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. Alex from New Haven

    Ellie great question and as always a great write up.

    I'm a 35 year old guy and I've run with a number of women in both CA and CT over the last 7 years. Based on observations and conversations I'll venture a couple of things:

    1. Many women may take a more conservative trajectory through the sport. I know a number of men who go from 50k –> 100 miles with in a year or two, or at least try to. But as the data suggest 50k->50m is a bigger jump.

    2. I know a lot of experienced marathon women who do a trail 50k just for the adventure and to check the "ultra box" on their adventure list and then happily go back to kicking ass on the roads.

    3. Several fit women I know enjoy several sports. They do road cycling, mountain biking, yoga, climbing, road running, trail running. So in a year they might do a 50m mtb race, a half iron man, a 50k trail race and a marathon. Doing a 50m trail race let alone 100m would require drawing down their other activities… the men I know (myself included) are MUCH MORE single sport focused.

    4. Kids: Of the women I know who run 50 miles and beyond… many/most don't have kids. Most of those that do (that I can think of) are regional elites and utter bad asses… not weekend warriors.

    I would really love to see more women in ultra. PINK is NOT THE ANSWER :) At a 50 mile trail race in No. CA 2 years ago… the RD gave vests to the finishers… black to the men and eye-shattering pink to the women… 25% of the women were very excited… the rest were… not.

    Question: I was surprised by the lack of depth at RRR and UROC on the women's side given that there was $$$ on the table. Literally, money was left on the table at RRR and I think the lower places at UROC could have been grabbed by any talented runner that who finished… why didn't elite/sub-elite women show up to these?!

    Interested to hear people's thoughts

    Alex from New Haven

  2. olga

    Time commitment and family paragraph is what I was going to say. Those with kids are the ladies that want it much enough and are strong minded enough to fit things in, and at times we do forgo family/kids obligation (whether at the approval of a spouse, or sometimes against, yes, that happens too). Also, the importance that is put on performance outside the role that is traditionally female (that is family) is much lower, so why bother? If we just plod through an ultra, it's pretty, but we can just to out to trails and play for free in our own time. If we want to perform, it does require training, thus, highly wanted and time, yet again. Finances. Women, often, mindful of spending outside what is needed for today and future for the family. Pressure from peers – by far less to be "something else". Some men need to be more fulfilled than career (or instead of). That's off the cuff:) Just like with diversity, "tending to women only" is a silly thing. It's open, come or not. Why force more of anyone? They (women) find it and come at their own time.

  3. Sarah

    The issue of why there aren't more women in ultrarunning is not necessarily complicated as it is multi faceted. As we've seen with RRR 100 and UROC, money is not a driving force for women to race. I think it's mostly what Ellie was saying that women that run ultras are fundamentally different from the majority of women. I know that I could probably not sustain a 5 min conversation with the hordes of pink wearing women at half marathons.

    I also think another aspect of it is that women are more conservative than men. We want to know that we will be successful in our endeavors. In ultras, shit happens and even if you've trained your butt off it can be the luck of the draw if you finish or not. I think this is why there are less women in ultras but if you compare male to female finishing rates, women win nearly every time.

    Another issue with women in ultras that Ellie alluded to, that really annoys me, is the t-shirts. RD's, please have a female sized shirt and specify that there is one on the registration application. Nearly all of the race shirts that I've gotten have gone to my husband or Goodwill because they are simply too big to be of any use to me. The exception is VT100, but of course that race has a female RD. Yay!

  4. ElizabethS

    I think one thing that may also be considered is while women are supportive of there husbands and make it easy for them to go off to train and run ultras most husbands have problems with their wives going off to train and run in a sport that is like you said dominated by men especially when they are not runners and still don't quite understand why running more than a 5k is necessary. Training for a 50 miler or higher require a significant amount of time and dedication, it is easy to squeeze in training for 10k or half, waking up at 430am to get in 4 hours of running or planning that midnight run just doesn't fit so well in the plan when you have a full time job and active kids.

