Women and Ultra Racing Motivations: A Conversation

What gets folks to the starting line of a trail or ultramarathon race is unique for everyone. Some people race to pursue course records, spend time with friends, spy some good views, or chase a dream. Even more, why someone toes the starting line at one race is often different from why they enter another event.

In the wake of the Ultra Race of Champions (UROC 100k) a few weeks back, I got to pondering what motivates women, specifically, to enter trail and ultramarathon races. At the UROC 100k, far fewer fast women than men started the race. It was billed as a highly competitive race with prize money and solid media coverage for those on the podium. Where, then, were the women at the UROC 100k? Was it happenstance, in that just a couple studs could get the stars of scheduling, fitness, health, family, work, and other life variables to align? Was it that women are turned off by the prospect of a high-profile race and its associated “glitz and glamor?” Was it something else?

Last weekend, I ran the Slickrock 50k on the red rocks outside of Moab, Utah. It was a chill race, which facilitated great camaraderie before, during, and after the race. I found myself in the company and conversation of lots of women. One woman was running her first 50k as a personal goal in the wake of a divorce. Another was there for the scenery after having flown in from a midwestern state. One more I asked said she was there to celebrate her 30th birthday.

What motivates a woman, then, to race trail or ultramarathon races? The easy answer is that there is no singular answer. Over the past few weeks, I’ve chatted with five of our sport’s elite ladies, to find out what motivates each of them to race. Though most of these ladies have a similar goal of rising to a race’s leader board, what gets them there in the first place varies. It also makes for some great conversation with Devon Crosby-Helms, Ellie Greenwood, Krissy Moehl, Aliza Lapierre, Kami Semick, and Beverly Anderson Abbs.

Devon Crosby-Helms

Devon Crosby-Helms SalomoniRunFar: Why do you race?

Devon Crosby-Helms: Racing gives my running structure and flow. It provides me with an opportunity to strive for a specific goal and challenge myself to adapt. I don’t live for racing. I could be happy if I never raced again, but I like the opportunity to work toward goals.

iRF: Does racing with friends enhance your experience? Make it harder?

Crosby-Helms: Racing with friends is an interesting experience. I think women tend to be more collaborative. When I race with friends, it takes a conscious act to flip the switch and say “we can socialize and hang out later.”

iRF: Are you motivated by pretty scenery, certain kinds of courses, scheduling races to coincide with vacations, or supporting local race directors?

Crosby-Helms: Yes. :) I don’t think that any one thing motivates me to choose races. I love to run in beautiful places. I seek out different types of courses. Having a race that ends in vacation is rad. I love to support local race directors, as well.

iRF: Does racing make you feel confident, strong? Does doing something very hard like running an ultramarathon enhance other parts of your life?

Crosby-Helms: Training makes me feel confident and strong. Finishing an ultramarathon makes me feel empowered. I feel like I can do anything in other parts of my life if I can weather the huge ups and downs of an ultramarathon.

I recently ran the UROC 100k and it wasn’t an ideal race in a lot of ways, but I persevered and it was empowering to cross the finish line. It made me think twice about my own limits.

iRF: Would you like to see different racing opportunities offered to women?

Crosby-Helms: I would love to see a women-only ultramarathon!

Ellie Greenwood

Ellie Greenwood 2011 Westen States 100 champiRunFar: Do you choose races by the level of competition you expect to find? For their history? For the notoriety you could gain by doing well at them? For the prize money? Because your sponsor wants you to?

Ellie Greenwood: All of the above! I primarily choose a race for its level of prestige and competition. It is so satisfying to do well in an established race against the best women out there. Part of racing, for me, is not only to prove myself against my goals, but also to compare them with other accomplished athletes.

Prize money is an incentive but I have a full-time job in addition to racing, so it’s not the main factor.

Sponsors tend to want their athletes to compete at the most competitive races and, thus, keeping sponsors happy often comes naturally with my own racing preferences. I do some races that I might not otherwise because a sponsor wants me to if they fit in with others on my race schedule.

iRF: What about racing with friends? Does it make racing easier or harder? Does it vary among races?

Greenwood: It definitely enhances it. One of the things I love about ultrarunning is its community. You see people at different races and build friendships based around running. You meet like-minded people and learn from them.

It can be hard to balance friendship with wanting to beat each other in races. Everyone accepts that it’s a case of “may the best woman win,” but it is still hard to be genuine friends sometimes when you know you both can’t win! But that very much depends on the individuals and it’s easier when some people beat me than when others do.

iRF: Is there anything about being a woman that makes racing more challenging or easier than if you were a man?

Greenwood: In some respects being a woman can be easier. I have run many races alongside a similarly paced man. He is like a built-in pacer. That’s a benefit that the lead men don’t have. Anyone they run with is a direct competitor.

Krissy Moehl

Krissy MoehliRunFar: Why do you race?

Krissy Moehl: I like having goals out there to help motivate me. I love activity and being fit, but to take it one step more by having a race that requires a specific strength, I can work to get my body ready for something a little more than the daily go.

iRF: How do you choose the races you focus on?

