Kasie Enman Isn’t Afraid to Ask Why about Sports Equality

by EJN Comments (0) Articles, Commentary, Racing

By Paul Kirsch

Kasie Enman is well known in New England (and beyond) running circles. She has had some amazing accomplishments, which include being World Mountain Running Champion in 2011, finishing 11th at the Olympic Marathon Trials in 2008 and her recent 11th place finish at the 2015 WMRC. She also has a pretty good sense of humor.

Enman is passionate about running and that passion has recently been focused on a cause that is very important to her – sports equality for women within running. She has teamed with her sister-in-law, Molly Enman, to create a website, sportsequality.org, The site is focused on equal distances and team sizes for women in running and nordic sports.

We caught up with Kasie recently to learn more about what drove her to create the site and what she and Molly are hoping to accomplish.

At the World Mountain Running Champs, you organized the US women’s Mountain Running Team to pose for two pictures.  Can you give me the background on those two pictures? 

To be completely honest, I wish I had been more organized to take a stronger stand for equality out in Wales, but my limited mental space ended up being preoccupied in the weeks leading up to Worlds, so those two photos plus some conversations with teammates was the best I could conjure at the time.  

Enman sports-equality-photo

L-R: Kimber Mattox, Allison Morgan, Kasie Enman, and Morgan Arritola. Photo courtesy of Kasie Enman

Basically, it has been increasingly grating on me that:  

A.) Women race a shorter distance than men at the WMRA Championships, NCAA XC, and other endurance events; and

B.) National teams can only send 4 women, compared to 6 men to the WMRA Championships.  

All the other racing that I do, from our New England series races to the international Skyrunning Races, have the same distance for everybody so it just doesn’t make sense why at the World Championship, the top women in the sport are essentially being told that they can’t go the distance.  

It also struck me how many people were just accepting this, unquestioningly, as the way things were.  This is 2015, people.  We’re well past the era of rumors that women can’t handle distance events.  In fact, if you really want to take the scientific evidence that we have at our disposal and make a case for different distances across the genders, you could make a better case for women running longer…. I digress.

Kasie noted to us that she knows she is not the first person to bring up this issue as it has come up in previous discussions including a great blog post by 2014 Mt Washington Road Race winner, Shannon Payne.

Anyway, I had this vision of getting all the women to join together after the race at Worlds to run a third lap of the course together to prove a point, maybe get some publicity going around the issue, but those photos ended up being the extent of my activism there.  I did run a third lap, by the way.  It was also suggested that I grab the mic during the closing ceremony and make a statement, but I didn’t quite have the balls.  It’s a slippery political slope and I’ve chosen to try to take the diplomatic approach going forward.

Tell me about sportsequality.org and what you are trying to accomplish with the site.

The sportsequality.org site was jointly created by my sister-in-law, Molly Peters, and myself as a platform for putting out petitions for people to sign onto and contact info for people interested in sending out letters or calls to action themselves.  Molly is an NCAA XC Running and Nordic Ski coach and we’d been talking for a while about how these inequalities are still out there, not only in mountain running, but also in Nordic Skiing at many levels, X-Country in the NCAA (no longer at the World Champs level thanks to the recent decision by IAAF to equalize distances at 10k), not to mention other endurance sports.  We were looking at the 50womentokona.org site as a model and would love to join forces with other like-minded organizations.

While we hope the website serves to generate conversation about this issue, the real change is going to come from the reach we can have with the various governing bodies.  The petitions are huge because we can now send a letter, essentially signed by hundreds of people, to those in positions of power like the WMRA Congress members saying that it’s time to fix these rules.  All governing bodies want their sport/championship to remain relevant, profitable, to generate positive publicity, and to draw the top athletes.  These are the points I brought up in letters that went out to the WMRA representatives in advance of their January meeting.  I think it will resonate.  People want to be part of sports and events that are forward thinking, that send a message of running through walls that are placed in front of us.

Whether or not we see this change next year or a few years down the road will depend on the level of leadership people decide to take.  As a mom, a coach, and someone in a position to speak up, it just didn’t sit well with me anymore to accept the status quo.  

The site is listed as created by yourself and Molly Peters. What is your own background and Molly Peters’ background in athletics?

Molly and I have both been life-long athletes.  Molly was an NCAA All-American in both Track & Field and Nordic Skiing while at Middlebury College, where I also attended as a XC and Track student-athlete.  Molly was actually my assistant coach for the 4 years I was there.  She is now the XC (women’s) and Nordic (men’s and women’s) coach at St. Michael’s College.

In terms of the equality movement, Lauren Fleshman wrote a blog post about the issue within NCAAs.  In it she raises several concerns about increasing the distance for women in college vs. perhaps the better route is to lower the distance for men.  Do you have any thoughts on the article?

I am a huge fan of Lauren Fleshman and respect her opinions very much.  I am glad you bring this up because it is important to address the arguments against sports “equality”.  I actually struggle with using the term “equality” to describe what I am promoting.  I am under no delusion that men and women are physiologically equal as athletes.  Whether we’re talking male, female, youth, masters, fast twitch, slow twitch – whatever – we’re all unique.  We wouldn’t want to all be “equal”.  That would be boring.  

