the outdoor-sports discrepancy lurks a worrisome chasm: the bravery gap. A 2014 survey of more than 1,000 girls by the Oakland, California, nonprofit Girls Leadership showed that half identified as brave, compared with 63 percent of boys.
“A boy is pushed to do things, but when a girl says she’s scared, an adult will often intervene,” Paul said. “Boys are taught to persevere, and girls are told that fear will protect them. Fear has become a feminine trait. 
Yes, adventure racing can be scary and fear is definitely a part of racing, particularly at the expedition level. We have had some scary “oh shit” moments out in the wilderness, from paddling down class 5 whitewater, rescuing teammates, hiking razor-sharp ridgelines in the dark, to being so lost we had to sit down to compose ourselves and figure out “how the hell are we going to get out of this one.” But we survived!
Getting back to the “taking risks” point: our perception of fear and risks starts at an early age. It is no coincidence that many of the female racers we know grew up in environments that fostered outdoor adventure. From backpacking trips with parents to learning to climb and ride a mountain bike. If you are a parent who loves adventure racing, get out there with your kids, take risks, use a compass, and show them just how fun the outdoors can be! Race directors – find ways to allow Moms and Dads to incorporate their families in the sport so they can help foster the “esprit de adventure.” From family races to spectator friendly TAs/courses, there are great ways to use AR to teach bravery.
Infrastructure: Women seem to be more risk-averse than men (on the whole) and infrastructure in the U.S. doesn’t exactly foster safe distance training. When we were traveling in New Zealand earlier this year, we were thrilled at the cycling and trekking infrastructure. It made it so much easier to be outside and active! And the numbers of female AR participants in New Zealand shows the difference. In the last Spirited Women All Women’s Adventure Race (held March 31 to April 2), 293 TEAMS of 4 women each participated. This is large for ANY adventure race in the U.S.! The Spring Challenge in New Zealand, produced by Nathan Fa’aeve, consistently brings in over 1000 participants.
Implicit bias: There is a casual sexism within outdoor sports, including adventure racing. Chicago Athlete Magazine recently reported on a week-long event exploring gender bias in endurance sports (specifically triathlon and marathon). At the event, participants “shared their own experiences with gender bias as endurance athletes. They also considered some of the barriers still facing women marathoners and triathletes, including a lack of social support and assistance with childcare responsibilities [a frequent answer to the question “what would let you race more often?” in the AR Census.] They also examined the underlying causes of these issues, like differences in media coverage and portrayal and sponsorship opportunities.” We won’t bore you with numerous examples from our own experiences; but it’s out there, even in 2017. And we won’t be able to address it until we acknowledge that yes, it does exist.
What Can Race Directors Do to Reach, Attract, and Retain Female Racers
Obviously, the issues listed above are too complex and ingrained to be easily solved, but there are some steps race directors and promoters can take to increase female participation in AR:
Meet them where they are. Women are more likely to join all-female groups, rides, and clinics because the atmosphere tends to be more supporting and less competitive than even a social-paced co-ed ride. (Liz can’t count the number of times some chucklehead, usually a newish rider, decided that his rightful place in the ride line was directly in front of her, despite repeated evidence to the contrary). Women feel more comfortable asking questions and taking chances when surrounded by like-minded women (based on our own experiences in leading women-only mountain bike rides.)
One effective tool we’ve used is scheduling women’s AR clinics prior to races. In the clinics, we cover the basics of adventure racing: gear and clothing, maps, rules, passport, race flow, basic navigation, transition, and scoring. We try to keep it to 1-1/2 to 2 hours, then we have a short exercise on using a map and compass to find a couple of beginner points in nearby woods. Our next clinic is 2nd week of August.
Another tool we use is to involvement with the local riding, running, and racing communities. In our area at least, there is no more effective marketing tool than personal communication. The groups don’t even have to be made up solely of women (though that does help). And being a part of the local community can have wide-ranging benefits for race directors, beyond just attracting a wider demographic than might be found online or in traditional media channels.
Communicate completely and frequently. Women like information, and the more information they have, the better they feel. Women need to feel comfortable with and prepared for an event in the time leading up to it. Race directors: try to over-communicate the information regarding the race. And there are NEVER any stupid questions. Answer questions quickly and completely. It’s shocking how many AR websites are devoid of very basic information regarding their races. Just because the course itself remains a mystery doesn’t mean that everything revolving around the race should be too. Error on the side of over-explaining yourself. Remember, just because you, the almighty Race Director, knows every intricate detail of your race, don’t assume everyone else, even your veteran racers, do. Communicate, communicate, communicate.
Plan races that operate on multiple levels: There are as many different abilities and speeds in women racers as there are in male racers. So, don’t make your race shorter and easier thinking that alone will attract more women racers. Many women are up to both long distances and more challenging courses. In the Buff Betty, we have mandatory points that are appropriate for anyone who can read a trail map. Racers who get just those points successfully complete the race. We put in additional complex, off-trail points that are optional, for more experienced teams and those newer racers who want to challenge themselves. Be respectful. Everyone has to start somewhere. Respect the fact that each racer is getting out there, being active, and challenging herself. Acting superior or patronizing will lose you customers for life.
Which brings us to…
The Buff Betty… a women-only adventure race produced by Adventure Addicts Racing (us!)
Back in 2006, Michelle did her first Buff Betty with her sister in Cumberland, Maryland. Brad Hunt (a race director and promoter) put on the race; there was a series of Buff Betty’s across the country. They were very successful and he was often able to get top female adventure racers, such as Rebecca Rusch and Robyn Benincasa, to make an appearance and race. Brad continued the race for a few years, then closed up shop to move onto other projects. When Michelle and her Adventure Addicts co-founder Andy Bacon starting AAR in 2011, she specifically remembered the Buff Betty and how much fun it was. They thought, “Hey! We should be it back and make it our own!” It fit perfectly into their goal of growing the sport across all demographic groups. They contacted Brad, who graciously released the name and rights to the race. Adventure Addicts brought back the race in 2012; we’ll be producing our fourth Buff Betty on September 9th in Front Royal, Virginia.
Are we going to get 293 teams of 4 participating like in New Zealand? Unlikely, but we sure plan to try!
Other RDs: Do you have any suggestions on how to better engage specific audiences to help develop AR? Share your experiences in the comments and on the AR social media platforms to better inform the sport’s community!