How university students are changing the face of a 60-year-old sport

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Rhea Papadopoulos had just started at the Australian National University in Canberra when a third-year student at her college told her about Inward Bound (IB) — a mixed-gender ultramarathon orienteering race.

Drawn in by the stories of adventure and the training runs up Black Mountain, Rhea was initially excited to take part in Inward Bound, before becoming frustrated by rules stating teams needed a minimum of seven women out of 28 runners.

Despite her excitement, Rhea never felt like the sport was inclusive of women and gender-diverse people who wanted to be involved.

“Having that low quota of only seven [female runners], it was this constant struggle where you’re like, ‘am I one of the best seven girls?’ rather than ‘am I one of the best 28 runners?’ And I think that’s something that all girls could say they felt,” Rhea said.

Women haven’t always felt welcome in Inward Bound.(ABC Sport: Julia Faragher)

“It’s this kind of weird impostor syndrome, which is such an awful feeling and it’s not what IB should be about.”

Rhea, now a 23-year-old political science and arts student, discovered the barriers that women were facing in the Inward Bound training program during her two years running the race for her residential college in Division 5 and later becoming a coach.

“In 2019, I was the only [female] coach out of seven [coaches] and even though I loved all my colleagues and we all had the best time and I never felt tokenistic by any means, it was really hard being the one who was in charge of pastoral care because I was the [woman],” she said.

“If a team member had problems they’d come to me and not one of the boys.”

Rhea wanted to do something about it.

“I didn’t want another girl to have to go through that again. It was such a bad feeling.”

What is Inward Bound?

A wide shot of runners going through bushland.
Inward Bound sees runners in teams of four navigate their way through the Australian bush.(ABC Sport: Julia Faragher)

Inward Bound is an ultramarathon orienteering race where ANU students compete in teams of four runners representing their colleges.

Runners are blindfolded and driven in circles before getting dropped off at a random location in the bush, usually somewhere in rural NSW, and given the coordinates of an endpoint that they must run to.

For runners in Division 1, this will involve approximately 100km. The divisions range down to runners in Division 7 which involves approximately 40km.

Four people in the distance run on the beach, with their backs towards the camera.
Students never know the course before they begin the race.(ABC Sport: Julia Faragher)

The exact distance run by each team depends on their ability to navigate the Australian bush and whether they get lost.

Across the seven divisions, each college puts forward a team of 28 runners, and a total of 280 students run in the race each year.

There is a winning team for each division, as well as an overall winner decided by adding up the results of all the divisions

‘I was told no, you can’t do it’

A young woman smiles at the camera
Erin Ronge was previously the 2021 equity officer and is currently the 2022 co-race director on the IB organising committee.(ABC Sport: Julia Faragher)

Erin Ronge, a 22-year-old law and science student, had similar experiences to Rhea when she ran for her college twice in Divisions 6 and 7.

Erin noticed that women weren’t being offered the same leadership opportunities as men and when she tried to volunteer, she said she was shut down.

A young woman smiles while studying a map with peers.
There have been changes to Inward Bound’s rules to ensure there are more female navigators in teams.(ABC Sport: Julia Faragher)

“I wanted to [navigate]. I was told no, you can’t do it. I wanted to coach. I was told no, you can’t do it,” Erin said.

Each IB team of four consists of two navigators and two scouts. As the navigators set the route, they usually also act as the leaders of the team.

“Female-identifying runners weren’t encouraged to come on the maps. If anything, male-identifying runners were hand-selected by coaches to be on the maps,” Erin said.

Eventually, Erin’s persistence paid off and she was taught how to read the maps.

But she knew that it shouldn’t have to take that much effort on her part and that other female runners shared her struggles.

Responsibility to bring about change

Erin and Rhea became the equity officers on the 2021 Inward Bound organising committee to have an active role in making it as inclusive as possible.

“On a personal level, I felt it was important because I had many experiences in IB where I felt overlooked or that I unjustly had to advocate for myself and my abilities and skills where I was uncomfortable in certain contexts and I feel like that was to do with my gender,” Erin said.

This year’s Inward Bound race is set to feature the greatest number of female runners in its 60-year history at the ANU.

Seven young adults smile and pose for the camera
The Inward Bound organising committee is made up of students from across the participating halls and colleges.(ABC Sport: Julia Faragher)

It’s the result of Erin and Rhea’s work to create a new 50:50 gender policy in consultation with other students.

Together with co-race director James Holley, they were inspired by the lack of substantial difference in performance between men and women in ultramarathons and the fact that Inward Bound is a mixed-gender event just like ultramarathons at the professional level.

“I felt as if that was an opportunity more than anything else. I really thought we had a responsibility to bring in that change,” James said.

In their roles as equity officers, Erin and Rhea spent a large portion of 2021 consulting with students from each of the 10 participating ANU colleges and halls to determine how they could introduce the 50:50 policy.

Erin found that everyone supported the policy in principle, but there was resistance to implementing it immediately rather than over a longer period.

“It made no sense to do it over a process of four years. It was delaying the inevitable and it just seemed tokenistic,” Erin said.

While the policy is colloquially referred to as the 50:50 policy, it uses gender-inclusive language.

Instead of instituting a quota for female runners, as has been the case in the past, halls and colleges now must pick a team where no more than 50 per cent of their runners identify as the same gender.

7 young adults run towards the camera
ANU students are looking forward to the return of Inward Bound in 2022 after COVID-19 forced the cancellation of both the 2020 and 2021 races.(ABC Sport: Julia Faragher)

Erin and Rhea spoke to queer officers from the halls and colleges to make sure that the policy included all students, such as non-binary and transgender people.

“We wanted our sport to also be representative of the community that it came from,” James said.

Inward Bound is for everyone

Erin, Rhea, and the rest of the organising committee wanted the policy to be the first step in creating long-lasting cultural change.

One of their hopes is that the policy will encourage colleges and halls to think about female runners from the very beginning of their training program and implement the support that they need.

Four runners smile as they approach the finish line of a race
The 50:50 policy has helped make significant changes in a short space of time.(ABC Sport: Julia Faragher)

“Colleges and halls shouldn’t be panicking in September thinking ‘oh, we don’t have enough female-identifying runners. What should we do now?’,” Erin said.

“It should be one of the first thoughts at the very start of the program: ‘How can we be as inclusive as possible to all people who want to run this program?’ Which I don’t think it has historically been.”

In fact, the 50:50 policy not only targets runners, but also sets out rules for coaches and navigators as well to tackle gender equality in all parts of Inward Bound.

Erin and Rhea never doubted the importance of what they were doing.

“It’s not only just a running race, it’s an experience that you’ll hold or carry with you for the rest of your life,” Erin said.

“It changed my life. It’s the best thing I have ever done, especially at university. I think it has so many flow-on effects in terms of confidence, resilience and perseverance,” Rhea said.

This year’s Inward Bound race is scheduled to go ahead on October 7–8 for the first time since the pandemic began in 2020, with Erin at the helm as one of this year’s co-race directors.

Julia Faragher is an artist and writer living in Canberra and is an intern with ABC Sport.

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