    There is no need to do anything special to cater to women, that will just be insulting us, getting to run ultra is a way to just be us for that brief period of time an ultra runner, not a mother, wife, or even a women just a runner.

    1. Vanessa

      I was going to suggest an unsupportive partner as well. That was my issue for some time, and I chose ultras. But the relationship had to end. It was REALLY hard for him (a non-runner) to understand why I should spend so much time running alone, and I wasn't supported in my ultra ambitions. Culture also played against me: I was too adventurous for my own good and should have been more happy in the kitchen. As ultra runners know, support is crucial for training success, especially if you're raising a family.

      Ellie mentioned that it was important that woman who WANT to run ultras, to find that support. Unfortunately I don't think that's always the case. It doesn't matter how well the race shirts fit if you're fighting your partner at every turn.

  5. Brian D Purcell

    I'm not sociologist or psychologist, so I won't even guess at the "why" of the article. I would like to point out that just 20 years ago, the ratio of men/women at road races was very different than today. I still have a result sheet from a half marathon I did in Southern California back in '92. There were 500 runners, and only about 100 of them were women. My memory of racing back then says that was pretty much the norm, at least in our area. Could you even imagine a half marathon today with only 20% female participation? No way.

    Could it be that the female wave into ultras will come, and we just have to be patient?

  6. Pam

    Ellie- great article! I have thought about this a lot, too. I think you nailed it with the kid issue. Women with kids can't/won't/don't commit the time to the training needed for an ultra. I think 50k's are more popular with women because they require less time to train than longer distance ultras.

    But I would also add that I think women are still showing a lag from the availabilty of running opportunity. Boston marathon didn't allow women to run until 1972; the inaugural women's Olympic marathon wasn't until 1984. And there was still probably a strong stigma against women distance runners. As you note, the average ultra-guy is in their 40's. They've been able to comfortably run marathons their whole life (in terms of opportunity) and so have the running experience and maybe a sense of "been there, done that" with marathoning and so move up to ultras. But many women in their 40's don't have as much marathoning experience and maybe are still getting their fill with that distance.

    1. Jen

      While I think the "kids" factor is huge, I think Pam raises an excellent point. Title IX was passed in 1971. While women under 40 can thankfully (mostly) take it for granted that they are welcomed in distance sports these days, previous generations were not raised in the same culture. I don't have the stats at my fingertips, so am wondering if the average age of women who complete ultras is lower than the average age of men. If so, this may change over the next few decades. You'd expect more "younger" women to be affected by the "kid factor", which might push the average age even higher as older women are able to get back into the sport as their kids get older.

      1. cheryl

        I started running before Title IX-and while it has helped women's team sports and things like track and field, I really don't thing it has much to do with Ultra running and why women get into the sport.

        Most women when they get to be my age (59) are pursuing triathlons for long events as it's much easier on one's body than just running. I have thought about "getting back into it"-I will always run trails-but really once you have completed something long and in a good time with great memories, why do it again? ;-) My opinion!

  7. Elena Makovskaya

    70%+ men dominated ultra field is a pretty good thing for single women (where I fall at the moment). At least you know you already have one huge thing in common: love for long distance running and suffering. Certainly a better option that looking for your soulmate in a bar! :)

    And yes, 90% of my friends and running buddies are men. And I do NOT like pink color! ;-)

  8. S

    As a mother of a 2 1/2 year old and having done my first 50 miler this year as well as a handful of 50k's – I think the family issue is probably a big one.

    My husband has been so helpful and overly patient with training this past year, and willing to watch our son, he's also a runner so he knows what it takes to do any sort of long distance training.

