Twenty-Seven Percent: Why Aren’t More Women Running Ultras?

Chick's CornerIt’s pretty indisputable that ultrarunning is growing at a significant rate right now; races that you used to just be able to show up for and register on the day now sell out well in advance, in some of the more high profile races over-subscribed lotteries have become the norm, and new races are popping up every year with sizeable numbers of participants in their first year running. Having not been involved in the sport for that long I’m not the best to say, but it’s unlikely that a site like iRunFar itself would have existed 10 years ago, in part simply because there wasn’t the level of interest in ultrarunning that there is today. We’re in a state of growth that doesn’t seem to be slowing much. Okay, ultrarunning will always remain somewhat of a niche sport (The hard work element of it will always put off a good chunk of the general population!), but as we live more sedentary and secure lives sports such as ours that present major personal challenges will continue to attract more and more participants who have that natural human desire not to live a 100% comfortable life.

It wasn’t therefore surprising, but still exciting, to read in the 2011 year-end review in ultraRUNNING magazine the stories of the growth of our sport – more races, bigger participant fields, more finishers – it was all positive news and for me it is great to see something I personally love being embraced my more and more people. But I found one stat a little disheartening; in a whole list of numbers of ‘more, more, more’, the percentage of female participants at ultra distance races has not increased. Okay, it has not gone down either, but the article clearly stated that 27% of all ultrarunners are female. Hmm, is this good? Bad? Or is it just what it is?

First, a few of the (approximate) stats from 2012 as maybe like me you were a little doubtful when you first read that 27% stat. So, the percentage of women finishers in 2012:

  • Western States 100 – 16%
  • Hardrock 100 – 12%
  • Pine to Palm 100 – 20%
  • UTMB (signed up for 100 miles) – 8%
  • CCC 100k – 12%
  • American River 50 – 30%
  • Squamish 50 – 32%
  • Transvulcania – 8%
  • Chuckanut 50k – 32%
  • Kneeknacker 50k – 32%
  • Run for the Toad 50k – 39%

It was interesting to see from my very small and very random sample that women, although nothing like 50%, were getting closer to half of the field in 50k races compared to 100 milers. I was also not surprised to see that at a race like Run for the Toad, which appeals to first timers, the percentage was really much closer to equal between the genders. I’d thought that the same might be true for a race like American River, which is a more approachable course than many 50 milers, but they still stood at 30% (despite having a female RD, which also applies to Chuckanut).

I’d need to look at a much broader range of races, but certainly it appears that European ladies aren’t flocking to participate in ultras any more than their North American counterparts, and if anything the percentages are even lower in Europe than in North America. And in South America when I raced TNF Ultramaraton de los Andes the gender disparity was so marked that I actually asked about whether running was encouraged among Chilean women! Okay, I stuck out as the gringo who didn’t speak Spanish, but I felt like I stuck out just as much for being a woman.

We read once in a while about how more than 50% of half marathoners are female and close to 50% of marathoners are now women. Heck, show up to your local 10k and it can often be hard to spot the occasional guy among the seas of women. So what makes ultrarunning so different? Why are women not flocking to sign up for 50k races in the same way they are embracing shorter distances? It’s not an easy answer and the more I’ve thought about it I’m also not sure it’s necessarily something we should proactively do anything about. Don’t get me wrong, I think women should be encouraged to race ultras, but then so should men. I’m biased, I like ultrarunning and I want to spread the love, whether to guys or gals. And if women don’t want to run ultras then why force them unnecessarily? Or is it that there are factors discouraging or even preventing women running ultras?

From asking many ladies who run ultras it is clear that they feel very welcomed to the sport when they do participate. Our sport is known for being friendly, inclusive and having great communities, and women definitely feel part of this when they sign up for ultras. Not one of the 10 or so ladies I asked (of all levels of ability) said that they have been anything other than welcomed by both men and women in the sport, so certainly it’s not a case of women running one ultra and being put off, in fact it seems once ladies give an ultra a go they are as hooked to the sport just as much as men are. It would therefore seem that the stumbling block might be to get women to jump up to the challenge in the first place.

Of course, it’s not ideal to ask a bunch of ladies who already run ultras why they think more women don’t, but looking around my fellow ultra ladies it seems that most are pretty confident, outgoing and outdoorsy. They are ladies who live life more generally with the ‘anything is possible’ mindset. They are ladies who count men among their closest of friends and enjoy hanging out with the guys, which is helpful if you want to do a sport where 70%+ of the participants are men. If you are the kind of lady who likes to hang out with your girlfriends, well a sport like half marathoning or volleyball might be a better choice as simply there are more women already in those sports. Only one of the 10 ladies I asked said that that most of her running buddies were female.

