On May 26, tens of thousands of people from around the world will descend upon Boulder — some of them in traditional running gear, many of them in wacky costumes — to participate in the annual BolderBoulder, a 10-kilometer road race that has become one of America’s most loved races.
But for some, the jovial spirit of the competition is lost because of a race-sponsored T-shirt claiming that “Sea level is for sissies.” While the T-shirt has been around for years, debate over the connotation of the word “sissy” continues to flare.
At more than 5,400 feet above sea level, running in Boulder ups the ante for even the most elite athlete. Lower air pressure at higher altitudes makes it significantly harder for the body to process oxygen.
While anyone would agree that Boulder’s mile-high-plus status presents a challenge for racers, residents like Mardi Moore, executive director of local LGBTQ group Out Boulder, see the term “sissy” as derogatory.
“Statements like this further the negative stereotype that male-identified individuals should only be aggressive and domineering,” Moore wrote in an email to Boulder Weekly.
This isn’t the first time that Out Boulder has taken issue with the language on the shirt. Cliff Bosley, race director for the BolderBoulder, says former Out Boulder co-director Cathy Busha met with race coordinators in years past to talk about their displeasure with the slogan.
“They wanted to let us know that they weren’t as excited about that [motto] as they were about some of the other [mottos] we did and still do,” Bosley says.
The organization has been using the “Sea level is for sissies” slogan since 2007, Bosley adds. The phrase is just one of a number of expressions the race has used over its 35-year history including “Oh yes you can” and “Altitude with attitude.”
The organization, says Bosley, never intended for the “sea level” shirt to be an attack on anyone’s gender or sexuality.
“The upshot of that meeting [with Out Boulder] was, while their preference was, ‘We wish you wouldn’t [make the shirt], we get why you do it,’” Bosley says. “Beyond that, [they understood] there wasn’t any malice behind our use of it.”
The T-shirt controversy resurfaced this year when Boulder resident Debbie Ramirez expressed her displeasure with the slogan.
“I think for me, there are characteristics that have been stereotypically assigned to women, and people of all genders have those types of characteristics,” says Ramirez, a two-time BolderBoulder race participant.
“It’s putting down these traits, whether it’s how strong they are, if they express their emotions, all these things people say when they use the word sissy — what are they really trying to say?” Ramirez says. “And I think those traits are in all people and should be embraced instead of put down.”
Merriam-Webster defines “sissy” as “a boy who is weak or who likes things that girls usually like,” or “a person who is weak and fearful.” The word can also be used to describe “an effeminate man or boy,” or “a timid or cowardly person.”
Ramirez says she’s known about the T-shirts since her first BolderBoulder in 2012. While she took offense, she didn’t take action. When an email on April 10 of this year informed her that the first 100 BolderBoulder registrants would receive a free “Sea level is for sissies” T-shirt, Ramirez decided to reach out to the race coordinators that very evening. After four or five days and no response from any of the three employees at BolderBoulder she emailed, Ramirez went public.
“To be honest … I was hoping for a response or some kind of comment. I was disappointed that I didn’t get anything from anyone,” says Ramirez.
Bosley says he was unaware of Ramirez’s concerns, and did not know of her attempts to contact BolderBoulder, until he received a phone call from BW asking to discuss the T-shirt.
“When I mentioned it to our marketing guys, they said they had received a copy of her email and hadn’t responded, so that’s an oversight on our part for not responding to her directly and sooner,” Bosley says. “When things like that happen, we take pride in listening and quickly responding so that people know their comments don’t fall on deaf ears. I’m a bit red-faced about this.”
In the seven years that the BolderBoulder has been offering the “Sea level is for sissies” shirt as a souvenir for race participants, Bosley says that there have been perhaps a half a dozen or so complaints, but that by and large, the feedback is “tremendously positive.”
“Thousand of people say it’s awesome, and I think it’s because they know where it’s rooted,” says Bosley, “This has everything to do with people that are running, training and racing at altitude and are excited about that.”
Moore says that while she doesn’t think the race coordinators meant any harm by using the term, she still hopes the organization will make an apology.
In a phone conversation, Moore told BW that she saw this as a learning opportunity.
“Everybody makes mistakes. Maybe for the first time they’ve thought about the [implications of a word],” Moore says. We don’t want to come across as saying, ‘You’re a terrible, rotten organization,’ but this is an opportunity for them to learn, so what will we do with it?”
Both Moore and Ramirez said they hope the shirts will be retired.
“I think there are other ways to embrace running the BolderBoulder and people’s ability to run the BolderBoulder instead of using the word sissy,” says Ramirez.