UD ambassadors Sandi Nypaver and Taylor Nowlin, and Jade de la Rosa and myself (Sarah Burke) ascended the first major climb of the course as the sun was rising. It was just that kind of lighting where you could finally make out the trail below you without the aid of your headlamp. Joyful hoots of “WOOO WOOO” and “EYYYYYE EYYYE EYYYE” were heard as we covered ground. Primal sounds, maybe, but what this moment really boiled down to was the most simplistic expression of female empowerment, embodied in the strength and pure presence of us four women running sole to sole. We were competitors, yes, but greater than that, we all had a mutual respect for each other borne out of our shared passion for running. Undeniably, trail running is hard. A little (often, a lot) of suffering is inevitable in any race. However, what makes the painful experience sweeter is the camaraderie of like minded individuals – in this case, female trail crushers.

Such camaraderie exists in the trail running scene, yet there is a huge discrepancy in the numbers of male and female participants in races. Case in point, out of the 178 runners in the Santa Barbara Nine Trails 35 mile race, 127 were male, and only 51 were female. The fact that less than thirty percent of the athletes were female only amplifies the importance of women supporting other women in the sport. There is only room for empowerment, and no room for discouragement, regardless of a runner’s speed, level of dedication, or level of experience. Whether it’s the podium finishers encouraging each other with words of affirmation during the race, or runners new to the sport teaming up to complete a seemingly daunting race distance, a culture of camaraderie is absolutely necessary to strive towards a more even distribution of genders in the race results.

Sure, trail running is not for everyone, but the Nine Trails race broadened the base of entrants by incorporating a relay-style event. Instead of trekking 17 miles up and over the Santa Barbara mountains to then turn around and run that same 17 miles back, the two person relay presented the option to split the race with a partner and to cover the distance as a team. Race events often only offer the opportunity to race as an individual, but incorporating multiple types of races into one event is a way to the broaden the pool of entrants.

Kelly and Sarah at the halfway point, switching their team bib from Sarah to Kelly as she sets out on the final 17 miles (p: Sarah Cotton)

Ultimate Direction athlete, Kelly Wolf, and myself raced the 2 person relay. Above all else, this made for an incredibly fun day. I ran the first leg of the relay for team Blondie Maries, and what fueled a large part of my fire was knowing that Kelly was waiting for me at the halfway point, and was prepared to throw down a fast 17 miles to the finish. At the finish line, Patsy Dorsey, Santa Barbara trail legend and OG race director of the Nine Trails event, was cheering with open arms, waiting to give Kelly and I a hug as Kelly crossed the finish line in first place overall for the relay. Her enthusiastic spirit and genuine pride for her home trails was absolutely contagious. I felt so grateful on that day, and every day, to be part of a community of people who pour their heart and soul into the sport of trail running.

Patsy Dorsey with a finish line embrace (p: Sarah Cotton)

As a trail runner, you are an individual – one with immense power, mental fortitude, and most likely quads of steel. But, as an individual, you are part of a team, a community, a network of similarly driven humans. And so, trail running (and life, for that matter) is a team sport. Furthermore, a team sport where nobody gets cut from the team and everyone brings something uniquely different and equally important to the race course. Not every team sport is this inclusive. Many have greater barriers for entry than the sport of running, which is why it’s so incredibly important to preserve and magnify this culture of openness. At the end of the day, we are all hedonists of various extremes, and are driven by pleasure and fun. Trail racing is fun, and I encourage anyone to join the team, especially my fellow trail sisters.