2011 – The Year of the Woman?

Back 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?

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Andy Jones-Wilkins: finished in the top 10 men at the Western States 100 7-straight times. He's sponsored by Patagonia and Drymax socks and is iRunFar's editorialist.

View Comments (42)

  • The farther we go, the more it comes down to human performance and less about a gender.

    Worth mentioning near this conversation is Paula's (now not recognized) 2:15 WR in the marathon. I think that year less than a handful of US men had bear that standard.

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  • I really agree the natural gap between men and women lessens the longer the distance gets. What women may lack in raw muscular strength, they may gain by (generally) having higher body fat, which can come in handy on long distances. One particular sport where women have a distinct advantage over men is in long-distance swimming in cold waters. This is reportedly because of the extra body fat that protects them from the cold temperatures and may give them more energy stores.

    I doubt women will ever beat men in large numbers in any distance, but I think we will continue to see instances where the gap is narrow and/or when women win outright.

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    • Recently ran Palo Duro and two women over 40 were the first two to cross the line for the 50K. Jean Herbert (55) came in 1st and Susan Brozik (44; sub-24 Leadville finisher) was right behind her. I was impressed to say the least.

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  • As a mid to back of the pack 50K runner; gender or age doesn't matter to me at all. I view it that we are all runners. Plus in my part of the pack we tend to be very supportive of each other and help each other through; rather than trying to beat each other. None of us are going to win anything anyway. I would rather have someone to run with than pull ahead of them.

    As an Elementary Physical Education and Health teacher, I teach that we are all athletes. Hence I hate the term "getting chicked". I view it as a put down of females as athletes; even though you see the term being used by elite female runners. I didn't get beat by a "chick", I got beat by another runner who is an athlete. While I would prefer to win the whole race I know that isn't going to happen. So I strive to do my best, and I hope the other runners do their best also.

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  • I don't think it's extra body fat, it's more of patience and being smarter/wiser. There are plenty of "bigger" boys out there who don't win, and more ladies that look like that would benefit from some extra food that do win (Ann Trason does come to mind). Also, more endurance for pain tolerance (female bodies designed to push out babies after all). And may be because some want something to prove against men (nothing bad in this phrase, I promise! I love chasing guys and/or younger population). But otherwise, in ultrarunning, I don't think it's fare to say since in some instances female won overall or came close to compete for the win means they will close the gap and beat men any time soon as a generalization. Just like with Ultra Championships, it depends who showed up (not to take ANYTHING away from those ladies that did come close/won). The fastest guy on a good day will outrun the fastest gal on equally good day. The problem is, not everyone has a good day at the same time:) The gap is not getting closer, so to speak, just more events to see different results at. Women are still totally inspiring for doing what they do in sport, jaw-dropping often. You listed great examples, they all had me in owe and pride.

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  • If you get rid of the gender classifications, then how are the men going to win awards? Heheh.

    I think that there's nothing wrong with having an overall men's and women's winner. In cash races, I also don't think that there's anything wrong with having an all comers bonus for who comes first overall regardless of gender.

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  • Maybe it has less to do with body fat and more to do with our fortitude. Or maybe we store our fortitude in our body fat.

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  • one woman who deserves a shout-out, my wife Sara. Ran the rock'n river trail marathon as her first marathon (from the auburn overlook to negro bar) mid-october. she got lost for 30min within the first mile, but regained her mental composure and then went on a rampage to win the event outright (beating the 1st place man by 11min and covering 28mi's or so). so proud of her.

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    • That's actually brings a follow-up on my point. On a bad day, a woman WILL outrun a man rather more often than not because she will deal with adversity much better:)

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  • I'm all for women winning races, just as long as I don't get chick'd! :)

    I wonder if women have advantages on certain types of courses - mountain, road, technical, hot, 100+ miles, etc...

    With more fast road runners toeing the line at ultras, it will be interesting to see how the gender dynamic changes.

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  • Having coached both boys and girls at the high school level, I think girls have the ability to run themselves into the ground. Call it fortitude, resolve, or the genetic ability to handle pain due to childbirth, but I don't think that it is something that many boys have at the high school level. Certainly, ultra runners have an extraordinary ability to handle pain, but a female ultra runner may be able to take themselves to a whole different place mentally.

    The recent performance that comes to mind is Lizzy Hawker's UTMB win on a bad hip from the get-go! Wow.

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  • Women have an advantage because they are able to train more. If they had to go to work it would be different.

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    • Excuse me? Is there an imply that women don't work? I mean, beyond those women that choose to care for the kids and household, which is work in its own right, how about those women that take care of the kids and household - and have full time jobs, career, and often a second part-time job? May be that's why they can do both so great in endurance events - run long ultras and "run" households and jobs simultaneously.

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      • Olga, don't worry about the troll from the 1950s. Way to turn it around though. :-)

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        • I winced at the initial comment until I saw the schooling Olga dished out.

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  • Don't forget Lisa Bliss' unaided, self-contained Badwater crossing to the top of Mt. Whitney. Only one other person has ever done that.

