The 2023 Baker Trail UltraChallenge (Baker Ultra) near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, accomplished a milestone rare for any 50-mile race: the number of female participants exceeded the number of registered male runners. Just two years ago, the race organizers launched an initiative to expand female participation with the objective of reaching gender parity, and a significant DNS rate on the morning of the race this year tipped the scales. The final percentage of participants totaled 52% female entrants for this challenging 50-miler, which also coincided with the race “selling out” for the first time in its 19-year history.
Kaylee Frederick, 18, was the youngest competitor and came into the race having recently become the youngest ever to finish the grueling Badwater 135. Kaylee was accompanied at the Baker Ultra by her mother and role model, Georgetta, who finished within 15 minutes of Kaylee. Georgetta said of her daughter’s budding ultra-racing career, “I am so happy to have had the privilege of encouraging and supporting (Kaylee) on this journey.”
At the other end of the age spectrum was 72-year-old Penny Williams from Maryland. Williams holds an age group record for the legendary JFK 50-miler, in addition to completing a 100-mile race at the age of 70. “I believe if more women run ultras, it will inspire many more. And I’m hoping at age 72, I can inspire women to believe they can also,” said Williams. At age 73, Lee Doughtery was another inspirational participant at this year’s Baker. Dougherty, an equally accomplished ultrarunner, earned a buckle from the Leadville 100-miler at age 65.
Baker Ultra organizers are striving to encourage women to experiment with running longer distances and build the necessary confidence to progress using a variety of promotional incentives. Shannon Mick, a three-time participant in the Baker Ultra, shared her thoughts on the issue, “In some cases, women are told by society that they can’t or shouldn’t. ’Mom guilt’ is an issue when it comes to training and racing.”
The organizers launched an explicit recruitment initiative aimed at registering women. One of this year’s runners, Grayce Langeheine, said, “I think more women come when they’re invited.”
For the second year, race organizers hosted free group training runs, affording runners a preview of the course and a chance to meet other runners. These efforts were viewed as genuine confidence builders, especially among the women. Evie Kaszer, a Baker veteran, described the group runs as “… a supportive tribe of warriors battling the 50-mile challenge together.”
Rachel Carson Trails Conservancy, (RCTC), the nonprofit organization that hosts the race and maintains the Baker Trail, received positive feedback after posting the gender metrics on their social media pages. A comment on Facebook read: “As a trans man who runs marathons, hikes for hours and camps with my (straight) wife: keep up the good work; it is appreciated.” RCTC’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee plans to have transgender and non-binary race categories in place for the 2024 race, mirroring the High Lonesome 100 event.
At the end of the day, the goal of the Baker Ultra is to support a race that attracts and celebrates all types of runners, regardless of speed, race or gender. Their aim is the celebration of a shared goal of running 50 miles. Mikala Shremshock, a participant this year and a winner of the 2021 race, summed up the effort necessary to make a race genuinely inclusive, “The Baker Ultra’s success serves as a reminder to race directors everywhere that building an inclusive running community requires more than just talk. It demands countless hours of work, relentless outreach and a genuine desire to bring everyone to the trails.”