Having been involved in endurance sports for almost 20 years, the conversation around women’s participation has never been quiet. But, until recently, the chatter was far more passive, an expected complaint from a small and inconsequential (on the professional scene) group.
On average, in long-distance, individual sports, women are underrepresented in numbers compared with men. Female athletes often receive immense praise from their training partners, family, friends and colleagues, but their races haven’t captured the attention of sponsors or fans to the degree their male counterparts’ have. While one can argue that men’s races are faster, and thus more exciting, or that there is a residue of past discrimination, at least some of the disparity may stem from the tacit message that only the most talented women can be interested and compete in challenging sports. Perhaps, if more women knew other women training and competing in sports such as trail and ultrarunning, it would feel more accessible and, therefore, obtainable.
Mostly coming from professionals within the trail and ultrarunning arena, there have been objections to how male-dominated the sport is, identifying the low women-to male-ratio as a problem that needs correcting. This suggests systemic barriers that need to be addressed by the community, with some race companies reserving entries for women in an effort to create gender parity. But are these concerns valid? Are there real imposed, women-specific obstacles preventing them from participating in ultrarunning, or could it be reduced to sex-specific behavioral differences?
Over the last two decades, ultrarunning has become more and more popular, increasing by 1676% from 1996 to 2019, with an inflection point arriving around 2008 and not yet reaching a plateau. Women now comprise 23% of ultrarunners (up from 14% in 1996), and many are even rivaling men in their performances, particularly in the 100-mile+ races. Maybe even more impressive: A good number of professional and recreational female ultrarunners are doing it while raising small children.
This shift may be due to the increase in exposure and number of races being offered each year; there are new races popping up all over the country, with at least 2 or 3 to choose from on any weekend. Looking at our own race company’s data, we have observed a positive trend in female participation across the board, with about a 50/50 split in distances up to the 30k. In our races over 35k, women make up about 40% on average. With the rise of social media, trail and ultrarunning–and their female superstars, such as Courtney Dauwalter, Beth Pascal, and Ragna Debats–have gotten more exposure, and has, in many ways, been glorified as a laudable lifestyle. It is being taken seriously as a unique sport with its own methods for training and competition, and I suspect we will continue to watch both the sport and female participation grow, particularly as it has piqued the interest of former professional marathoners and young people in search of meaning.
One might wonder then if there really is any problem at all since numbers are climbing in the right direction, and women don’t seem to be overtly discouraged by the ultrarunning world. Just as men, they have the same obstacles to racing, such as fears about injury and family/work obligations; they face the same registration fees; and they are awarded the same amount of prize money/awards when they win. Moreover, should we expect to see equal interest in everything?
Like interest in ballet, the difference in participation rates may be a matter of preference. Training and racing for ultras require immense investment of time and energy, and an acceptance (or enjoyment) of spending hours and hours in solitude. While women vary greatly in how much independence they hold and are comparable to men in overall independence, they are more socially minded, making 4+-hour runs less enjoyable without a running partner. They’re also more likely to feel pressure to return to their families, whether to breastfeed an infant/toddler or to resume the role of primary caretaker.
While certainly equal in dignity and value, men and women are biologically different, and we ought to honor and respect those differences. On average, men are stronger, faster, and more aggressive than women, however, it is being shown that these advantages shrink with ultra-endurance events, and women are out-performing men once the triple digits are under foot. However, the speed of performance between men and women doesn’t appear to be a factor in preventing women from signing up; it seems more likely that it comes down to character traits and the wrong approach to inclusion.
Running on the trails alone is a risky endeavor for women, particularly at night. This in no way implies that women aren’t capable of doing it, or that they shouldn’t. It is a simple statement that recognizes that the average woman is physically more vulnerable than a man should she encounter a predator, be it animal or human. Expecting women to tolerate this risk when they aren’t yet comfortable could present a real danger to them. Trail and ultrarunning almost always includes periods of running solo, and to someone who has only ever run on the roads or with groups, this by itself can be enough of a deterrent.
Because the sport of ultrarunning is so time intensive, the biological underpinnings of calorie expenditure must be considered. Evolutionarily, women have needed to be more careful about conserving calories since reproduction and child-rearing is a cost to her own body. Growing and feeding a child is up there with the limits of metabolism, so tacking on more calorie-burning activity would seem foolish if it weren’t for modern conveniences. This may manifest as a disinterest in ultra-endurance sports altogether, or why many women come to the sport later on in life, after their child-bearing years.
Looking at it another way, the investment of training time culminating in unpredictable hours on foot in a race will have to have meaning for the athlete, female or otherwise. What is somewhat special about ultrarunning is that it isn’t often a “bucket-list” item. It becomes a lifestyle because of how much we give of ourselves to it. For a woman to know she’s taking time away from her kids/friends/work, it must matter. A lot. She has to connect with it beyond the goal of finishing. Unlike men, women tend to be more “journey-oriented”, finding meaning behind the training, rather than the finish, of a race. We might be better off exploring what each woman considers a risk and what she’s willing to sacrifice, or how much meaning an ultra would convey to her for her to accept that risk. Trail and ultrarunning can be a place a woman can find new sides to herself, acquiring a new identity that buttresses all her other roles in life.
Big-name women ultrarunners have been showcased by every gear and sports nutrition company for the last few years, which has been great to show women there is a path to becoming a professional in this sport, not to mention the need to illustrate diversity. However, for many women, what they actually need to see is women like them, not the fastest or the strongest, but in it for how it changes their lives and how it makes them feel. Representation does matter, as it changes culture. Just knowing another woman who chooses to run the trails or one of those “crazy” ultras can help others find the sport.
Written by Tanya Stahler