So, if you are not the sort that wants to hang out with the guys then you have to be the sort who likes to head out onto the trails for hours of solo running, which it seems many women aren’t. For good reasons, such as safety from weirdos or wildlife, it would seem many women are put off by solo jaunts in the mountains and likely more put off by these factors than men. Whilst some women may be up for the physical challenge of ultrarunning they are put off by these sort of practical limitations. Maybe they shouldn’t be, but it will be a difficult to try to change something like that.

Then there is the biggie, which I would guess is the overriding factor why women are likely to remain a minority in ultrarunning: family. The average age of a male ultrarunner is early 40s and when I thought of many of the guys who I know through ultrarunning I could list of many who have young kids living at home. But when I thought of my women ultra friends and acquaintances it was harder to think of women in general and even harder to think of women with kids. Typically ultra runners are of the age where they will have kids, yet is ultrarunning a sport that is compatible with having kids? Firstly, as we all know – training for an ultra takes up a lot of time! The hours spent out training, getting to trailheads, or doing all the other associated things like seeing a physio, having a massage, etc make our sport something that most of us embrace as a lifestyle rather than just a hobby as it impinges on our time so much. Ultrarunning is not something that we can dip in and out of when we find we have a little free time, or it’s not like training for say a marathon where we can allot two evenings a week and one weekend morning to dedicate ourselves to our goal. Ultrarunning can often end up taking over, or at least shaping, our life and schedules, which is hard to combine with having young kids. Of course, I would in no way suggest that men are not playing their part in looking after their kids, but as a general rule it is easier (and maybe more accepted) for men to spend more time away from their kids than women pursuing non-work related activities. Or as one of my ultra friends who is a fairly new mum hinted, she just wanted to spend more time with her child, that that had become her overwhelming priority and what she actually wanted to do, whilst her husband despite being a delighted dad was happy to spend longer chunks of time away from their child.

So should ultras try to make themselves more enticing to women? Should we try to equal out the percentage of participation a little? For me, that’s not an easy question. From the ladies I asked who were already running ultras they mostly seemed pretty opposed to the idea of ultras specifically targeting women, and I’d tend to agree. The ladies in ultrarunning right now don’t seem to want to see pink t-shirts at packet pick up! Sure, gestures such as more port-a-potties on race courses (Yes, new ultra ladies have asked me about that concern!), women’s specific race garments or kids entertainment (Run for the Toad in Ontario actually has a kids’ tent with colouring and cartoons!) are fabulous and helpful (And men will appreciate them, too.), but I don’t think anyone gets into ultrarunning to be ‘ladylike.’

In fact, my good friend Brenda even suggested that she thought that some women just might not want to get sweaty, muddy and bruised from falls, sure the same might be said for some men, but I guess it is a fact that more men are more inclined to participate in outdoor endurance sports that involve getting muddy than women are. It was interesting to see that Run for the Toad 50k which has a higher than average percentage of female participants also hosts a 25k event on the same day. I wouldn’t doubt that many women have run the 25k version first and have been inspired to see the 50k event and realized that maybe an ultra is not as daunting as they had previously thought, so this would seem an ideal way to attract women into ultras who like the idea but are initially a little hesitant.

Overall, I think that if women are interested in participating in ultras then they should be encouraged just like men and if there are practicalities that are putting them off to some extent, then these can hopefully be addressed. But if ultras simply don’t appeal to as many women as men then maybe that is just the way it is and the issue shouldn’t be forced because we can still be proud to be a sport that, by and large, ignores whether you are a guy or a girl and just welcomes you as a runner.

There are 116 comments

  1. Elena Makovskaya

    Yes, some goods are odd, but I am viewed as an "odd good" myself, so I am ok with checking out all the other odd goods out there.. :)

  2. Tonia

    Great discussion! I think the over riding issue for most women relates to family/child commitments. I live in an area that actually has a lot of ultrarunners, and I know very few women who have kids who also run ultras. The women I meet who run many events per year are single with no kids, or are married with no kids. The other moms I know who run ultras might squeeze in one race, or possibly two per year. Finding time to train around the family is just really difficult. I have children, and I want to run ultras, so I do my best to balance my running with my family time and my give my kids what they need and deserve. I don't want to give up my own dreams and goals in life, but I never want my kids to feel like I was not around for them because I was always off running. So, I fit in a couple of races each year, but no more than that.

  3. e10

    WOW. First off, I am an ultrarunner. I have two young kids (aged 4, 6) and I am in my late 20s.