    Regardless of all of that – there's a level of guilt of 'needing' to run, why isn't family enough? My son shows more preference to his dad, and I often wonder whether it is because I am gone for periods of time running. That guilt will typically override any requests of considering a 100 miler, and because the conversation has been had – I know he can't conceive of being able to supply me with that much training time in order to do one successfully, and for me a successful race has never really been just to finish (that being said – I'm definitely not winning any races anytime soon). The women friends I do have that also race, do not have kids so their level of 'freedom' is more broad than mine.

    For now, and probably the next 11 or so years, unless some other agreement is met, a 100 miler is not possible, even though I'd love to do one. I'll have to stick to the shorter distances. I made the choice to be a mother and I wouldn't change it, I also promised myself I wouldn't lose who I am in the process. I think 50 miles is a long enough distance to give me the chance to reconnect or disconnect with myself and right now its enough.

    It is a shame our numbers aren't increasing – I think we've proven we excel in ultras, the field is evened out in this arena – hopefully that will change…

  9. Haley @ Climb Run Li

    The numbers make sense to me. I would love, love, love to run an ultra. But I'm finding the time to even train for a regular marathon extremely difficult. As a single mother to 2 kids, I have to pay a sitter $10/hr everytime I go for a run. So you can imagine that ultra marathon training would be crazy expensive. I imagine that very few of that 27% of women are mothers and the ones who are must have an awesome support system to help out. It seems like it's easier for men (whether single or married w/ kids) to get out and do stuff like this.

  10. Teresa Smith

    Yes, family and children take my time away from training. I wouldn't have it any other way. I train very early so husband isn't late to work. Then I home-school my daughter and work part-time. I have two businesses (one is joint with my husband). I love to enter ultra events–I just wish I had the income to pay the entry fees. That's another factor right now -money-. Sure, some ultra events aren't that pricey but training requires new shoes, hydration, nutrition, and good quality clothing.

  11. Jeff

    I'd love to have access to detailed demographic statistics, but what about the women without kids? Why aren't more of them participating in ultramarathons?

    1. Jen

      We are :) I think women without children (like myself) are disproportionately represented in this sport. (We are obviously a minority in the general population.) The majority of ultra-running women I know and run with either have no children or their children are grown. Example: I have 2 main female running partners. We range in age from 38 to 41 and none of us have children. We met through running.

      Obviously women with children can have success (um… Darcy Africa comes to mind), but I think they are less common in such a time-consuming sport.

  12. Kristin Z

    Personal anecdote… I'm one of the women with a 3y/o who is participating in ultras because I did it prior to having a kid (so it was a matter of getting back in it)… but I don't do as many per year and i don't do many over 50k at this point… i've added some shorter trail runs and hill climb races since becoming a mom because of it: less time to train, more guilt to fit in the long runs, husband who travels for work, poorer performances than i'm used to (timewise) which is really frustrating… it is a multifaceted thing. "Societal pressures" may have something to do with it… but there's also this "mom guilt" that most of my mom friends have that was born right along with the child… hopefully we get better and better at managing it so we are still celebrating our "self" as well as our "momself" in a way that lets us and our families thrive.

    no, a pink shirt won't get me to run more 50mi.nor will a bracelet or anything else. it's time to train and desire at this point… both of which I hope will return at some point.

    YES, PLEASE HAVE WOMEN'S SPECIFIC SHIRTS! (kudos to so very many west coast ultra RD's as they always do have women's specific… same with quadrock back in colo and others, i'm sure).

    interesting stats, ellie!

    1. Ryne

      Believe it or not the Run for the Toad 50km in Ontario does offer this! However I can imagine the logistical and insurance challenges that make it tough to replicate (especially for smaller races). Run for the Toad is 1400 people so they have a mass demand/use for it.

      Happy trails!


      1. Amy S

        Interesting, Ryne. And look which race has the highest % of female participation….ta dah! Run for the Toad with 39%.

        Although can you imagine day care at a 100 miler? I'm trying to imagine it, and it's a challenge. 36-hour (+) day care service?

  13. adam

    Women don't run long ultras in high numbers because good mates are hard to find!

