Ultra168 Study – Women in Ultrarunning

Buffalo Stampede

A few weeks ago we launched a survey to look at attitudes and opinions of women in ultrarunning. After reading comments regarding Scott Jurek breaking Jennifer Pharr-Davies Appalachian Trail record and the fact that some people maintained Jennifer “still held the female record” I thought it was high time Ultra168 looked into the topic.

While technically true, it hit a nerve with a few, including myself. It led me to question: how should we talk about women’s achievements in ultrarunning? How are women perceived in our community, and how should we continue to celebrate them in the sport?

women in ultras
Jennifer Pharr-Davies

While women represent only roughly a quarter of the ultra-marathon community here in Australia (although the number is higher in other countries like the US, for example), this website has always been a strong advocate for women in the sport, endeavouring to ensure they are not seen as ‘extras’ in our community.

We feature women first in our previews, and have written articles that look at how we can make our sport more appealing to women. Why do we care? Despite women only making up a quarter of the ultrarunning population in races, our Ultra168 Supporters membership base is almost 40% female. Therefore we have a duty to make sure we’re continuing to support that base and encouraging a far more even split to participate in ultra running.

We partnered up with our good friend Rachel Jacqueline, an Aussie ultrarunner based over in Hong Kong for some female insight. As a female sports journalist and part of SisuGirls, encouraging girls to step into themselves through sport and adventure, Rachel is well placed to give some insightful opinion on the topic. Rachel also gave up her time for free to write her thoughts on this, for which we’re extremely grateful.

So let’s get started.

The male interpretation – women in ultrarunning 

One matter that does grate me in our sport is the reference ‘being chicked’. I do appreciate that the term is often meant in good humour – as evidenced by the study – more on that later. However for me, the phrase is essentially another way of saying that women are inferior to men – how could you let a women beat you? I’m a believer that if you want equal standing within out sport, phrases like this are not really acceptable.

Of course, there are areas of our sport that women are not on equal terms – and the big one is the physicality – Rachel touches on this in greater detail below.

But where women do have an equal standing, if not an advantage, is in the mental side of our sport.

women in ultrarunning
Paula Radcliffe

I think a big area for debate is how we refer to women’s result within the overall context of a race. One of my personal bugbears is the reference to the fact that if a women wins a race, it’s often referred to as ‘the female winner’. I was really intrigued to understand where people stood on this. If for example we looked at mainstream athletics and the London marathon, how often do people say ‘Paula Radcliffe won the female race’? Never. She is referred to as having ‘won the London marathon’. So why can’t we do the same in ultramarathons?

I feel that as a result of referring to a female as the ‘women’s winner’, we then start to place her result in the context of the overall results. Part of the reason why this is done is because the race is run at the same time and results companies will list the results in context of the overall race result. But why then do publications reporting on our sport then insist on reporting women’s results in the context of the overall race when a women happens to break into the top ten of a major race?

The stellar performance of Rory Bosio at UTMB in 2013 is a prime example. While I do appreciate that it was a great achievement, why do we feel the need to benchmark women against men when all things are not equal?

Our survey results show that you feel it’s important to highlight what women have achieved, with 71% agreeing so. But this is where I do feel our sport is at odds with itself slightly. We like to celebrate the performance of women in the overall field against men, but our study also indicated a strong preference to refer to women’s performances in respect of their own fields, with 76% agreeing that we should.

So you can see, we have a strong majority agreeing that there should be both a celebration of women’s results, but that we should talk about women’s results in the context of their own fields.

Now that ‘being chicked’ question. Importantly, 74% of our respondents were women, so they reflect the majority here. When it comes to what people think of the phrase, 42% thought it was amusing. Thirteen percent were OK with it, but it did leave them slightly uncomfortable. Fifteen percent had no opinion either way, but 29% felt it was demeaning in some way, but that slightly, or considerably. The jury is out, it’s fairly split – importantly however I don’t have the breakdown of what men and women think respectively think.

I do think that our sport is one of the only sports where we do see a much greater level of parity in the performances in the general field. There is still a distinction at the top end of the sport, but once you get into the next wave right through the field, women will constantly perform on a par to men. Again, our survey respondents were very much in agreement with this – 43% agreed that we are already seeing parity in performance, with a further 27% saying that it will happen in the future.

The View from Rachel – Women in Ultrarunning 

When Dan approached me about adding to the discussion about women’s achievement in the sport, I was thrilled. “I think this is very relevant Dan – get me involved!” I wrote eagerly. As a female sports journo I battle with how women are represented in sport all the time: because I’m female I cover the women’s rugby in Hong Kong (“I understand girls” apparently) and, because I’m female, I get assigned to write about women’s achievement at the Standard Chartered Marathon in Hong Kong each year. What I mean is, if I didn’t write these stories, either no one would or perhaps they wouldn’t give it the attention they deserve. That’s why I jump on board every opportunity I can to write about women, particularly in my favourite sport of ultrarunning.

Personally, I am fascinated by the grace and strength of women at the top; there’s grit to all female athletes I find truly beautiful. So I want women to be represented. I want them to share the limelight they deserve. I was amused, but appalled by Em Rusicano’s opinion on News.com.au a few weeks ago.

“Did you know that only 7 per cent of sports programming in this country covers women’s sport?” she questioned. “Do you get how little that is?! Horse racing gets more coverage, actual horses you guys.” Shocking.

But, here’s the thing. As incredible as women are, when it comes to sport, the cold hard facts are undeniable. Women and men are not equal. Men are undeniably and scientifically proven to be physically superior. End of conversation.