    I would like a pink shirt. I have nothing against being feminine. Sure, I snot-rocket, take a dump during races, sweat and stink like everyone else… But as much as I enjoy being a tough bad-ass, I enjoy a shower after racing and painting my toenails before. I am a woman.

    It's hard to work, have kids, and run a lot. It means a lot of 4am runs. It means sometimes I weight lift at home at 4pm watching Martha Speaks before going for a short run (1-2 miles) while my boys mountain bike, so they can pursue their sport too. The kid factor is hard. Most women I've met who do ultra's are much older and don't have kids. Most men simply leave the kids with their supportive wives. My kids like to be involved, so race day includes packing kids meals, snacks, toys, and a change of clothes. To travel to a race includes looking up local parks instead of bars. I will be doing my first 100 miler next summer. It will take some time away from my kids. More likely, it will take more time away from sleep, since I do a lot of my running during sleeping hours. My boys are just excited for the 3 day trip "to the lake to camp with daddy and to see mommy run."

    In my opinion, the Moms who make it work (Anita Ortiz is a fav) are all the more badass. And yes, they can wear pink. It's a hell of a lot harder to do what they're doing than for the men. (My husband is both a distance runner and a talented rock climber, and spends much of his time rock climbing). That innate "need" to take care of the kids, the house, and etc isn't there as much for them. Yes, they have kids too. But they can leave for a 4 day rock climbing/mountaineering/whatever trip guilt free while many Moms I know have a hard time leaving their baby for 30 mins to go for a jog.

    1. Jen

      Right on e10! You ARE all the more badass for pulling it off with young kids. I think that's what a lot of us without kids are trying to say… we know it's gotta be hard to balance everything, and we admire you for it! Best of luck with your first 100!

      And for the record, I don't mind pink either ;-) Participating in the tough dirty aspects of this sport and enjoying it, and enjoying competition, doesn't mean you can't also be feminine :-)

    2. The Other Jen

      Well said e10. Having kids can so easily become just another excuse – after all there are days with a 20 miler on the training plan when any excuse will do! Being a woman, a mother and an athlete aren't mutually exclusive. And what a role model.

      1. Tonia

        I agree, to a point. I have always been a runner and have never used my kids as an "excuse" not to do something…but, I think you will find that as yours get older it actually gets harder to find time for yourself. They are so much busier, and you have to mold your schedule to fit theirs. I have managed to do two 50s in the last six months and am planning one 100 in the next year, but it is much harder in many ways to fit in training and travel when both kids have activities six days/week, I have to provide transportation, and of course, feel guilt about missing their special events. I have no extended family nearby, so that makes it all trickier to plan. But, yes, I feel like it is also important for the kids to see mom setting and working towards goals. I just understand why many women feel like a marathon or half is doable but an ultra may not be.

      2. JenE

        I think there are at least 3 Jen's on this thread :-) (I'm the goods-are-odd 40-something childless chocolate-loving data-crunching ultrarunning Jen who doesn't mind pink and will hereby ID myself as JenE, admittedly the chattiest Jen on the thread.)

        I really do admire (and envy) the ultra-mom's who manage to pull it off. You are exceptional for demanding and allowing yourself to "have it all", and yes, what tremendous role models for your children. I don't think I could handle the lack of sleep, and can't imagine pulling it off without a supportive partner and/or extended family. It is really awesome to see whole families at races enjoying the outdoors together.

        However, I can certainly understand why moms (and some dads) would choose to run shorter distances due to time-management constraints, and suspect that this is one of the answers to the original question of "why so few" (though not the only factor).

  4. Robyn

    I'm of the childless married variety but have a very supportive husband. For me, it's the travel part of getting to ultras. As much as I love my local ultra running group, the locations of ultras tend to be more spread out in the Midwest which requires more travel time built into schedules. I have a full-time job, so I live for the weekend and races. Factoring in travel can be taxing and a deterrent. When I was living in the Pacific Northwest, it was way easier for me to get to and from ultras.

    Along with the race registrations, travel costs money. I guess that I'll need to get to some sponsors to foot my ultra running habit.

  5. The Other Jen

    I think perhaps those who already have children may find it harder to get into the sport, however as an ultra runner previous to the birth of my daughter I don't find my desire or ability to train or race is diminished at all. I found pregnancy hugely motivating (ie although I ran throughout I could wait to get back out doing some proper training!) and now find the time required for training is really valuable 'me' time – something you get a lot less of as a mum! I get up at 5am regularly to fit in training runs that don't impact on my family time but that's a lovely time of day to run so it doesn't feel in any way a hardship. I guess what I'm saying is that some people are motivated to run ultras and some aren't. Having a baby doesn't necessarily change that, in fact I'm more motivated and enjoy the challenges of running even more now than before.