    No really, women are the "backbone of the family", and have a lot of stuff to do that won't get done if left to their partners to do it. I think the idea of adding kids things at ultras is the way to go. Make it family oriented and it will be better for everyone, not just the mums!

    1. olga

      You can make it kids event AT the race (Tejas Trails does it) – but who makes it WHILE training?

      I also totally agree with "mommy guilt", and will go as far as say "wife guilt" as well.

  14. Olga

    Why is it the same qualification/cut off times in ultras for women while it is obvious that an average woman runs slower than an average man?

    1. Jen

      Gee. I would not advocate longer cut-offs only for women. Putting on ultras requires a LOT of volunteer hours. Plus, if a race was extended from 30 hours to 32 hours, would it only count for the women who finished over 30 hours and not the men? Although it is true that men are, on average, faster than women, longer distances do even things out a bit. Seems to me most ultras offer pretty generous cut offs. There are notable exceptions, but a very slow runner (male or female) would be advised to avoid those races anyway, right? I don't know of any ultras that have ridiculously competitive qualifying times required for entry… they just seem to be in line with increasing the probability that someone who registers will be able to finish the race in question. (I could be totally wrong on this, but this is my perception.)

      1. Becca D

        I totally agree. The longer we run, the more even the playing field is – and not just for the elite female runners who come in top 3 overall. Even in smaller ultras, plenty of women beat plenty of men, and runners of each gender miss the cutoffs. Having different cutoff times doesn't seem necessary or fair.

  15. Becca D

    I'm 19 and female, so I stand out at any of the ultras I do. Just wanted to add my two cents: I'd rather follow an ultrarunning career/lifestyle than have kids, hands down. (Although I wouldn't say no to marrying an ultrarunning physical therapist… send me your number! :P)

    On a more serious note, and hopefully without sounding too hippie-dippy, I think that even today's society kind of primes women to shy away from so-called "extreme" things. Obviously, this isn't true 100 percent of the time, but I think it makes a difference. And, as others have stated, women tend to be a bit more practical, which is another factor to detract from their willingness or logical ability to put in a lot of time. I dislike making generalizations like that, though, since there are clearly some of us who just make it a priority and go for it. All my own opinion.

    Note to Ellie, if you see this: you're my hero :)

  16. Rosie

    The first ultra runners I met were women, both with kids, and they inspired me to reach farther than a marathon. My kids are elementary school-aged, and I had entertained the idea of having more, but in all honesty I don't want to anymore because I want to run. I also think you are also spot-on in the kind of women that run ultras. We are more the guys' girls, and drink beers before cosmos. I think there is a certain, let's say, grossness to ultrarunning that doesn't appeal to the more girly-girl, and I would hate to lose that grossness.

    Great food for thought, and great discussion!

  17. phil jeremy

    I think Ellie nailed it pretty well. As a side note in France the I see a much lower % of female runners than the US. I've just done a quick check on the stats and on 6 random ultra's its about 10%. The shorter races have more women just like in the US. When I ran the Way to Cool in California I was staggered by how many female runners there were……I was also staggered by how many times I got 'chicked'….about every 5 minutes!

  18. Jen Young

    NO PINK!!!!!!

    As much as I'd love to get into ultra…. even as a single woman with no kids, the limiting factor for me is time.

    I love hanging with the guys. I love the outdoors. I love running. I love adventure. I sound like the perfect ultra candidate, but I have a hard time fitting in marathon training around work, etc…. not sure how I would manage even longer training time.

    BUT, I had a blast volunteering at UROC (scratched my ultra itch by helping out, at least!)… and maybe, just maybe, I'll get to join y'all out on the trail someday. :-)

  19. cheryl

    I trained and raced ultras in the early 80s in Arizona. There were quite a few of us women, but I would guess the percentage was at about 15% at most events.(Including r2r2r) I will have to check the results somewhere in my archives to be sure. Most of my long training runs were with the guys tho-while their wives were home watching the kids or persuing doctorate degrees. It is time consuming and I can barely find time to get in about 20 miles a week anymore, and I am only working part time-but I do other things like swim, cycle and hit the weight room. It's a selfish sport, kinda like training for an Ironman, (I have done two, so I know)-and most aren't willing to spend six hours on a trail on Sunday morning to get in their run. It's definitely for the committed/possessed/obsessed. Me now, my interest is no longer there.

