Women might outright win ultramarathons? No, they already are.

A few weeks ago, a curious article showed up in the Facebook group dedicated to the Keys ultra. In the article, the author wrote that men should watch out, because the day a woman wins a 100-mile race is near!  (And don’t worry, she assured us, it’s not “feminist propaganda” – I guess the Little Red Feminist Book forgot to include a chapter on taking over fringe-y extreme sports.)

What makes it curious is that women already outright win hundred-milers – several times a year, in fact.  It happens so often that Ultrarunning magazine actually has an annual feature that lists all of the women who won ultras that year, and in fact, you only have to look at the comments of the article to see several examples of women who have won ultras outright.  (Including Pam Reed, who won Badwater twice.)

That blur is Alyson Venti, moments after she crossed the finish line.

That blur is Alyson Venti, moments after she crossed the finish line.

Last month, at the Keys 100, I was lucky enough to see one of those women break the tape.  Alyson Venti covered the 100 miles from Key Largo to Key West in 14:42 – an average pace of about 8:50 per mile – and crossed the finish line 11 minutes ahead of her nearest competitor.  As if that wasn’t exciting enough, her time was the second-fastest road 100-mile race recorded by an American woman.   From a Running Times profile:

For perspective, Venti’s 14:42 finish trails Ann Trason’s 13:47 100-mile road record (1991) and Pam Smith’s 14:11 100-mile track record (2013), but is ahead of Jenn Shelton’s 14:57 100-mile trail record (2007). Venti’s 14:42 equates to 8:49 per mile. She’s on the all-time charts, and despite being a relative unknown, the legendary Trason’s name is the only name above Venti’s on the road chart.

(If you really want to be blown away and possible even feel a little inadequate, you can read the rest of the profile and learn that she’s also a PhD candidate in oceanography who has worked with the Peace Corps and speaks Fijian so well she wrote a series of children’s books in the language.)

Venti broke her own women’s course record, which she set in 2012, and came within an hour of the men’s course record, which was set the same year by Mike Morton.  And heads up, all of you commenting in the “Lady Champions” thread on Metafilter – she also owns the overall course record in the 50-miler.

The Keys 100 awards ceremony. From left to right: Alyson Venti, 1st overall; Traci Falbo, 3rd overall; Katalin Nagy, 4th overall; race director Bob Bcker.

The Keys 100 awards ceremony. From left to right: Alyson Venti, 1st overall; Traci Falbo, 3rd overall; Katalin Nagy, 4th overall; race director Bob Becker.

She wasn’t the only woman to have a spectacular race that day, though.  Traci Falbo (who used to run on the U.S. 24-hour team) and Katalin Nagy (who holds the American record for the 200K) came in third and fourth overall respectively, which meant that three of the four top spots were held by women.

The 50-miler was also won by a woman. Anita Vadja came in first place with a time of 7:44:14.  Second place?  Also a woman.  As were the fourth and fifth place finishers.

Women might outright win ulramarathons one day?  How about they already are.

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I admit that one of the things that appeals to me about ultrarunning – beyond the fact that it taps into that almost-primal pleasure I take in running for hours at a time – is the fact that being a woman who is heading into middle age isn’t necessarily an obstacle to success in this sport. I don’t think I’m alone in this regard.  Before the 50-miler started, I spoke to a woman who said she became interested in ultrarunning for the same reasons.

There are some theories out there as to why the playing field is a bit more level in ultrarunning, theories that look at the possible physiological reasons why this might be: that women tend to have smaller frames, that we tend to have more body fat stores to call upon for fuel, even a greater tolerance for physical pain linked to childbirth.  I’m not a physiologist; I can’t say.

But I am willing to speculate that one reason why it’s not uncommon to see men and women standing next to each other on the podium is because the further you go in a race, the less you need to call upon physical attributes like muscle mass and the capacity of one’s heart to pump blood, which are influenced by things like biological sex, and and the more you rely upon psychological attributes like tenacity, the ability to tolerate pain and boredom, and plain old will and determination, which are qualities people have independently of sex or gender.  Furthermore, those are qualities that tend to develop and become more entrenched in our personalities as we become older and more experienced.