  6. susan grant

    I'm lucky to have a job that allows me to work 3 days a week, a supportive husband, and 2 "self sufficient" teenagers, otherwise training the mileage needed for 100's or even 50's would be really tough….

    Even with this, it has to be priority to say that the 6 hours inbetween school drop up and pick up are mine for the trails, not errands, laundry, groceries and all the other pesky things that pile up….

    All in all I run to finish, I don't require the training or ability to be elite, i just love to run.

    I think in our busy world of working moms, its fits in much easier to have a marathon training plan….

  7. tite

    CIAO! saw you shivering at the Finish line of the CCCMontBlanc. I was there after dropping for the 2nd time from TDS at km 65; 2 years ago for Hypothermia, just 8 km from the finish. But I ll be there next year with a new approach and 2 sons as assistant team, to get the dry clothes at the right places. See, that s what family is for , for an ultra trail runner. No matter how old

  8. Mike Hinterberg

    Great topic and comments, everyone. I think the dialog of this topic and Geoff's diversity one was to analyze factors that go into noticeable differences in percentages, and figure out what barriers, if any, might be holding back groups of people from having the same opportunity (or, at least making it harder for them) and can be addressed and fixed…or if it's a cultural preference thing that doesn't need any addressing or can't be easily addressed. I don't see a reason to easily dismiss such questioning as "political correctness" because, like most complex problems, it's likely to be a mix of factors. One example of the former is the excellent comments regarding women in marathoning; although opportunities previously lagged for women, the burgeoning popularity of women in marathoning, and ultras in general, will hopefully lead to a rise in women's ultra popularity. Additionally, some of the types of careers that provide flexibility and are overrepresented in ultrarunning demographics were traditionally (and still do, to a degree) less available to women — as that has improved, hopefully ultrarunning numbers will improve as well.

    I also suspect that the visibility of ultrarunning, and more outspoken/gregarious via magazines, Blogs, etc. (this was not always the case) top female athletes will provide extra inspiration. It looks like they have!

    Childbearing has been discussed, and I have much respect for Mom's that can balance training with motherhood, and those that choose a different sort of balance in which their choice of balance of time precludes ultra training. Each path has their own merits and there are many paths to being a good parent and role model. As to the obvious disparity between genders, which hasn't been clearly and bluntly stated: you take 9 months of gestation, and then several more months of both recovering (possibly from a complicated or surgical delivery) and losing weight/regaining running fitness. Then, even with the most understanding partner possible, there's the possible choice of breastfeeding, which both increases demand on the body and takes a few hours of each day (for a year or more per child!) which, anatomically, is time that can't be provided by Dad. WOW — that is several years, potentially, per child, of sacrifices that men can't really make with their bodies and time, so my hat's off to all the Mom's out there! I don't know what else men can do other than humbly remembering these sacrifices and giving Mom the extra time she deserves.

    The other disparity that comes across in the comments (and I've seen this in hiking forums as well) is safety. One positive is that the data suggest that trail running (including very rare animal encounters) is generally safer than urban running. People have different opinions and comfort levels, with one of the most unfortunate problems more unique toward female runners is the increased chance of being assaulted by a human. Because of that, many folks choose to run in groups or with a dog to increase safety.

    Those are my observations, anyway, thanks for the great discussion!

  9. Annette Bater


    This is a great question that really deserves to be asked. I think for me it's a question of time (with a full-time job and a family, how do you fit that in without seriously getting burnt out), capability (being new-ish to distance running, I can't fathom running 50+K when 25K was hard enough), training support (as a newbie limited to SW Ontario, there is a limitation on where to train and who to train with), and most certainly safety (injury and predators of all kinds–2 and 4 legged ones).

    Knowing these limitations, and trying to overcome them are two different things. I think it's easy to understand the why of this debate. Less easy is the how. Mentoring, sponsorship, training groups/vacations? I'm not sure.

    But it's great that you asked. Will you be posting a follow up? I'd be curious to see that.

  10. don

    I am not sure why more women don't run ultras but I am very glad for those that do. I have met some really great women out on the trails (wait that sounds odd) who have really enhanced my ultra racing experience (that sounds odd too – hey I am being sincere here!).

  11. JenE

    Take-home points for RDs regarding shirts:

    Use caution when considering a pink shirt for ladies. Some will love it, many don’t care, and some will either vomit or throw it back in your face.

