During a panel in Boulder a handful of years ago, only two of the seven professional trail runners on stage knew what their contract said about pregnancy when asked by an audience member. One — Silke Koester — happened to be pregnant. The other was her husband.
Koester, a La Sportiva runner from Boulder and co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Runners, had been the first person on her team to ever get pregnant. So in a handshake agreement she was told by her manager to take some time off from racing. No formal terms guaranteed her contract would be renewed after laying low. In fact, there was no mention of pregnancy at all.
“It was the classic case that it just had never come up,” she said.
Now, the status quo is about to change as the Professional Trail Running Association (PTRA), an international association of pro trail runners, pushed out its new prewritten sponsorship contract, complete with 18 months of maternity leave, on July 21. This new organization is run by athletes and is propelling the sport to keep pace with its growing popularity.
Kelly Newlon was the audience member at that panel who brought up maternity leave. She watched the participants talk about equality with the energy of millennial revolutionaries, but doubted their awareness of maternity protections in their contracts.
“The only people who knew were Silke and her husband Ryan, silence from the others,” she said.
Newlon told the panelists they could come see her after the show. She had all their brand’s contracts in tow.
Newlon is the founder of Boulder-based Real Athlete Diets, which supplies performance-oriented food to athletes, and has won her way into the hearts of countless trail runners and their sponsors through her custom meals and loquacious energy. She is like an all-seeing eye in the world of trail running, and through her vast network can make connections and push talented athletes into careers.
She can also be brutally honest. So team managers and athletes alike seek her wisdom on everything from filling a spot on the roster to reviewing an unsigned contract.
She wasn’t surprised to learn the panelists weren’t sure what their contracts said. She’d seen it before. Athletes in the dark, signing away their likeness to a dream.
“You could see the fear in their eyes. Like, ‘holy shit, I don’t know,’” she said. “It’s like yelling about sustainability but not recycling.”
That was in 2017. Since then, the conversation has grown.
“There’s been a huge uptick in this conversation since I was pregnant,” Koester said.
Athletes want more as trail running goes mainstream
When Boulder trail running legend Darcy Piceau became pregnant in 2008, she was leading the pack in a niche sport. In those days, getting paid time off to have a baby wasn’t even on the wish list.
“2012 was sort of the first time companies started to offer travel stipends and incentivizing things,” she said in an interview, after running a casual 10 laps on Mount Sanitas. “It was a different scene back then.”
When she got pregnant, she simply took some months off and let go of her paycheck but got back in as soon as possible.
“I went back to racing very early and was literally running and pumping at 50 milers,“ she said.
As an early leader in the sport of ultra trail running, Piceau didn’t expect much from a sponsorship. Running was her passion and her community, so anything on top of that she considered a bonus. Her contracts were nothing life-altering, but she was grateful. For money, she instead focused mainly on her work as a therapist in schools and private practice.
“It was like here’s what we’re offering, take it or leave it,” she said.
But now, a decade later, the sport is reaching bigger audiences. Lululemon is launching a trail running team, suggesting the niche Piceau helped carve is broadening to the mainstream. As such, athletes are expecting more and making noise about what’s wrong with the industry, including pushing for their employers to respect a woman’s timeline for pregnancy.
Trail runners get organized
Last November, a national group of professional runners formally launched an athlete-owned organization — akin to a union — to push the sport forward. The Professional Trail Runner Association consists of hundreds of athletes, including many in Boulder, who can use their collective power for the good of the sport.
Since the launch, the organization has established five working groups to address issues that were voted by members to be most pressing: anti-doping, inclusion and diversity, environment, professionalism and women equality.
The women equality group is busy and their power is already on display. The European race group UTMB, which shines a career-making spotlight on many runners — including Piceu who has placed third and fifth in the 100-miler — updated their terms in April. They finally allowed women and their partners to defer from the lottery-based race when welcoming a child via birth, adoption or surrogacy.
Before this change, racers could defer due to an injury — an accident — but not pregnancy, which was seen as a choice.
“When I was pregnant you just lost your race entry,” Koester said.
Pregnancy deferrals have been cascading through the race system recently, with big events like the Boston Marathon coming on board in January after being publicly prodded by a pregnant racer.
The epic Colorado mountain endurance race Hard Rock 100, another career-making race that Piceu has dominated with three wins, also admits racers via a lottery that has taken some runners a decade to win entry to. In 2021, the rules for the lottery were changed to admit more women based on percentage of entries, following a 2019 rule to allow pregnancy deferral.
The latest project from PTRA proposes that athletes provide their sponsors with a prewritten contract that includes eight months of maternity leave during pregnancy and ten months postpartum. According to Newlon, the working group used the new Nike maternity leave policy as their guide. After much bad press lately from its women athletes who were allegedly abused and mistreated — like Boulder’s Kara Goucher who exposed Nike’s culture in her new book “The Longest Race” — Nike seems to be righting those wrongs by addressing pregnancy in their contracts.
The hope is that members will collectively push for this as a standardized contract to equalize how brands treat all of their athletes. Even those who don’t plan on getting pregnant could insist on including terms like maternity leave in their contracts to normalize it.
One of the people involved in designing the PTRA contract is Newlon of Real Athlete Diets. She is the rare person who wants both sides — the brands and the athletes — to thrive, because she has tendrils into all of it. Through casual conversation she knows about the details of an individual’s contract, the needs of a brand and the fragile emotional issues that start as little seeds and grow into giant cottonwoods, shadowing entire careers and families.
To her, PTRA is the perfect organization to make the changes athletes and brands need to overcome unhealthy cultural norms in the sport.
“It feels like this is a dead stop, like this is our contract. There’s no wiggle room,” Newlon said. “It’s giving more control to the athletes who have individually felt like they have not had control in their own livelihood.”
Challenging the stigma of pregnancy in sport
Women are greasing the wheels to redesign the sport for their bodies rather than continue fitting into the male mold, particularly. Epidemiologist and extreme achiever Megan Roche, who has five national trail running championship trophies, six rotations on Team USA and was the 2016 U.S. Trail Runner of the Year, also coaches postpartum women back to running. She said she has seen too many women come back too soon after pregnancy, to their detriment.
“There are so many stress injuries that happen postpartum because of bone density and other factors,” she said.
Roche is herself a new mom with an 8-month old. She is still not back to training at full volume.
Planning for pregnancy is a touchy thing for anyone who dedicates their life to sport. Many months of time off followed by the big unknowns around sleep and healing can call a woman athlete’s entire future into question.
“Anecdotally this is a topic that comes up quite often when I run with women in their 30s asking, ‘should I plan on having a baby?’” Koester said. “Should I just commit to my running career for the next few years then have children after? What if I lose some future opportunities? It’s a huge thing that weighs on the minds of female athletes.”
Newlon believes that when women finally see a term in their contract that acknowledges the potential for a pregnancy, they will be uplifted.
“Hopefully this gives them hope that they have a feeling of support, and it’s actually true,” she said.