In a recent conversation about ultrarunning, a friend of mine asked, “why are the women’s fields so small?” Good question! The longer, gnarlier, and more remote the race, the fewer women we see. The sport is undoubtedly male dominated. Why?
I may be biased (because my female friends show off-the-charts badassery in sports and in life), but the women I know are no less competitive, physically capable and competent in the outdoors than their male counterparts. They have all the physical ability, grit, and dedication necessary to complete a tough mountain ultra, but many of them still hold back.
At many of the ultramarathons I’ve raced in the last decade or so of running, the percentage of female finishers is a surprisingly low average of 27%. For more on the stats, check out this article by Canadian ultrarunner Ellie Greenwood. Although the article was published in 2012 and women’s participation rates have climbed steadily since then, it is not necessarily the case here in New Zealand, where the women’s fields for ultramarathons are still very small.
In researching my next race, the Ultra Easy 100 km in Wanaka, I was surprised to find that last year’s finisher rate was only 23% female. Intrigued, I looked into a few more races. The Northburn 100 Miler’s finisher rate this year was 28% female (not too bad considering it’s a miler with enough elevation gain to make it onto the short qualifying list of races for the infamous Hardrock 100). When I looked into the 80 km Hillary, I was happy to see that the female finisher rate was a healthy 31%, up from 21% in its first year. This is encouraging and I’m happy to see more women getting involved in the sport, but ultras are still hovering at about 70% dude.
Race directors and the male members of the ultrarunning community have always in my and my friends’ experience been very welcoming, respectful, and supportive of female athletes. Although men in the general population might still bully, catcall, label us “strong for girls” or hassle us for “chicking” them, it’s different with ultras. It’s a level playing field. Ultramarathons are humbling and hard for everyone, which engenders mutual respect. You depend on one another on remote mountain trails more than you would in everyday life or other sports, and this fosters a spirit of friendliness.
Maybe women are put off by practical reasons, such as not enough time to train. Or perhaps the fact that so few women run mountain ultras means that those seeking female camaraderie and training partners are less likely to get involved. Although I have female runner friends, not many of them here in New Zealand are training for and competing in mountain ultras, so the majority of my longest runs are done either solo or with male running friends. Understandably, the thought of running with a group of guys or tackling a mountain mission solo can be a bit intimidating to someone who hasn’t done it before.
It was only fifty years ago that Katherine Switzer became the first woman to enter the Boston Marathon, a strictly all-male race at the time. She registered using just her initials and flew under the radar. Midrace, an official spotted her and tried to forcibly push her off the course, ripping at her race bib and sweater. Her fellow runners responded by creating a shield around her and one of them bodychecked the aggressive official. Katherine kept running and went on to finish. In doing so, she found herself at the heart of the women’s liberation movement and became a catalyst for change in distance running.
Fifty years later, the gender split in most road marathons (including Boston) is very close to 50/50. This leaves me wondering whether mountain ultramarathons are at a similar place that road marathons were a few decades ago, and maybe we will eventually hit a tipping point that encourages more women to run. Community is a powerful motivator (especially for women) and ultrarunning may be approaching the turning point where enough women are competing to encourage newcomers. Or perhaps the level of risk, time commitment, and general suffering involved in running ultras means that only a handful of women will ever be interested.
Although I’ve always loved the outdoors, I never would have considered running a gnarly mountain ultra if one of my girlfriends hadn’t suggested it and trained with me. Looking back, I feel like a different person from before I started running ultras—more confident, self-reliant, and happy. The camaraderie of suffering in the mountains together, the beauty of nature, the thrill of a challenge you’re not quite sure you can pull off, and the contented post-race glow are a few of the many things I love about ultrarunning, and wish I could share with everyone.
While I would never pressure anyone into running an ultra, I know there are many women out there who aren’t afraid of big new challenges and just need a little nudge. Consider this a nudge, ladies.