    MOST IMPORTANTLY, offer gender-specific SIZING. If it means that shirts will cost an extra buck or two, we (most of us) don’t care. The majority of us have piles of ill-fitting “unisex” (i.e. men’s) shirts that we never wear, regardless of how cool the logo for your race.

    1. olga

      I am not sure how it all got off topic the amount/percentage of women in ultras to color/size of shirts, but while we're at it, may be have an option of NO shirt? Don't discount the whole $20 it cost you (RD), even $5 will do, but most importantly, all my shirts, no matter color or size, end up in Goodwill (and I am not sure people shopping there would get it anyway). I actually have a practice now to simply not pick it up at the packet, but if I could get a penny back, an RD could not spend extra on buying, and a factory could produce one less, everyone would benefit. :)

      1. JenE

        Sorry, yes… a bit off topic, but clearly a pet peeve of many female runners and came up a number of times in this thread… hard to pass up the opportunity to try to get the message out to more RDs.

        I meant to be a little sarcastic regarding the color pink, but am serious about gender-sizing, and I agree with Olga about having a no-shirt option.

        But yeah… I am pretty sure that t-shirt options have nothing to do with why there are fewer women in the sport ;-)

  12. CaraM

    What a great article Ellie and you are an inspiration in your running!

    I hope I don't take up too much time but I can say that HANDS down the 3 things that make running races/ultras work when you have kids and a job are:

    1. ( Most importantly)!!! A supportive spouse…cannot be done without this!

    2. A willingness to forget everything you used to try and do as far as training pre-kids

    3. Willingness to be determined, tired as hell and handle stress at times.

    I just had my first child at age 41 eleven months ago and during the first year I was determined to get back to running trails/races while minimally affecting the time with my amazing new baby. I ran a 50k and a 50M in 10 months post birth, plus 4 marathons and a handful of shorter races. I am lucky to live in the mountains of Colorado and have great races fairly close to home and in town. Is it for everyone? No its not but if your spouse is supportive and you are OK with being a little slower than you'd like to be at times its do-able:) There were lots of nights I was stressed or feeling a little guilty but it was what I needed, and I think I am a great mom. I think time by yourself for many women is a must, if we are de-stressed after a run and happy then we are better moms and wives, at least in my case. Most of the friends I do longer races with do not have kids for the time being but I think having a kid makes you tough! I would have crumbled previously trying to run a 25 mile race on 2-3 hours of sleep! I think training for 100K-100M might take more time than I have or am willing to take right now but a 50k and a 50M can be done if you get that long run in weekly. That is the key I think and getting that spouse out for his long mountain bike rides on the other weekend day. Its not easy but I think if you run whenever you have time to fit it in…4:00 am, the hour before daycare pick up when your last client cancelled, whatever time you have utilize it. I used to have so much free time that I was picky when I would run. Ha! now its full on be ready with your running clothes and food/water in your car at all times!! I think we will see a huge uptake in womens participation at longer races, I know in our town its widespread that the ladies are ramping up the distances and its awesome! What I do miss though is kicking back with a beer post race and lounging around, gone are those days for sure. You finish the race and are ON, no matter how you feel:)

    1. Ellie

      wow, amazing what you have achieved! I must admit that I certainly have the luxury of chilling out after runs and can only imagine what it is like to be right back into childcare the minute you walk in the door – like you said, it must make you tough!

      1. CaraM

        Thanks Ellie. Ah the chilling after a race, I do miss that!

        I think as trail running and ultras continue to grow, the women's presence will follow. I have ran/raced on trails for years but this summer was my first 50M. Aside from 2 seasons of a pregnancy and an injury, I am not sure why I waited to do a 50, I think it just takes the suggestion or example of a good friend sometimes, and that friend of mine is now pregnant herself. You yourself Ellie set a great example of what is possible for women in racing.

        In many half and full marathons (especially road) the women's presence is large, so I think its just a matter of time in the longer trail races. I do think children are the big factor, its hard. I also think its just exposure to trails, there are still a lot of women who don't run on trails. I was lucky enough to do a 50M and a 50K close to home this summer, had it not been so close it would not have been so easy to race. As more races pop up and the travel factor becomes more convenient then I think more women will be able to show up. Traveling with your family or a few girlfriends to a race is so fun though, you never want to get rid of that!

        1. CaraM

          One last thing, I think women are just a bit more methodical and work their way up over the years through distances more slowly. They might work their way up to half trail races, then 15 milers, then marathons then ultras where as men might go straight to a 50k the first year or two they start racing. This summer at a mountainous trail marathon I happen to meet 4 people who is was their first trail marathon. The two women had done many road marathons and just switched to trails, the guys both had never done anything longer than 13 and 15 miles and never on trail!