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  • I don't think the gap is closing. Men seem to have a physical advantage when it comes to most sports, ultrarunning included. However, as time goes on, we simply have more races and therefore more chances for women to have amazing performances. Sure there will be races where women win overall. But if you line up all the top men and all top women it's hard to bet against the guys.

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  • As a general group, as a matter of sheer athleticism, I think few would argue that men have the biological advantage in almost every case. The few exceptions, where men and women play on a nearly even playing field are mountaineering, sled dog racing, long-distance swimming and ultra-ultraendurance (multi-day and multi-week events.) The longer the distance, the more sheer willpower, decision-making, and survival instincts factor in; high-level fitness and athletic advantages play less of a role in overall success in these types of efforts.

    The examples you offered are accomplishments of extraordinary individuals, not necessarily a trend among women as a general population. Men will probably always dominate ultrarunning, as defined by distances that can be covered by most competitors in a single block of time (48 hours or less.)

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  • I think patience plays a HUGE role in the closing of the gender gap in longer distances. Women do a better job of pacing themselves and evaluating their situation, while men want to GET IT DONE and are more easily fooled by the freshness in their legs in the early miles.

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  • On any given race day, there's a chance that the fastest woman will be faster than the fastest man. But I just did a back-of-the-envelope calculation comparing the world record men's and women's 100 meter sprint, the American River 50 men's and women's record, the Western States men's and women's records, and Leadville 100 men's and women's records, and the women's time is 10-15% slower across the board. I'd love to see male and female average finishing times for various distances from sprints to ultras, not just records. Any thoughts or data?

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    • You can use athlinks.com which provide average time for any event in the database and average time for that event based on gender. Of course this would require some work, but it popped to my mind as almost "ready to be harvested" data. (not sure about the sprints, but certainly zillions of races from 5K to 100M bot road and trail ... and many triathlons as well.)

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  • I would also like to mention W. Caitlin Smith who I believe has finished first overall in a few 50K's and holds a few overall 50K course records.

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  • This subject came up last year in the cross country skiing world where the FIS (the governing body) does not let the women compete in the "long" distance event, the 50K. Much discussion arose as there are some very capable women currently putting up fast numbers in the shorter events and complaining that they should be able to compete in a true skiing marathon length (50K).

    In response a blogger that is quite proficient with statistics went back and analyzed womens progression against men in the running marathon for comparison. His results are interesting and point to the possibility that at ultra distances the best women will eventually be on the same plane as the best men. I, for one, hope to see this happen in my lifetime!

    http://www.statisticalskier.com/2011/02/the-femin...

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    • Just a slight correction needed to your article...

      Lizzie Hawker recently won outright at the Commonwealth Championships, not the World Championships as mentioned...

      A small error, but quite significant as Commonwealth nations of course do not include mainland Europe, most of Asia or the might of the USA!

      Now if she won at the World Championships that WOULD BE something!!

      I was lucky enough to be there competing in the trail ultra event and got to watch Lizzie in the 24h. It was an awesome display of ultra running! I agree, she is dominating the sport just like Ann Trason did. She is leaving her mark.

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      • I was wondering when someone was going to comment on that. If you go to the 24hr world record to compare men and women, her run doesn't really support the argument that the gender gap narrows with increasing distance. I think the men's record is 188 miles? That's a bit more than 10-15%.

        With the AT record, I think that record is as formal as any ultra race course record.

        Brendan, you should realize that many US ultra runners don't recognize World Championships like the rest of the world. They are sometimes referred to as "world championships" and a podium finish at a domestic ultra is often given greater value than a podium finish at a World Championship. Nice race at the Commonwealths.

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  • [Broken YouTube link removed.]

    Let the shit storm begin!

    Women will never be able to beat men in a piss for distance contest!

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    • Please, this is a running website. Here is a running you tube that will illuminate the differences:

      [Broken YouTube link removed.]

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      • I believe the video is clear evidence that women - while they may challenge in the less technique driven longer distances - will never become superior to men in the sprints.

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  • AJW

    There are perhaps two women from the UK who deserve mention in this context.

    The first is Sarah Rowell, who ran 2.28.06 at London in 1985 for what was then a British record and one of the then top 10 female marathon times of all time. In 1986, she then beat all comers in the Seven Sisters Off Road Marathon, which I think remains the only occasion in which a female athlete has beaten all the men in an off road event over here.

    Also worth a mention is Helene Diamantides (now Whitaker). Amongst other achievements, in 1987, running with Alison Wright, she took 24 hours off the Everest Base Camp to Kathmandu record time, clocking 3 days, 10 hours and 8 minutes for the 167 miles with 32,000' of ascent and 46,00o' of descent. That included 8 hours of sleep.

    In 1992, partnered by Martin Stone, Helene won the Dragon's Back Race(only ever run the once), a stage race over 5 days which ran the length of Wales from north coast to south coast, much of it over wild, trackless terrain. 220 miles, not sure anyone worked out what the ascent figure was! The winning time was 38 hours and 38 minutes. The rest of Britain's finest (including the military), and some big names from other parts of the world, were left well behind.

    Including Lizzie, these are uncommon talents; great ladies all three.

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  • yeah, right :)

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