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a Little Lady in the Big Woods

"Stop that! Don't do that in public. It's not ladylike," my Mom would sternly reprimand me every time I'd spit in front of her.

It was funny to me even as a child, the thought of me being a proper lady. Sure, I had tea parties with my neighborhood best friend... but our "tea parties" were really us filling cups with sugar and eating it for hours until we were so hyper and wild our parents sent us outside.

Growing up with 5 older sisters I learned to appreciate my femininity. I love neon pink, shopping, and am constantly painting my nails. Yet I even as a little girl I was always the tomboy of the family: playing t-ball, racing the boys, and playing football with my Dad at the annual father-sons turkey ball at the park.

It's a confusing grey place where 
femininity and grit coexist.

When I first started in the "outdoors" as a teen I started rock climbing. Sure, any guy would be willing to set up a TR for me.... the first few times. But once they realized that I was "one of the guys" and had no interest in dating them, I had to start putting up my own lines. After being married, and still climbing several times a week, it was the same. My projects weren't his projects-- i.e. anything I wanted to do, I needed to be able to do myself. To hang with the boys I needed play as they did- carrying my own gear to the crag, making my own tick lists, and making sure I could physically handle whatever it was I had up my sleeve.

I started working at an Outdoor Resource Center in college, and would frequently put canoes on trucks much taller than myself or co-carry an 85lb raft with a scout leader who was very concerned for my well-being. I would calmly explain to him that I was capable but I needed him to follow my instructions on how to help me carry the large, heavy raft. I learned where my limits were and how to help others to physically assist me when necessary.

Learning to do my fair share of the grunt work continued as I dabbled in mountaineering, canyoneering, and backpacking- especially in a group setting: I had to pull my own weight. Once I started multi-pitch climbing, especially with other Moms, especially with gear, I learned I needed to not only pull my own weight, but may have to help my friends with theirs.

My husband and I have spent so much time together in the backcountry that we've developed a silent system of methodical grunt work. He's setting up the tent while I haul gear. I'm gathering/ hauling wood over while he chops it. I start the fire while he washes dishes. I'm setting up sleeping bags while he's animal-proofing the camp. We split the work.

So it came as a shock to me last weekend the comments that were made by my male ultra running friends. Keep in mind that I was camping with them with my kids, but my husband was unavailable to come. So as I begun getting my stuff unloaded and set-up the guys began teasing:

"You should've let me carry that."
"You don't need to prove to us how tough you are."
"What are you doing? That's as big as you are!"

I didn't want to prove how tough I was. Not there at camp anyways! I was just assuming my usual role of mandatory work. They reminded me of my Mom, "That's not ladylike!"

As much as I can pull my own weight being a tiny little lady, I have many limits.

"So, you want to do the Highline trail? No woman has done it yet," says a fellow ultrarunner at camp.
Yes I want to do the Highline trail. It sounds like an incredible experience. While I often use navigation as an excuse, I know with GPS waypoints and a topo I'd be fine. The truth is: I am a small little lady who doesn't want to run through the big woods all night by herself.

Is it because of bears? Men with guns? Mountain lions? Getting lost? Yes and no to all of these things. I battle those risks on shorter runs on a daily basis. I just innately feel that wandering on an undefined trail in a remote wilderness and being a 105lb female is just a bad idea.

Why? I don't know.

Each day it's a battle on where to draw the line between 
gritty adventures and the innate cautious femininity.

Next week I plan on returning to the Uintas to bag a couple peaks. I could do it solo. I'd prefer not to. Why? I don't know. I don't want to need a man to be there to guide me. But since no lady has done the route I intend to take, it's not like I can ask a woman to come out there and show me the course either. I could go solo, but again... I'd prefer not to. If it comes to it I will, but I don't want to incur any unnecessary risk.

Why is there unnecessary risk for me to do it solo but not for a man?

Why is it riskier for a lady to run 30hours of bush-whack in the big woods than it is for a man?

...This blog post isn't about answers. I don't have them. I just have questions.

The innate differences between genders gets blurred over extreme distances, as we're stripped down to raw emotion and a slow crawling pace, but even then, things are different. If you don't believe me, you've never been on a long ultrarun/backpacking trip/ multi-pitch climb with a woman while she started a mense un(der) prepared. The hormonal cycles of women also make us prone to injury at different times of the month, and can also influence training as our emotions go along for the ride.