What is important to me in this effort for sports “equality” is the message that is being sent to athletes.  

For example: As things stand, the message being sent to female mountain runners aspiring to or competing in the WMRA Mountain Running World Championships is that they are less capable of handling distance and less capable of fielding full teams.  Women are not made to feel less capable because 8k is less worthy a distance than 12k.  Women are not made to feel less capable because everyone should always race the same distance or because everyone should always race a longer distance.  The message is sent that women are less capable because every time there is a difference in distance, the lesser distance is given to women.  Every time there is a difference in team size or scoring methods, fewer women compete or score.  These rules/standards/traditions are based on outdated, false perceptions.  I, for one, want to be part of a new better tradition that empowers and challenges all athletes.

Lauren argues that female athletes shouldn’t just strive to conform to what the men are doing. I totally agree. Considerations should be made for age and readiness for distance, entertainment value, logical things.  At NCAA XC, which Lauren was primarily talking about in her article, 6k for all should be seriously considered, as should 8k, 10k, having 2 different race distances over 2 days (the way World XC used to be), alternating distances – anything that doesn’t consistently send the message that women are lesser.  

I have heard from women who are happy with the distance they race and don’t want that to change.  I have heard from men who worry increasing the women’s distance would take too long or make for a boring race.  I have heard people explain that a reason for the current inequities is a lack of depth and quality of the women’s field.  I think it is important to remember that this isn’t about picking your favorite distance.  And can you think of a better way to increase depth and quality than through opportunity and empowerment?  It all goes back to: What message is the championship race format sending?  Is this the message we want to be sending? What repercussions are felt down the line through world, national, regional, and developmental levels?  

In addition to the arguments, I have also heard from men offering to give up their team spot in protest, women willing to run whatever distance as long as it’s equal, parents voicing hope that this will be a non-issue by the time their children reach school age.  Hundreds of people signed our petitions showing willingness for this change.  The US Mountain Running Team staff put together a survey that showed overwhelming support for equalizing race distances.  

Maybe I am a little delusional after all because I see this as a moment in time that we will look back on as the completion of the era that began with groundbreaking leadership by K.V. Switzer, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Lynn Jennings, and Title IX.  The era of equal opportunity for women in sports.  We’re on the cusp of the point where we can finally say that all the archaic rules were changed to reflect an ethic of equity for both male and female athletes.  It seems that there are just a few last hold-outs… I’ll step off my soapbox now.

Do you have any specific milestone goals you are looking to accomplish- e.g. X signatures by a certain timeframe or what you will do with the petitions at the website?

I don’t have a set number of signatures in mind.  More is better.  I do have some time frames.  I sent the first batch of letters out to the WMRA Council and Congress Members at the end of December in hopes of getting this issue addressed at their annual meeting in January.  The signatures from the petitions were included with these letters.  It is my understanding that the topic of equalizing team sizes is already on their agenda, but that equal distance is not yet.  In the likely event that more advocacy is needed after the January WMRA meeting, I will continue sending out more letters, so keep the signatures coming.

Editor’s update:  The meetings of the WMRA Executive council just took place. The outcome brings some potentially major changes for quality within the WMRC.  A vote at the WMRA Congress meeting next September will decide the fate of these changes.

Molly is taking the lead on the NCAA X-Country and Nordic part of things.  I believe she has also been getting out letters with the petition signatures, organized coaches to support the issue at the mid-December XC Coach’s convention that just took place, and reaching out to race committees for Nordic Skiing.  

After much review and research, the US Mountain Running Team will hold equal distance 10km races for men and women at this year’s mountain championships at Loon Mountain on July 4th (note: author Paul Kirsch is co-race director of the Loon Race and a member of the Mountain Team staff).  This has to feel like your movement is already making a difference. Can you let us know your thoughts on this decision?

Regardless of whether you agree with this decision or not, please realize that our team staff put a lot of thought into this.  Specifics of the terrain and course options at Loon, historical statistics to gauge the impact a change in distance would have on team success at Worlds, results of the athlete survey, and a full range of opinions were considered.  I believe having men and women all race 10k at our 2016 US Mountain Running Championship will have a bigger impact than people realize.  I see it generating positive publicity for our sport and proving that athletes are ready and able to make this change.  I, for one, will be even more motivated than usual to make that team and go out to Worlds to represent a country that has taken a stand for female athletes.

You now know about the vote at the January WMRA Meeting. Can you share your thoughts on this?

Your voices were heard! There’s more advocacy to be done between now and September, when proposed rule changes in favor of equal distance and equal team size go up for a vote with the full WMRA Congress, but this is huge progress!

The next step is to reach out to WMRA Congress Members to ask them to vote in favor of these changes in September. Contact information for Congress Members is on our website: sportsequality.org Thank you for your continued advocacy efforts!

You can see copies of letters with petition signatures here:

WMRA Council Request to Consider Equal Distances at WMRA World Mountain Running Championships

WMRA Council Support for Equal Team Sizes at WMRA World Mountain Running Championships

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