The secret feminism of “Born to Run” Pt. 1: Women and ultrarunning

Jamie Donaldson has been a top-five overall finisher in the last three Badwaters.

You don’t need to have read “Born to Run” to know that it inspired nothing short of a revolution in running.  Just look at your local sports shoe store to see this.  Once, only the most hardcore of runners wore racing flats.  The rest of us went for the most cushioned, high-tech shoe possible.  Now, though, every manufacturer is making some version of a minimal running shoe meant to mimic the experience of running barefoot, and everyone who has ever even thought about running a half-marathon is snatching them up by the armfuls.

Christopher McDougall didn’t limit his enthusiasm to barefoot running.  He also spoke glowingly of stripped-down, plant-heavy diets that were practically vegan.  The chia-and-hummus style of eating didn’t inspire nearly as much excitement as the minimal shoes, however, probably because you can’t make as much money selling vegan superfood seeds as you can with expensive running shoes.

Maybe even of more interest to me were the subtle – and not-so-subtle – feminist themes that appear through the book.  Ultrarunning is the kind of sport that is so extreme and intense that it seems like it should be one of those dude-heavy pursuits, like, I don’t know, backcountry snow skiing in the Himalayas.   And yet it seems like there is something about the extremity of the sport that almost levels out the playing field.  The physiological advantages that men have over women – size, muscle mass, upper-body strength – don’t seem to matter quite as much when you are running a race that covers more than fifty miles.

(Forgive my cis-centric language in the next several paragraphs – the book speaks only of people as “women” and “men,” and all of the extra reading I did followed suit.)

McDougall begins to address this while writing about the 1994 Leadville Trail 100, in which the two lead competitors were 25-year-old Tarahumara runner Juan Herrera and 34-year-old science teacher Ann Trason:

Take this equation: how come nearly all the women finish Leadville and fewer than half the men do?  Every year, more than 90 percent of the female runners come home with a buckle, while 50 percent of he men come up with an excuse.  Not even [race director] Ken Chlouber can explain the sky-high female finishing rate, but he can damn well exploit it: “All my pacers are women,” Chlouber says. “They get the job done.”

Or try this word problem: subtract the Tarahumara from last year’s race and what do you get?

Answer: a woman lunging for the tape.

Women even sometimes win ultramarathons outright, which is something that is almost entirely unheard of in every racing distance from marathons on down.  For instance, Pam Reed won the 146-mile Badwater Ultramarathon in 2002.  She didn’t win the women’s division.  She won it.  By five hours.

Can you think of another sport where this happens?  Where, say, the Los Angeles Sparks go head-to-head with the Golden State Warriors and win?  I’ve only ever heard of one other sport that has similar gender parity – ultramarathon swimming.

I don’t know about you, but I find this fascinating.  It makes ultrarunning seem positively alluring to me.  I wanted to know more, so I read about a dozen magazine articles and research papers to see if I could learn more about the science behind this.

What I found was hardly definitive but I found it interesting nonetheless.  Keep in mind that the research was focused on distances beyond the 26.2 miles, which is the limit of what 99 percent of runners will ever even attempt.

‘Weaknesses’ may be strengths

Some researchers zeroed in specifically on the feature of women’s bodies that ironically is the biggest source of frustration for a lot of women – their higher body-fat percentages.  After a certain amount of exertion, the body’s glycogen stores become depleted and the body begins burning fat, which is where women’s higher levels of body-fat theoretically become an asset.

Not only do women have greater body-fat percentages than men, but some studies say women’s bodies may be better at making use of that body fat:

A recent study, however, once again suggests that women may in fact have some way, not yet understood, to burn fatty acids better than men do. If that’s the case, and you combine that ability with women’s greater body fat reserves, the implications are obvious. If some glycogen-sparing goes on along the way, women might be able to get more out of that premium fuel than men do.

Other researchers point out, though, that ultramarathoners usually eat during their races, which negates the need for the body to turn from glycogen stores to body fat for fuel.

The other two theories I came across take two other attributes of female bodies that are often dismissed as drawbacks in the field of sport – smaller body mass and estrogen. Smaller body mass is kind of a no-brainer – if you have less weight to move forward, you expend less energy moving it and less energy pushing against gravity.  This is particularly true when you are dealing with a mountainous course.

Estrogen is less obvious.  Some researchers think estrogen not only acts as an antioxidant, slowing down damage to the body’s tissues, but also that, as a neurotransmitter, it prevents the brain from registering fatigue.  South African researchers analyzed racers at various distances and found evidence that, at 66 kilometers, “women ultramarathon runners have greater fatigue resistance than do equally trained men whose performances are superior up to the marathon distance.”

Psychological factors?

Psychological theories have also been advanced:

Sports psychotherapist Bruce Gottlieb says that a woman’s ability to endure might be chalked up to a few different factors. “Men tend to think ‘harder, faster, stronger’,” he says, “women tend to think with more determination and tenacity. Especially the kind of woman who tackles ultra endurance events.” He also notes that men and women, historically, have been socialized differently. “Women were really stifled not too long ago,” he says, “and therefore have a tendency to be more complex, in a good way.”