  20. Jason

    My wife doesn't want to trail run, primarily due to the dangers of being alone and vulnerable. To predatory humans, or to the environment. Even my local trail running areas would put a person in a world of hurt if he or she broke a leg.

    Time and family. I would gladly adjust my schedule to accommodate, but it's just easier for me. My job allows extended luunch breaks etc.

    That being said, we need to look at alternate run schedules. I have placed very well overall in several ultras, and done that on average 60mpw, no training runs over 22 (except 50k races count for training runs), no big back-to-backs, and ZERO night runs. That got me fifth OA at San Diego 100, and 3rd at Cascade Crest 100 this year. Could I do better if I peaked above 100mpw? Probably. Could I do better if I got into the mountains for big vertical? Of course. I won't leave my wife with the kids so I can do this, so I make do with what I've got.

    You (in this case women) can too! Substitute distance for speed. Road for trail if it's more convenient. Get a sitter so you can both race those 50k's. They are your long runs. Now bust a 50m one month prior. Easy recovery week, two medium training weeks. A taper week. And hit the hundred. Or don't. Just go have fun, and know that it's possible to do these things on less time than you're imagining (I'll never do a night training run.. Ugh).

  21. Amanda

    Just curious about the numbers quoted in the article- almost all of them are supposedly % of women finishers, but I would argue that this should not be used as a reporter of gender representation at ultras. It would be nicer to see ratios of women vs men who show up for the event- that's what's really the topic of discussion here. Women might not finish as often as men, for a variety of reasons- as one commenter suggested, women are slower than men (as a gross, averaged generalization), so even if the number of women and men at the start was 50 and 50, and all starters were able to complete the course, if some people did not finish under the course cutoff, the number of finishers might be 30 (women) and 45 (men), skewing one's view of who was actually out there if only finishing percentages are analyzed.

    This isn't to say there aren't other issues, and I haven't fully vetted the article and comments, but I think that when reporting and analyzing numbers, you have to really think about what those numbers are representative of…

    1. Amanda

      Another way of phrasing my question/comment… what are the % finishers on the men's side of things for the races quoted in the article? The way it's presented, people might assume it's close to 100% for the guys, but what if the mens % finishers are only 10-30% also? Then the argument is a bit bunk, quantitatively speaking.

      1. Jen

        I have actually made the comparison for a handful of 50-mile and 100-mile races (none with aggressive cut-off times), and I found that the % of finishers was approximately equal for men and women.

        For example, Kettle Moraine 100-mile 2012. Women represented 17.8% of starters (44 out of 246) and 19.5% of finishers (23 out of 118).

  22. Jackie Palmer

    I am surprised that everyone is so puzzled about why the large number differences between genders. I mean sure you might have factors such as time with family and babies and blah blah, but let's be real–there are some major physiological and biological differences between men and women that largely contribute to the increased likelihood that a male runner will sign up to run a 50+ mile race through the woods more so than a female one. And I am not just talking about uteri and testosterone. Men and women are wired differently…you know, for example, that whole left brained (men) vs right brained (women) thing. And of course those differences are going to show themselves in behavioral decision-making such as, again for example, signing up for an ultramarathon. Obviously, this is not the case for all men and women, and I am sure if I got an fMRI tomorrow, the flashy red, yellow and green lights that would show up in my left “man-like” brain would be bright enough to blind someone. Further, I would also be willing to bet that the brains of my other scarce female ultrarunning companions would look strikingly similar!