More than 71% of you agreed with me here – sad, yet it is a fact. But here is the great thing about ultrarunning and women – and perhaps why I love the sport so much — even though women are not equal to men physically, there are some peculiar differences about women’s physiology which makes them suited to endurance and helps to close the gap.

  • Women are better fat burners. Women carry on average 20 -25% body fat compared to 10-15% for men, and during lower intensity efforts, studies have shown they utilise those stores more efficiently. In a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers found in a 90 minute run at 65% VO2max females had significantly lower respiratory exchange ratios (RER) values compared to males – being the ratio between the amount of carbon dioxide produced and oxygen consumed in one breath. The result was women used 428.4 calories from fat in the energy they expended, while men used only 242.1 calories. A muscle biopsy showed greater muscle glycogen depletion in male subjects when compared to female subjects. Admittedly it’s an older study, but follow up studies have shown similar results.
  • Physiologists have also argued that women are smaller and lighter, with a lower centre of gravity, meaning grueling challenges take less of a toll on their body and also mean they work differently going up and down the hills. For women, physically the longer and harder the course, the better.
  • Women’s brains are wired differently when it comes to risk and reward. Women are hard-wired for conservation, while men are wired for risk-taking, receiving a burst of endorphins when confronted with a risky or challenging situation. On the other hand, women’s brains simply don’t reward them for taking big risks, making them more careful and prudent.

I don’t have the hard science here but something happens to women after babies. There are so many hormones running around boosting their immunity, providing them with extra stamina and better recovery that baby hormones appear like superdrugs. Look what Jessica Ennis-Hill just did in the World Athletics Championships recently, a little over a year since the birth of her son, Reggie, she won gold. People rave on about Usain Bolt. For me, the performance of that Championship was Jessica.

She's as good as it gets - Jessica Ennis-Hill
She’s as good as it gets – Jessica Ennis-Hill

And then, of course, there’s the matter of mental stamina. While 53% of you believe men and women are equal mentally, 45% of you thought women were mentally stronger. I’m actually surprised the number wasn’t higher given so often it’s the men’s DNF rate which is higher than the women – something that was in stark evidence at UTMB. But it still shows that you feel that when it comes to the mental game, a large portion of you think women do have the upper hand.

These factors mean when a woman in the absolute peak of her sport she can stand on relative equal footing to the men she competes against. Indeed, there have been many instances when women have won ultras outright: Pam Reed winning the 2002 Badwater is just one example.

But despite how close women come and how competitive they can truly be in the sport, paradoxically I differ from Dan on how we should write about women in the sport. When writing race reports and race previews, I won’t write about women first as a rule — I let the field and the individual’s performances dictate what gets written.

women in ultrarunning
Pam Reed, a pioneer of women in ultrarunning

Just as I think a woman at her peak is incredible and worth documenting, so too are the many incredible men who take part in the sport. Men and women are equal enough in the sport that the story that should be told – and I’m sure the story you’re interested in reading – is the one of the greatest human sporting performance. It seems many of you agree with me here: 42% of you believe that women and men are already equal in the sport.

There is also another reason for my approach. As Dan mentioned, female numbers are meagre in comparison to the male field. Honestly, sometimes, I do feel that in the top end of the sport, there’s just not as many women as there are men. So often in ultras you’ll only really have a handful of truly elite female athletes in the women’s field, while the men’s field often (though not always) has greater depth when it comes to talent.

So where does that all bring us too? Men and women are not equal, but they’re equal enough in ultrarunning. Which is perhaps why 76% of you consider we should still talk about women’s field separately in the sport and continue to point out women’s achievements, yet 40% believed we shouldn’t explicitly point out that it’s the women’s winner. I think we should still go at lengths to point out dazzling female performances because there are simply more hurdles facing women in the sport: physically, in terms of their collective number and also because of the barriers in ultrarunning unique to women (training, family commitments etc).

After all, women in the sport of running itself is still relatively new. If you think that Katherine Switzer was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1967 – just 50 years ago… compared to men who’ve been running it since 1897 (a good 70 years longer than women)…. there is still catching up to do. I’m glad we are on our way and that in ultrarunning, there appears to be a great deal of respect for what women can achieve through their performances.

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Dan on Twitter
I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

2 thoughts on “Ultra168 Study – Women in Ultrarunning

  1. I agree that the greatest performances are the stories people want to hear, and those stories are not necessarily just the stories of the winners.
    If a woman places in the top of the field in an ultra I’m always impressed…but I’m not at all surprised.

    I suspect a significant part of post-birth improved performances is that the mother is essentially doing strength training while carrying the baby while pregnant and then still carrying the baby after birth while it continues to grow and get heavier. In that sense, having a baby can a very effective and progressive strength training program.

    Keep up the great articles!

  2. Some year back my family and I moved from America to Europe. Born and raised in Guatemala, I always had the mine set that the “MAN” did the work and the “Women” stayed with the family…I am so grateful I married a woman that did not go for that standard. When we moved from USA to Germany I told my wife I was going to stay home with the kids while she settled in to her new Job. We moved to Germany because “SHE” was getting a better job. Having the opportunity to be houseMAN and staying at home with my kids was much stressful and harder than my previous job (Animal Anesthetist at university level). It was an eye opening experience and built on the respect i already had for my wife and mother, both worked full time and took care of their families.
    I started running again and got interested in Ultras. Often getting schooled by older women in races. All these women had something in common, they all had smiles as they schooled me!
    I am all for pushing the wagon that will get women interest in sports in general, but running specifically. Women bring mental strength and a different type of POWER to the game. I like to tell my daughter that I run like a girl!

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