  13. CaraM

    Oh and PLEASE only women's shirts at races! I promise if you come to Steamboat Springs and race you will get a women's shirt at almost every race.

  14. Tony Mollica

    I recently ran the NorthCoast 24 Hour Endurance Run where women were three of the top four places, including first and second.

    I would have guessed the percentage of women competing in ultras was higher than 27 percent, because it is higher than that in my part of the pack. I expect to see the percentage steadily rising.

  15. Merrie

    Last July I ran La 6000D, a 60KM race in the French Alps. There were 1000 men and 80 women. That's 8 percent women in a race that doesn't attract much international attention (probably the elite races in Europe have more women).

    I asked a French friend why the average French woman doesn't aspire to run ultras: "She has her kids. She has her femininity. She'll walk 5 kilometers for exercise."

  16. Merrie

    Hey, I did Chicago this year too… mostly to run with two dear female friends who are super into road running but are scared to go trail running (scared of tripping and falling, scared of animals, scared of it being "too hard.")

  17. keyalus

    I know what you mean about the guilt. I work full-time and my husband unfortunately works most weekends. When I need to do a long run or race on trails, I sometimes have to get a babysitter so I'm away from him again. I feel guilty about this at some level because shouldn't I be spending that time with my child? But I'm also "me" and I have needs too apart from being a mother and a wife and employee.

    It is also frustrating because I'm not a fast runner. I have to focus on quality rather than quantity in my training. In a way, I'll never really be able to get that much better because I simply can't put in the amount of mileage that others can manage. I always feel like I can only train to finish rather than excel.

    Ah well, I am comforted by the fact that many women pick up this sport (and kick butt!) later in life when kids are older. I have time.

  18. Ben Nephew

    I think I know this Debbie! This brings up a good point how extended families are more likely to be geographically separated these days, making it harder to get the free babysitting!

  19. JenE

    I have also met men (typically in their 20's) while running a 50 or 100-mile trail race who signed up with little previous experience (such as only a road half marathon, in one case). He paid the price (slowed to a painful shuffle), but finished. There are probably women who have done this also, but I've never met one. It seems more prevalent with younger guys.

    I think there is something to the idea that several people on here have suggested that women (on average) tend to be more methodical, or cautious, or something… when it comes to signing up for an ultra (though clearly this is a very broad generalization, as lots of men are also methodical and conservative in deciding to take on an ultra).

    The idea that women tend to be more conservative about signing up is also consistent with the numbers (above) that I and others (Jill Homer) have reported that suggest women may exhibit slightly lower DNS and DNF rates despite presumably being at greater risk for not making cut-offs due to slower speed.

  20. SK

    I think that the besides other pressures for time, a big deterrent may be the possibility of injury. I am only 16, and my experience running has been with the XC and track teams of my school (the longest race I've ever done being only a 10 K). I LOVE running and would never give it up, but have terrible knee and shin pain which even at about 30+ miles/week will give me excruciating pain. I am not an expert, but I believe as mileage increases, so will injuries? That's my guess as to why fewer women run ultra distances.

  21. Alex from New Haven

    Congrats on 100+ comments. Love that I can come back 3 times and each time read more great stuff in the some discussion!

  22. Dave

    Alex, I was at RRR this year, and overheard the RDs talking among themselves about the size of the women's field in the Hare race. Even they seemed to feel it was a pretty low number and if you looking at just the number of finishers for the Hare race (4 women), it does look pretty low. However, there were only 16 finishers in the race itself – so 25% of the finishers were female. That is pretty close to the 27% average quoted by Ellie. So it was a small field of women finishers, but it was also a small field of overall finishers as well. Because of the voluntarily split field, I thought that it would be fun to looking at the breakdown of finishers to those who dropped (I'm getting these figures from the RRR website…. It looks like women who started in the Hare category were more likely to finish, vs men who started in the Tortoise were more likely to finish. Guessing why this is (and it's only a guess) I would say that in the women's field the 'utter bad-asses' were more likely to register for the Hare while the 'weekend warriors' were more likely to register for the tortoise race, while on the men's side there might have been more runners trying the Hare race 'just to see' how they would do in that stacked field. I was contemplating doing the 100 for just that reason, and read a race report from a runner who also viewed the Hare race as an ideal opportunity to see how he competed directly against the elite crowd. Just my thoughts in any case.


