2011 – The Year of the Woman?

A look at women’s ultrarunning performances in 2011.

By on October 28, 2011 | Comments

AJWs TaproomBack in the ’80’s and ’90’s when the legendary Ann Trason was torching records at every conceivable ultramarathon distance and winning 14 Western States 100’s, she was coming tantalizingly close to breaking the “gender barrier” in the sport. On several occasions during her prime, Ann was clearly not only running to win the women’s race, but running to win outright. Her well-documented duel with Juan Herrera at Leadville is one great example. Her 2nd place finish to Tim Twietmeyer at Western States is another.

In those days, there were many who wondered if, over time and over long distances, women runners could get closer to men in terms of their performances in long events. Indeed, over the past few years it seems as though the longer an event is the closer women runners are to “catching” their male counterparts. This seems particularly true as the conditions become more extreme. Take, for example Jamie Donaldson’s wins at Badwater or Nikki Kimball’s incredible run in the 2006 WS 100 or Diana Finkel’s valiant assault on the overall win at Hardrock in 2010.

Over the past year, three performances in particular, have re-elevated the conversation about women catching the men. Let’s consider them:

First, a few months ago in the world 24 hour championships, Lizzie Hawker won the event outright with a run just over 153 miles.  It was about 10 miles under the world best for the year, but she ran those miles a month or so after winning UTMB and one can’t help but wonder what she could have done on fresh legs. Without a taper and with little or no specific training, Hawker set an amazing standard. Then she set off on an other-worldy adventure in the Himalayas to top it off!

Second, of course, there is Jennifer Pharr-Davis. In June and July, JPD broke the men’s and women’s speed record on the Appalachian Trail. With remarkable consistency and virtually no bad patches, Jenn meticulously averaged just under 47 miles a day for 46 days. While no formal records are kept in this regard, it is clear that Jenn brought down a formidable group of male runners in setting the new record and I have a hunch David Horton, Andrew Thompson and Karl Meltzer would readily admit that Jenn’s performance was extraordinary for anyone, man or woman.

Finally, there’s the ageless Meghan Arbogast. Now, Meghan didn’t actually win anything, but she did have a truly amazing race at Western States. As a 50 year-old woman she not only shattered the women’s 50-and-over record by over 3 hours, but she came painfully close to Doug Latimer’s iconic 50-and-over men’s record that he has held for over 20 years. And, if you think that record is soft, the list of 50-and-over runners who have pursued that mark includes Tom Nielsen, Scotty Mills and Jim Howard – not exactly a soft bunch!

In this context I am left to question what is going on? I am certainly not a scientist and I have no clue if there is any physiological proof to back this up, but are women, ultimately, going to catch and pass their male counterparts at ultramarathon distances? Do the three performances described above lend credence to this argument? Indeed, can women go longer for longer?

I suppose the proof will be in the pudding, but it is clear to me that in the midst of all the talk of change and evolution and pushing the envelope these performances have earned our awe and certainly deserve our attention.

Editor’s Notes from Bryon Powell

Call for Comments
So, when are the ladies gonna catch the men? If and when that day comes, do we do away with gender categories at races? At what distances and under what conditions are the top women best able to race with the top men right now?

Is comparing women’s performances to men’s missing the point? Which women are pushing the boundaries of the sport? What other women’s performances from 2011 have you in awe?

Logo Design Contest
Wow, check out all the wonderful submissions we had in the AJW’s Taproom logo contest! In the end, AJW made the hard choice and chose the design you see about by Joanne of Chartreuse Designs. Joanna, we raise a pint to you and are happy to reward your work with an iRunFar running hat or visor and your choice of another item from the iRunFar Store.

Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.