    Another component that should not be forgotten is the fact that research shows that female runners are 50% more likely to become injured than their male running counterparts; a statistic that is probably only more likely to increase with increased weekly mileage of ultra training. These increased injury rates are thought to be due to biomechanical factors related to female anatomy, which is a less controllable factor. If women are getting injured running recreationally for half marathons, how would they ever train for a longer distance event?

    I think when considering the numbers, we should be thinking more biological, physiological and anatomical differences rather than simply women want to avoid physical pain, lack confidence in physical endeavors, and want to spend more time with their babies, because, honestly, it’s rather insulting.

    P.S. If I ever receive a pink racing tech T from an ultramarathon, I will vomit.

  23. Jen

    That wasn't the right comparison. There were 246 registered, but only 217 starters.

    So… female 100-mile starters represented 18.9% (41 out 217) of the field.

    Female 100-mile finishers represented 19.5% of the field (23 out of 118).

    So, the finishing RATE was actually slightly higher for the women (23 out of 41 = 56%) compared to the men (95 out of 176 starters = 54%), but essentially equal.

    I've looked at other races in the past and found similar results.

  24. Jill Homer (@AlaskaJ

    Great discussion. This is something I've found myself wondering about before — why were only 8 percent of UTMB runners women? I considered the "equal cut-off times" as one factor that might discourage women from venturing into ultra distances. So I decided to crunch some numbers from a race I recently participated in, the Bear 100. The result surprised me. As far as finisher rate/cut-off proximity, the percentages for both men and women were similar:

    In the Bear 100, 52 women started and 41 finished. (79 percent finisher rate) Of the finishers, 20 were within five hours of the cutoff. (49 percent)

    173 men started and 126 finished. (73 percent finisher rate) Of those, 58 finished within five hours of the cutoff. (46 percent)

    I agree with commenters who stated that the reasoning is largely cultural. Men have children, too. But because men aren't usually the "primary" caregivers of their children, it is culturally acceptable for them to spend longer blocks of time away from their kids training and traveling to races. And while both men and women have careers, women often face more pressure to perform above expectations than their male counterparts (of course this is a large generalization, but it is true that women are still fighting for equal footing int he workplace.) So I believe women tend to devote more energy to their career, and of course their families. Hobbies often take a distant third.

    I fall into the demographic of childless women with a currently flexible career. I was drawn to ultras, both biking and running, precisely because they get me out in the woods after dark alone. But I've talked to many women who find that aspect too intimidating. I think the "alone in the woods" aspect will remain the major factor preventing a 50/50 participating rate in ultras.

    1. JenE

      If you make it through pacing (or crewing) the night of a 100-miler and want a second date, I think you've found your soul-mate ;-)

  25. Paul

    Interesting article. Like what Brian D Purcell saysI believe the numbers will gradually come. Women have begun to dominate the road scene where as 20 years ago there were very few. I love the long distance trail running for the sense of adventure. Even for men there are very few who venture into the mountains by themselves for several hours on end. Ultra runners are rare in general. Time has brought more people, women are next.

    P.S. I would love to get a pink race shirt, I'm also the weird guy who loves the bright stand out colors. If they put pink on mens shoes I would probably buy them.

  26. Ellie

    Alex, I was very surprised by the small number of women at UROC. I think maybe is part women are less likely to want to put themselves forward as 'elite' than men of similar calibre. Also being 100km I would think the % of women is smaller than if it had been a 50km or even a 50 miler.

  27. Vanessa

    You know, all my life I thought I would grow up and have a ton of kids. Once I started running ultras, a lot of those ideas changed. My boyfriend and I now live in a tiny Rialta RV with an amazing dog and a cuddly cat. We have no interest in children or even marriage. We travel to ultras all over the country, to race and/or volunteer, and I'm living my wildest dreams. I'm insanely happy with all the freedom in the world. I'm not a mother so I have nothing to compare this to, but I believe in my heart that this is the life for me.