Men still tend to dominate the top spots at ultra races, but I imagine that’s in large part due to the fact that men still tend to dominate ultra races, period.  If more women decide to get involved in the sport – and they may or may not, I can’t really blame those women who look at 100-mile races through the mountains and say NOPE NOPE NOPE OCTOPUS – I suspect we’d see more women winning.

As much as I like talking about and speculating about this stuff, it’s all sort of academic for someone like me, who will never, ever win a race like this.  What means a lot to me, though, is the sense of gender egalitarianism that pervades the atmosphere of races like this, how everyone was awestruck by Alyson Venti, how people spoke of her 150-mile per week training regimen with near-reverence, how so many guys seemed legitimately excited by the fact that women had dominated the races.  It’s like seeing the future, but even better, because it’s actually happening right now.

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19 responses to “Women might outright win ultramarathons? No, they already are.

  1. Eek, I’m embarrassed that the author of that article would do so little fact checking. I know you can’t believe anything you read on the internet, but come on. A simple Google search would help.

    • For those of us not as in-the-know as you are, what facts exactly did the author get wrong, and how should they be corrected?

      • I will edit the post to be specific, but mainly the entire premise of the post – that women will someday outright win 100-mile races – is wrong because they already are. If you look at the comments of the post, there’s a guy who is posting several comments to that effect (including names and races), and the post itself was edited to reflect an acknowledgement of how badly the post missed the mark in that regard.

    • Ohhhh, I couldn’t tell if the original poster was criticizing this article or the article it responds to. My bad! Carry on.

      • Nope, that’s my bad. If I’m not communicating in a way that makes sense, I’ve totally failed to do my job! Sorry about that. Hopefully what I added makes it a little more clear.

    • No no — I wasn’t confused by your article, Caitlin, or by your comments. I was confused because I thought Maggie was suggesting that there were factual errors in your article, and I didn’t see any. But Maggie wasn’t suggesting that at all. I just wasn’t reading carefully. Sometimes the confusion really is the fault of the (lazy) reader!

  2. I think we also see men continue to dominate because of unconscious bias offers them more support to compete in athletic events. Women professional athletes are still seen as exceptional and as hobbyists even when they’re at the top of their field.

    I know a woman ultra-runner with kids whose husband recently died and before he died people commented how “lucky” she was that he supported her “enough” to stay home and “watch” the kids while she raced and trained and after he died the headshakes of “well, I guess she’ll have to give that up now because of how much time it takes her away from her kids.” Yet I can give you story after story of men who train and compete in sports just as much and not a damn thing is said about their domestic situations.

    • I think you are absolutely right. It’s why you see a lot more women running half-marathons than even the marathon distance, because the work of caring for children, housework, etc., still falls disproportionately upon their shoulders. Now I do know some hetero couples where the female runner is supported by her male partner, and a couple where both partners find a way to manage family life while still giving each other the time necessary to train for really time-intensive sports, but it seems like a lot of times, people just default to the old way of doing things, in which the man’s goal becomes paramount and the woman plays support-system until the kids are grown and gone.

      The main point of my post was more than the sex-based reasons often given as to why women are outcompeted by men in athletic endeavors really don’t seem to hold true in these sports. The sociocultural factors, though, would fill an entire book and then some.

      • I often think about this a lot actually. The “more than the sex-based reasons…don’t seem to hold true” part. As an equestrian (although a hobbyiest) I wonder often about the dominance of women at the amateur levels with the continued dominance of men at the professional levels especially when you consider the absolute derth of them at the amateur levels. Equestrianism has been completely gender neutral since the 1960s – both for the horses AND the rider. Some of the best riders and horses in the sport have been female. My very unscientific conclusion is that if “winning” is dependent on more than just sheer strength and speed of major muscle power then we’re all pretty much on an even playing field and that the differences are caused by sociocultural reasons and not by physical ability.

        If that makes any sense…

    • I couldn’t agree more. I am heavily involved in basketball, and I see over and over again women quitting, or not playing, because they have to get the kids to bed, or because it’s their partner’s night at his sport. I know that some women just prefer to spend time with their kids, and also that some women use their kids as their excuse not to train or to give up their sport, but I see it happen so often that I really feel it is at least partly cultural. It’s OK, and expected, for a man to spend time away from his family for his sport, but when women do it it is questioned.