As tough as I may be, I am different than my male friends. I am not as tough; I am more cautious.
If I were male I would be willing to stay out later farther away from trailheads and cell service. My need for a safety net would lessen.

With the limits innate fear provides me, it creates new dependencies. I won't run between 12:30am-4am in the dark alone. I prefer not to start long runs between 4-5am alone. If I'm going to be more than 10 miles from a trailhead, I prefer to travel with a partner or two.

In a sport that men outnumber women 4 to 1, (depending on the race, up to 5 to 1), it takes no math to figure out who is easier to get out on a run at 4am. As a married woman who often runs with married men, I again set my precautions.

While I don't think my standards are perfect, I work hard to make sure both my running partners and their spouses as well as my spouse don't feel uncomfortable. Were I not to do this, I would risk not having running partners.

I avoid running solo with another male. I don't talk to any of them on the phone. Rarely will I text or email- most of my communication for scheduling is done via Facebook.... about as inpersonal as I can make it. I keep open communication with my husband and he also has open access to all of my personal accounts should he ever choose to look in them.

I recently organized a "women only" morning trail run. The guys moaned about it on facebook. Really guys, you have "men only" group runs on a weekly basis, i.e. any time one of us few ladies doesn't make it. It was nice to get out with other women and discuss where sports bras chafe, menopause, and menstruation in the back-country.

Why is it then that so many "hardened" mountain women have a difficult time making friends with other women? Have we just spent too much time with the guys that we forget how to communicate with each other?

I don't want to even get into attire as it pertains to how I approach adventures, but this blog post is quite engaging :
"My insecurities about my own body play a part in how I react to seeing other women scantily clad in the outdoors, as well as what I choose to wear myself." -Do These Booty Shorts Make My Female Empowerment Look Fat?

While I may agree or disagree on some of the blog discussion, I do admit-- there's an added factor into how I appear on the trails. Many years ago I was on a climbing trip with a large group. Not joining in the "partying" that went on after a day at the crag, I changed and headed out for a quick night run. When I got back, my friend (my tent partner and the only other female at our camp) pulled me aside, "Not that you care, or that this should or should not affect you, but I just want you to know what was said about you after you left." She went on to repeat to me the comments that had been made about my body/legs.

I was wearing a loose t-shirt and one of my longer, looser pairs of running shorts along with tall compression socks. not much of me was showing. I quickly changed and tried to put it out of my head. Similar comments have been shouted at me (and I assume this is the case with many other women) from men from the windows of their trucks as they drive by on roads. Perhaps this plays into that innate fear and desperate need for a safety net when I wander deeper into the wilderness.

So what's a lone little lady to do with big dreams in the big mountains? How do you think femininity and grit coexist? How does one navigate that grey place?

There's a lot of questions, a lot of topics I've hit, and not necessarily a lot of answers... but I'd love any thoughts and suggestions on for this Little Lady who wants to play in the Big Woods.


  1. Put your earbuds in, wear what you want, and carry a sharp knife when you're out in the woods.

    I don't know why it's so hard for women to make friends in our sport, but it is. We're intimidated by each other, more so than the guys, and we have to compare all sorts of other factors: that girl is fast than me, plus she has kids and looks better than I do after a long run. It really sucks. I was trying to count on my hand today how many married couples I know that run races together...I could think of one other couple in my group. That's a huge disconnect. What do the wives of my running friends think of me out there trying to keep up? What if I'm not willing to do the hard climbs? Will I loose my status as an outdoorsy person if I can't compete with men who are less cautious than me? Will they casually remind me that I'm out of my element? All I know is that you've got to do what you love.

  2. I've had these same questions, not because I'm a runner (we both know I'm far from it) but because I'm strong and I like being independent. But you hit it on the head when you said you know your limitations and your risk tolerance. That is less of a gender issue than it is just a factor of being you. There are plenty of men who wouldn't go running in the dark, alone, on a new trail. Stay true to yourself, keep to the standards that you know are important to you and those you love, keep living your passions, and don't listen to those who would bring you down (especially jealous sister in laws like me). Knowing what works for you is part of what makes you so strong and capable.


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