  28. Ellie

    I think you might be right there Brian for sure, only time will tell but of course I think that the higher the % of women will only make it snowball even more as women will not be intimidated when they see a good % of women competing.

  29. Jen

    FWIW – To increase my sample size, I brainstormed to think of all of the ultrarunning women that I know well enough to know if they have children (people I know personally, not including elite athletes that we all know about). I came up with 16 women ranging in age from 34 to 68. Only 7 of these 16 women have children (2 have adult children, 5 have children at home).

    This sample is representative of women who participate in ultra races in a region of the midwest (it is not biased to just people I hang out with… it pretty much includes all the chicks that show up to races in this region on a fairly regular basis).

    I think this supports my hypothesis that women without children disproportionately represent women in this sport. (Not to take anything away from super ultra moms! You ladies are amazing!) :-)

    I don't think it is insulting to women to suggest that being a Mom might compromise a person's interest or available time to be involved in the sport. It doesn't make it impossible, but it does make it harder.

    If you compare only women without children to men… who knows… we might even be better represented in the sport than men! (considering that the percentage of women in the general population who have no children is relatively small).

      1. S

        Thanks Jackie Palmer for the links! I'm not a doctor, nor do I play one on the internet, so it will take awhile for me to digest what they are saying, and I'll be lambasted for not believing the studies if that's the route I take, but I've already got questions about their studies. That's probably a conversation better served somewhere else….

    1. S

      Thanks so much Ellie (I love 'watching' you kick arse) – while it is an awesome achievement there is something about this whole subsequent conversation in the comments that is making me very sad.

      It seems there's an opinion that a woman can't have both, or all three (kids,full time job,running) and I do have all three – it's not easy, the dishes and the laundry suffer – but I'm by no means an apron wearing Leave It To Beaver mother – my husband says I've got more testosterone than him on any given day. I understand what one person wants might not be what the next person does, but does it mean you can't have both?

      I don't care if I have a uterus compared to someone elses testicles or whether my hips are better served for birthing rather than running long distances because I'm more prone to injury (which BTW I'd really like to see those studies)…It's not about pink, its not about shirts that fit or don't fit – it's (for me so as not to lump any other women childless or not) about doing it because it feels good, just as much as being a mother – and sometimes more when he won't put his toys away. Why can't I be a hard ass mo-fo on the trails with more gumption than most other women and a lot of men but still be a mother and not have it be the reason for participating or not?

      I admit somedays I wish I didn't have a full time job so I could run to my hearts content – but it wouldn't pay the bills and it wouldn't pay the entry fees.

      My parents always said they had children and made them fit into their lives, we hiked we camped we fished – all when they did, and when I had a child I made sure my husband and I were in agreement that we would do the same. Children will grow up with their parents as examples, and if you've sacrificed your life for that child they will know nothing of how to be a human, or strong, or healthy, athletic, individuals. They will know nothing more of a cycle of 'do while you can until there are children and then do no more' and that isn't how this world should be.

      That's what I stand for – but yeah – daycare at an ultra would be AWESOME! (seriously who just put that soapbox in front of me) It's still all true…

      1. Jackie Palmer

        Dear S,


        "The structural combination of increased hip adduction, hip internal rotation, and genu valgus may explain, in part, the larger Q-angle that is well-documented in women (Aglietti et al., 1983; Horton and Hall, 1989; Hsu et al., 1990; Livingston, 1998; Woodland and Francis, 1992). An increased Q-angle (the angle subtended by the line connecting the anterior superior iliac spine and the midpoint of the patella and one connecting the midpoint of the patella and the tibial tubercle) has been shown to be associated with an increase in lateral patellar contact forces (Mizuno et al., 2001). Therefore, an increased Q-angle is thought to play a partial role in the greater incidence of patellofemoral disorders that women experience (Almeida et al., 1999; DeHaven and Lintner, 1986; Messier et al., 1991).