      • Totally. You never hear someone question if a man can “have it all” (meaning a family and other pursuits, whether it’s professional and/or athletic), but that is often brought up around women who have both.

  3. Well, that last line just sneaked up on me and made me feel all happy-weepy. I mean, no, I’m not crying, it’s just dusty in here.

  4. This was fascinating and inspiring to read, Caitlin – I admit that, good feminist me, I knew nothing of the astounding success of these ass-kicking women racers. Utterly superb. Now, re: socioeconomics, sport, and gender imbalance, the comments above sent me immediately back to this article in the Guardian from September 2012 (aka the end of the summer of bike racing hoopla in Olympic London):

    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/sep/11/mamil-middle-aged-men-in-lycra

    Reading this for the first time two years ago, when I’d just taken up road racing, I was gobsmacked by the implicit class and gender bias: I’m proud, writes the author un-ironically, to be one of those guys who shops at Waitrose (Americans: read Whole Foods), spends more than many London families make in a month on bike gear, and tells my wife to suck it, make the pasta I want, forget about a nice Saturday night out, and let me head off with my mates for four hours on a Sunday. Cheers, love. I’ll be here with the toddlers.

    This is cycling culture here in the UK: male weekend warriors who, for the most part, don’t think very much about how lucky they are to be out on the road whenever they want; who get grumpy if their wives put the hammer down and say nope, not this Sunday; and who often seem really struck when a woman rider appears in their midst and – gasp – drops them because, hey, I’m really fit and pretty fast.

    I personally feel extremely lucky to have a partner who also rides, and who supports me on rides whenever I’m aiming for a PB or similar, sometimes at the expense of his own result. (This happened in March: I was trying to get a big jump on my previous year’s time at our first race of the year, and the wind was atrocious. Jarret let me sit on his wheel as much as I needed so that we could push hard on the flats. And I made my goal time by 15 seconds!) But we also have no kids, a large income relative to many Londoners, and we block out big chunks of time to devote to riding long distances – these are personal choices enabled by our current family situation.

    Caitlin, I know your partner is similarly supportive – by all means there are amazing, amazing men out there whose sense of sport as a place of gender equality is really progressive and so necessary. But alongside the celebration of astonishing women athletes like Alyson, Traci, and Katalin by both men and women, we also need to spend some quality time and column inches unpicking how these women are supported, what enables their training outside of their astonishing abilities and drive. If we can normalise their success a bit – as you do here! – we can start to think critically about what’s “normal” and what’s extraordinary about their support systems – and maybe make some of those support systems more accessible to ordinary women in sport, too.

    • Excellent points, Kim. If I’d had more time/energy/access, I would love to pick the brains of women like that to see how they manage to make it work. Maybe I will reach out to some of them and see if they’d be willing to share….

      And I’m glad to hear your husband is so supportive of you and your athletic goals. (And congrats on the new PB! Very, very cool, and especially since it happened on such a windy day!) It really does make a huge difference. And like you, I have no kids. I honestly don’t know how people manage families and training for events like this. I imagine if that if I were to ever have kids, my athletic training would by necessity take a very, very distant back seat to the immediate needs posed by children, and it’s not because I think Brian wouldn’t help out, but because child-rearing seems all consuming when it comes to time and energy.

      Okay, now I’m going to go read that article you posted and try not to have a total fucking meltdown afterwards (because I’m sure I will).

  5. But their uteruses will fall out! (Sorry, it had to be said;))

    I think that it was first pointed out to me in McDougall’s “Born to Run” that at longer distances, gender stops being a factor. He also talks about youth not being such an advantage, either. As a woman who started running in her late 30s, I thought that was awesome.

  6. I believe that men and women are equal. Neither is perfect. We all have flaws. It’s just a mind thing that hinders our growth at times. We just have to be aware of our flaws or weaknesses then work on it good. If we’ve done all we can then good things will happen. Just my two cents. Thanks!

    Maggie

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