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

Ellie Greenwood asks why more women aren’t running ultramarathons.

By on October 8, 2012 | Comments

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.

Ellie Greenwood
Ellie Greenwood has IAU World 100k Championship, Western States, and Comrades victories to her credit. A Scot living in Canada, Ellie is supported by Salomon, Clif Bar, Udo's Oil, and Sundog Eyewear. You can read more about Ellie's running on her blog.