        The structural differences females exhibit at the hip and knee may predispose them to differences in their movement patterns as well. A few studies have examined gender-related differences in lower extremity mechanics…Li et al. (2001) and Chao et al. (1983) found that women exhibited greater vertical GRF and free vertical moments compared to men…."

        And for your further interest, see the following:

  30. Ellie

    I am not sure that Run for the Toad has genuine daycare, I think it is more of a loosely supervised play area – but awesome all the same for creating a family friendly event. I think they have a high % of women finishers as it is an 'easier' 50km course so approachable for first timers and they have a 25km event so women might run that one year and be tempted to do the 50km the next.

    1. Ryne

      It looks like the Toad actually took a step backwards this year in female participation in the 50km (down to 30%). However, once the 25km was factored in the overall numbers for the field were 55% women (643/1168).

      I don't mean this in a derogatory way but I think the easier and more beginner friendly the event the higher the spike in female participation. The Toad goes to great lengths to groom the trail and remove rocks, roots etc and they bill themselves at that great 1st trail race to get folks of roads. The boom for females in 1/2 and full marathons is showing participation is up but it hasn't trickled (yet) to the longer events. That may simply boil down to amount of time that can be committed and females being a little more wise and diverse on how time in life between hobbies and family will be split.

      As for the actual daycare, I know they run children's activities and movies all day but not sure on the protocol of how you drop off a kid and pick up. If I know George (the RD) he has it dialed and there is an actual process to drop your kid off and know someone certified is keeping an eye on while you go run. Now to pull this off for a 100 miler is not feasible whatsoever, or any courses that are point to point (the Toad is a 4 loop course where you are never more than 2 miles away from the start/finish line).

      Happy trails,


    1. Jen Young

      I hope so! I did Chicago marathon yesterday… it was fun, but I kept thinking I really wish I was on a trail somewhere instead of the city….. :)

  31. Amanda

    I love this- and totally agree, even if it might be a generalization. More guys than gals are likely to want to push themselves mentally and physically through an ultra, to run trails (omg dirt!), and honestly, can probably more easily explain why they do so to friends/family than girls. I say this as an ultra-running girl, who prefers the non-girly side of life… I'm all about bright colors, but give me a pink finishers vest (when guys get a different color) and I'll throw it back at you. Many girls are fine with running for fitness, or to do their bucket-list marathon, but if you can't do it and look somewhat fashionable or if there is dirt involved, many girls will think twice. Look at how many women go backpacking for long periods of time, or mountain biking, or any very involved outdoor sport- it's not "womanly" to do so, your mani/pedicurist will hate you for it, and it certainly isn't something you can ask your girlfriends to do without getting a "wtf is she smoking" look. All that aside, I love it, because I can't stand the girls who can't leave the house without spending an hour doing their make-up… ultras just attract the more laid-back, down to earth people. AND on top of that, there are family and societal issues (women + kids, glass ceiling, etc).

  32. kacy

    S, I have to agree with you. I have a very supportive spouse, but I feel guilty leaving for hours on end to run. Especially since he works hard all week and deserves a break too.

  33. Craig

    I certainly couldn't add more than what has already been said. So let me just compliment you on a well-written and insightful article. Again, truly brilliant. Thanks for your thoughts and opinions.

  34. Debbie

    I met my husband at an ultra event. I have been running ultras for 14 years. We now have 2 kids and we both still race. I had to step back from ultras during both pregnancies but quickly got back in within 9 months of each. It was not easy mostly because of the draw to be with your child when they are babies and especially when you are breastfeeding. It also would not possible if I didn't have such a wonderful and supportive husband. I also have full support from my parents who help watch our kids at the races.
    Many moms don't have the support for training and racing ultras, and if you have to pick one over the other, family comes first.

    1. S

      Debbie – I do agree – as much as I love running, I love my family more and would give it up if it meant not having a two parent household. It's not how everyone sees it but if its the one thing that would separate my family, I'd go the family route.

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