Gottlieb goes on to talk about the argument involving the pain of childbirth:

“Put it this way,” says Gottlieb, “I think there’d be far less children if men had to give birth.”

Eh. If the idea is that women have evolved to withstand greater amounts of pain for longer periods of time because they have to give birth, then I would think the evolution would go the other way were men the childbearers of the species.

The thing about psychology is that it is malleable enough that a top male ultramarathoner could certainly have the mindset of “determination and tenacity” that Gottleib attributes to women, and vice versa.  But then, I am also not down with biological essentialism.

I don’t really find this as compelling as the question of why older runners are better at ultra distances than younger runners.  I’ve seen this myself with shorter distances.  With women, the most competitive age groups are often the 30-34 and 35-39 groups.  With men, the competitive groups extend well into the 50s.

Distance running is such a deeply psychological sport, one that relies on the toughness of your mind as much as it depends on the strength of your legs.  I can’t speak for others, but I’ve found that my ability to withstand pain and to push on through fear and boredom has only increased as I’ve gotten older, which is a big part of why I hated to run as a teenager, yet train for marathons as a thirtysomething.

I wonder whether something similar plays a role when it comes to ultramarathoners.

A sport with gender parity?

But, like I said, none of this is particularly definitive, and even if it were proven, I doubt it will suddenly spur on a flood of women signing up for ultramarathons.  (Although it would be awesome if it did!)  This is also not to say that women are owning the shit out of ultramarathons. As far as I can tell, almost all of the world records are held by men.

However, women are so new to ultrarunning – remember, women weren’t even allowed to compete in the Olympic marathon until 1984  – that there is still what race director Tracy Sundlun calls  “interesting headroom”:

“I think the evidence will prove that percentage-wise, the difference between the records in the ultra areas should ultimately be closer between men and women than at those events where power and muscle mass are more involved. It does look like women have some genetic qualities that would make them more efficient in those areas.”

Yet I can’t help but feel that research that looks at gender and ultramarathons in terms of race records is missing something.  For instance, I did not see research that looked at rates of completion.  Of course, it would be difficult to extrapolate meaning from that kind of research, particularly as ultramarathoners are a self-selecting group, and one that is representative of a very teeny, tiny sliver of society.  Female ultrarunners are already pushing against some heavy societal pressures just by taking part in an extreme sport, which means they may be more tenacious than most people, and hence more likely to complete a massive feat like an ultramarathon. Who knows?

What I do know is that the toughness of female ultrarunners runs counter to so much of what we are told about women and our bodies and our potential as athletes.  A few decades of feminist empowerment have only gone so far to undo the notion of women as the “weaker sex.” We are still pushing back against centuries of culture and science and religion and medicine, all of which tell us that we are not meant for much beyond childbearing and caretaking.

But when you read about women like Ann Trason or Pam Reed, it’s hard to see how any of that could possibly be true.

Next in this series:  “Born to Run” and its egalitarian vision of early human society

7 responses to “The secret feminism of “Born to Run” Pt. 1: Women and ultrarunning

  1. All interesting points, but I wonder if part of it is also that women are less likely to do an event that they just aren’t prepared for. They change goals more easily, or are more risk/failure averse (both a positive and a negative). IF you could control for that sort of thing, then I wonder what the percentages of finishers would be for Leadville?

    • Andra – that’s a good point. I was trying to articulate that when I talked about the group of ultrarunners being kind of self-selecting, but you did it better than I could, and with an added bit of analysis I hadn’t considered.

      I thought about your comment while out running today – ha, fancy that! – and it reminded me of the conversation that has been going on about the paucity of women writers in the more major literary magazines. A lot of the editors said women just don’t submit in the same numbers as men, and that even when they solicit from women, those women often decline. It really makes me think about how risk aversion, for whatever reason, may prevent many women from doing things that they perceive as being outside of their realm of ability.

  2. Interesting post. The best female runners I’ve met tend to do the talking with their legs – performance is persuasive. I enjoyed the article about Ann Trason in last month’s Trail Runner magazine.

    • “Performance is persuasive” – damn straight. That’s really all it comes down to, isn’t it?

      Thanks for the heads up about the article in Trail Runner. I’ll have to go seek it out.

  3. I wondered if that article was what had got you writing about her. I found her interview inspiring, regardless of gender – a real mental strength. Another interesting female ultrarunner you might already know is Catra Corbett who has a blog under the name Dirt Diva. Anyway, I’m getting very into this whole blog thing and I enjoyed reading your thoughts. 🙂

    • Hey, thanks! I’m glad you like my blog! And yes, I know of Catra Corbett from reading “Born to Run,” and I’ve been following her blog. I really like reading her blog because she’s so enthusiastic about ultra trail running and she generally looks like she’s having a lot of fun, even if she has a tough race or doesn’t finish. I really admire her.

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