    total women starters in hare 14 (21% of field)

    total men starters in hare 52 (79% of field)

    finishers breakdown – 16 total

    women 4/16 25%

    men 12 / 16 75%

    drops breakdown – 50 total

    women 10 / 50 20%

    men 40 / 50 80%

    29% of hare women finished

    23% of hare men finished


    total women starters in tortoise 19 (24%)

    total men starters intortoise 60 (76%)

    finishers breakdown -48 total

    women 9 / 48 19%

    men 39 / 48 81%

    drops breakdown – 31 total

    women 10 / 31 32%

    men 21 / 31 68%

    47% of tortoise women finished

    65% of tortoise men finished

  23. Charlie

    The largest ultras in Australia are the Oxfam Trailwalker 100k events in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. Those events are dominated every year by the ladies. My wife is especially keen to do it every year even though she hardly runs any other races long or short.

    The things that seem to make it popular are:

    1. The team aspect – girls love to have someone to talk to on the trail.

    2. The relaxed attitude to time taken to finish. Girls seem to place less emphasis on the race (as a generalization – I know lots love to race), they place more emphasis on the experience.

    3. The fund raising aspect. I wonder if this makes them feel more justified about the sacrifices they make on the home front (poor husbands…sob) when they consider the fund raising benefits.

    Just a few thoughts anyway.

  24. Jessica

    I have a few issues that may keep me from wanting to pursue ultra's in the future. First, registration fees, it's hard to put $200+ dollars upfront, I know it covers trail fees and insurance coverage but some people don't have that kind of money. Second, the equipment and supplies needed for training and race days, running shoes at $110 a pop can take a toll on a person's bank account. Simply put, it's expensive to compete in ultras. Third, I ran with a few men early on in my training who had competed in a few ultras before and it was very dishearting. They tried to discourage me from competing, all they could talk about was how hard it would be or that it would be realistic for me to even think of running under 24 hours.I have been running for 10 years and not once been around a runner who tried to discount another runners ablity or enthusiam for competing.

    I am running my first 100 ultra next weekend and I have put increadible amounts of time, energy and sacrifice into my training. I am confident in my preparation and lucky enough to have a supportive boyfriend who has become my training partner and the head of my crew. It's made all the difference to have someone who is understanding, I couldn't have done it without him!

  25. HeatherW

    I'm late to the party, but thought I'd throw in my two cents.

    I was sexually harassed at my second and third events, and I nearly left the sport because of it.

    At event #2, the two guys behind me were engaged in a conversation about how they would like to "pound", "hammer", and "nail" my genitals. All the verbs were violent ones. This is kind of a nightmare, isn't it? Being chased through the forest by two men speaking about a desire to rape you? They were all talk and they didn't rape me. They also didn't finish, either.

    At my third event, an intoxicated aid station volunteer offered me a ride back to the start "on his penis". Yuck.

    Obviously, I've met plenty of men at ultras who did NOT say things like this – these were only three men out of hundreds. But it's worth asking if we're losing female participants due to sexual harassment. Keep in mind that the women we lost aren't reading irunfar.

    And what can we do? Me, probably nothing. If you are a man, though, and you hear another man behaving this way, step in and say something. Tell him it's unacceptable.

    1. Amanda

      Wow! That's sickening. Thank you for sharing though, Heather- we can't fight things like this if no one talks about them. Hopefully you told the race director about this (at least about the aid station volunteer, which they can do something about- not invite them back to their races in any capacity in the future). It's really sad that people (men and women alike) act in these ways- but they are everywhere, and it is good to be wary out there. Honestly, I would have filed verbal/sexual harassment charges once you got back to a phone- call the police, that's just scary (what if something HAD happened on the trails, or they followed your car after the race? not to be paranoid, but…). That all being said, the men (and women) I have met on the trails are freaking amazing, humble, and accepting people, so this is shocking and disturbing.

    2. JenE

      ugh. That sounds dreadful Heather. I have not had any bad experiences like that myself, and hope it is very rare, but it is hard to know. I know someone who had a problem with someone stalking her on line and sending her very inappropriate emails after meeting him casually at an ultra event (and not inviting attention or romantic interest). He managed to find out a lot about her and her plans, which was pretty alarming. She was definitely concerned about encountering him at future events.

      While encountering random creeps may have little to do with being at an ultra, per se, it is certainly more disturbing because it is coupled with high potential for being out in the woods alone with them. Even if such encounters are rare, they are bound to scare a person off. Too bad we aren't all as fast as Ellie so we could just run away from them ;-)

      1. JenE

        eew… re-reading your post reminded me that I did have a similar unpleasant encounter with a drunk aid station worker at a very remote aid station in the woods late at night. It was unnerving. (I guess I had sort of blocked that memory out.)

