Kiwi ultramarathon runner Sophie Grant has been pushed and yelled at while racing in the Northern Hemisphere, but now she’s striking back.
Sophie Grant has made a promise to herself. If she or a fellow female ultra runner is blocked from passing, told to slow down, or pushed off the trail again – she’s going to make a big fuss about it.
A New Zealand-born London hairdresser who lives in a campervan with her husband travelling around Europe running and racing, Grant is no slowpoke. She’s finished on the podium in international ultra races, and represented Britain at the world trail championships.
She has also been the target of abuse and bullying from male runners and spectators. And she’s seen it happen to friends and other women runners too.
“I’ve had some really mixed experiences. Ninety-nine percent of the time the men I race with are amazing,” she tells the Dirt Church Radio podcast.
“But there are definitely men over here who feel very threatened by being passed by a woman.
“I’ve had a lot of men tell me I’m going too fast: ‘Oh you won’t be able to finish’.”
In one race, Grant was running in the middle of a pack, sitting around fifth place, when a male runner in front of her wouldn’t let her overtake him.
“No matter what I said, no matter what I did, he would not let me pass,” she says. “It actually took a guy behind me shouting at him, and putting his hand in my back and pushing me past him, for that guy to let me past.
“Unfortunately, in that same race, one of my friends got pushed off the trail – because she passed a guy and he didn’t like it. She sprained her ankle and her race was over. And he didn’t even stop.”
Another female runner told Grant that in her last race, she was sitting behind the third-placed woman in the field, when that woman’s husband told her to “slow down and take it easy”.
“Just a casual bit of trailside advice,” Grant says with a laugh.
Grant, who didn’t take up running until she moved to London as a 19-year-old, says the abuse is not so bad in the United Kingdom. “There’s a strong fell-running community, where the women are strong and fast, and they’re used to women racing well,” she says.
And although the situation is improving in Europe, she’s decided it’s time to speak up.
“I’ve made a pretty big promise to myself now though, that next time that sort of thing happens to me in a race, I’ll be telling the race directors. It’s happened to me many times… and I’m going to be making a lot more of a fuss now,” she says
“I’m lucky now I’m in a position where I can race well. I’m not exactly a wallflower; I’m quite bolshy. I know I can give it as good as I get. But actually, race directors need to be made aware of the fact that this stuff is going on in their races.”
Growing up in Christchurch, Grant did a lot of hiking as a kid – her dad worked for the Department of Conservation, so the family spent a lot of time in the Kiwi outdoors. She feels that primed her for what she’s experienced on overseas trails.
“In New Zealand, we are brought up to keep up with the boys. Which is great in one sense, because you never think that you’re going to be less or weaker. But over here, there is a more old-fashioned take on where a woman’s place is,” she says.
“There are so many things that stand in the way of women running. Typically, we are the caregivers to children; unfortunately we end up in the gender roles as the ones looking after the house. In a lot of relationships, a woman’s hobby would come second to the husband’s. There’s definitely a lot of guilt around women running.”
Grant, who is able to fit in her hairdressing work around racing and running, is also ready to push for the inclusion of more women in ultra and trail races.
The percentage of women trail-running in New Zealand is strong and growing. So far in the entry list for next year’s Tarawera Ultramarathon, women make up 42 percent of the entries in the 102km race, and 61 percent of the 51km race.
Grant says that’s not necessarily the case at races in Europe and the UK: “In most of the big races, 12 percent of the fields are women.” But she believes race directors could take some positive steps to redress the balance.
“What I would like to see is them filling 20 percent of their race field from a women’s ballot first, and then putting everybody else back into a second ballot,” she says.
“No races do it. A lot of men are very angry about the prospect of it. And it doesn’t just need to be women. There’s a lot of under-represented people.
“In ultras, often the women’s races are more exciting than the men’s, because we don’t pace ourselves like idiots. Chances are the top 20 women who start are going to finish.”
Grant is seeing some change in the Northern Hemisphere. The race director for the Lakes Sky Ultra – a race in England’s Lakes District which Grant has won – is making an effort to draw more women to his race, she says.
“Every year I run it because it’s such a great race – a bit scary, lots of steep uphills, lots of steep downhills – and every time I run it I’m like ‘where are the rest of the women?’ And [the race director] is like ‘I’m trying so hard’. He’s had someone rewrite his website so it’s less masculine. He’s just trying to do everything he can to get more women into his race.”
Recognition of female runners is taking place in New Zealand. As an example, Phil Rossiter, race director of the 85km Old Ghost Road race on the West Coast, decided the title of the top climber in the race wouldn’t be ‘King of the Mountain’ but ‘Royal of the Mountain’. Just as well – this year Ruth Croft blitzed both the women’s and men’s field to earn the ‘Royal’ crown.
Grant says running has brought her a career (she coaches now too), and “so much joy”.
“There’s so much of this world that I’d love to be able to share with other women as well. You don’t need to feel like you may not be allowed out to do this. It’s there for everyone – let’s use it,” she says.
“The best thing we can do is keep talking about it and putting it out there. It’s not going to change overnight, it’s just something we have to work on.
“It’s like our grandmas were part of getting the women the right to vote. The more we talk about it and put it out there that it’s not okay, hopefully the more we will see some traction.”
Grant has come a long way from the kid who would get her parents to write notes excusing her from school cross-country races.
She began running after she moved to London with her now-husband, George, and went partying and put on weight. Her father-in-law was a keen runner who ran alongside her as she started out, at first managing just 15 minutes.
“We used to run together five days a week. Having someone to help you build that habit is amazing. You don’t want to leave your boyfriend’s father out in the cold and the rain in the morning,” she says.
A “competitive person”, Grant began racing 10km, then half marathons, then marathons. In 2013, wanting to go faster or further, her husband gave her an entry to her first multi-day race – the five-day Marathon des Sables desert ultra. She finished fourth.
“It was slightly unexpected, that. There’s something about being out in the desert, surrounded by 1000 equally crazy people. It completely lit a fire under me to want to do this kind of racing,” she says.
Grant has also raced her way onto the podium at the renowned Transgrancanaria Ultra, and won bronze with British women’s team at the world trail champs.
After spending lockdown in London, Grant and her husband have taken their van to Northern Italy, where they are running and climbing mountains until races begin again.
Once every five weeks, Grant flies back to London and does four days of hairdressing work with her clients, before returning to life in her campervan in the mountains.
“My bosses are really supportive of my running, which is amazing,” she says. “I have the best of all worlds.”
* Dirt Church Radio is a Kiwi trail running podcast hosted by Eugene Bingham and Matt Rayment. Learn more at dirtchurchradio.com