        While I enjoy a tasty beer as well as anyone, I personally don't think partying and running an aid station at an ultra are a good mix, especially if it is an ultra that goes through the night. Foolish drunken behavior is never as amusing to a sober bystander, especially if she's just spent a few hours running through the woods in the dark by herself.

        1. HeatherW

          JenE – that was exactly it. He was drunk. But absolutely nobody else at that aid station came forward and told him that his behavior was inappropriate. I'm genuinely NOT sure that this isn't part of ultrarunning culture.

          At this point, I will only run races that have a track record of high female participation. I know often the same people will volunteer at the same events or aid stations year after year, and I have to wonder about why an event has only 8% female participants.

    3. StephenJ

      What were the bib numbers of the pigs that harassed you during the race, and what were their names? Expose them. Perhaps their wives/girlfriends/parents/children read this. Not only should they be banned for running that race again, they should be banned from any race. (Including the human race.) Make an example out of them.

      I wish you would have called the police on the runners and the aid station worker. Let the cops and the DA decide if there is enough to prosecute them. The arrest at the finish line would be extremely embarrassing.

      When my daughter was 3, she told be that when she finished the Squaw Peak 50 when she was going to get a medal and a popsicle. She's 4 now. I don't want to have to worry about being able run as fast as her to keep her safe from pigs on the trail. So, please women, don't let harassment go unchecked and unreported. Report it. Expose the pigs. If not for yourself, do it for my daughter. Seriously.

  26. HeatherW

    No, reporting them is less than a tenth of the job at stopping harassment.

    My kids have to get this anti-bullying training at school. Apparently, what works is for bystanders to get active. A punishment from the race director makes the RD look like an asshole, and then the guy denies he said anything at all. Nothing gets resolved, and I'll end up missing the cutoff because of it.

    Men need to stop being an approving audience for this type of behavior. They need to stand up to their peers and tell them to stop.

  27. Lisa

    What an excellent article – thank you for taking the time and effort to research and write it, Ellie.

    I am 43 and started running when my firstborn was about 1 yr old. Having a family limited my workout options and I found that the simplest and shortest way to lose the baby weight was to go running. I was happy with my 3 miles every second day until a friend encouraged and mentored me to try furthering my distance. With young children this entailed early morning hours running in the cold and the dark. I came back home refreshed, invigorated, ready to be a mum. Without running I would probably be in an insane asylum; raising kids is tough.

    As the time stretched from 1/2 hour to 2 hours I was hooked! I loved the breeze on my face, the frosty eyelids on the REALLY cold Canadian mornings, and the freedom for my mind to just wander. When I wanted to train for my first marathon, my very supportive husband bought me an excellent treadmill; I could now run whether my hubby was around to watch the kids or not. I sacrificed the beauty of the outdoors sometimes in order to keep up some mileage.

    Finally, my daughter was almost a teenager and I could leave the kids at home unsupervised!!! Talk about freedom! I love my kids and wouldn't trade them for the world, but I am also ME; an on the run mum.

    One day my husband came home with his own dream glinting in his eyes! Sailing! After years of him supporting my running, how could I say no to his dream….so off we went. We spent about a year living on a sailboat cruising the Pacific Ocean….and running was put aside.

    Until I met Nancy, an ultra runner who had completed several major ultras including Western States. She was out sailing with her hubby when we met in the Sea of Cortez. She inspired me to attempt an ultra when our sailing journey was completed. She even committed to joining me. And so I ran my first ultra (Run Rabbit Run) in 2011. I love the feeling of coming to the end of what you think you have in you and then pushing past it to find you have more; you are more!

    So, I run. I have two teenagers who have grown up watching mum run and who, hopefully, will be inspired to one day choose to run as well. It is possible because of strong desire, passion, commitment, discipline and most importantly for me – a supportive husband who makes my dreams come true.

  28. Andy

    For me the biggest things are:

    -fear of running in the woods by myself, with all the creeps out there…

    -fear of getting lost on the trails by myself, with all the creeps out there…

    -that I'm not good/fast enough, so why bother? (I know this is ridiculous, but the women I've met in this sport are absolute beasts and wonderfully strong and I wonder if I have "it" – even though this is irrational because I have to have "it" to even do "it.")

    My husband is supportive, and my kid is in college, so I have that. I just think it's harder for women to put themselves in that place – to think of ourselves as "athletes" even, to take ourselves seriously in competition.

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