Moehl: Beauty. Course. RD. Organization.

iRF: How do you choose training races?

Moehl: Same as above. :) I do try to find some that will mimic the goal race in terms of terrain.

iRF: Do you choose races by the level of competition you expect to find?

Moehl: Not necessarily. I do like the idea of racing together with similar-level or higher-level athletes to push me.

iRF: For their history?

Moehl: Sometimes, but more so based on how well the event is put together and the community that it draws.

iRF: For the notoriety you could gain by doing well at them?

Moehl: No.

iRF: For the prize money?

Moehl: What prize money??? ;)

iRF: Because your sponsor wants you to?

Moehl: I am lucky in that my sponsors do not pressure me to race and do not expect performances. Racing is a bonus to what I do for them, but is not the core of my relationship with them.

iRF: Does racing well make you feel confident, strong?

Moehl: It can. Racing well means putting together a race plan and being able to stick to it when necessary and also roll with the challenges that the day brings up. Most important is running my own race and not getting caught up in anything external (for too long).

iRF: Does doing something very hard like running an ultramarathon enhance other parts of your life?

Moehl: I feel like I learn a lot each time I go out for a long race and most of the lessons learned at a race apply to life in some manner. The biggest thing I’ve learned and continue to have to learn is patience.

iRF: Do you seek races with controlled variables (elevation gain, course markings, ample aid stations, super access for crew) or do you look for races with a high adventure factor? Or both?

Moehl: I think there is a place for both.

Aliza Lapierre

Aliza LapierreiRunFar: Does racing well make you feel empowered as a woman? Does ultramarathon running have benefits that bleed into “real” life?

Aliza Lapierre: Training and racing have shaped who I am. As my mileage grew from two to three miles to 50k-plus, I grew, too. Reflecting on my progression helps me better grasp what running has done for me.

Being able to commit, train, and follow through with an ultramarathon has shown me that having a process, focus, and drive yields results. I have learned that I can go beyond my estimated capabilities.

Because of my time alone on the trail, time training with others, and time racing, I have become a stronger female. It is a special thing being able to explore my environment with little equipment, no hesitation, and my own power. If can run up that mountain in the rain, snow, or sunshine, I can overcome problems in life no matter the conditions.

Ultimately, ultrarunning has given me a sense of belonging and helped me become comfortable with myself.

Kami Semick

Kami SemickiRunFar: Why do you race?

Kami Semick: What drew me into ultrarunning was the spirit of exploration, of both the world around me and myself. And exploration is what still keeps me in the sport.

iRF: How do you choose races?

Semick: With success comes a desire to see how I stack up against the best in the country and world. That has taken me down a certain path for a while. I purposefully choose key races where I know the “best” will be toeing the line, such as the Comrades Marathon, the Western States 100, and The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championship.

I have learned that I cannot be at all the key races over the course of the year, as my body and my family would protest. I plan a few “build” races based upon scenery, how the terrain helps me build strength for a key race, and how close a race is to home.

iRF: How does having a family play into your racing motivations?

Semick: My racing, even if I’m only gone for the morning at a local race, impacts our family dynamics. I, thus, choose to keep my racing to a minimum. Right now, I seek out races that don’t require too much time away, too much time spent on logistics, and things I can drop into easily. If the family can come along and experience a new part of the world, all the better. Once my daughter is older, I would like to do more exploration-type running.

iRF: You moved from Oregon to Hong Kong recently. This has probably changed your racing approach, too.

Semick: With our move to Hong Kong, I am renewed with trail running. The terrain here is very different from what I experienced in Bend, Oregon or anywhere in the states. Running here will help me work on my weaknesses, such as running down  2,000-3,000 feet worth of stairs in one go. It’s generally reignited my desire to explore.

Since I only have so much time, energy, and funds to travel, I now feel a pull in two different directions. Do I explore Asia with my racing? Or, do I stick with the key races that take place in South Africa, Europe, and the United States? I haven’t figured out the answer.

Beverly Anderson-Abbs

Beverly Anderson-AbbsiRunFar: What motivates you to race?

Beverly Anderson-Abbs: My answer is very different now, post-knee surgery, than it would have been two years ago. Plus, that’s always a hard question! It comes down to how it makes me feel. I like to hurt in a way that I know I can get through.

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons I run and race now is that doctors told me I’d never be able to run again. You just don’t say something like to me.

iRF: What happened to your knee?

Anderson-Abbs: My knee has always been problematic. Bad genetics, I guess you could say. I had a laterally tracking patella that, over time, shredded my cartilage. I was able to keep running for years by making sure I was also doing some pretty heavy leg weights to keep the muscles strong enough to hold my patella closer to where it should be. In May of 2010, I had a lateral-release and cartilage-clearing surgery.

Things came pretty slow at first, with many setbacks. I am currently focusing on getting some speed back, doing track work and half marathons. I still can’t run steep downhills and uneven trail surfaces are hard as my stabilizing muscles need work.

iRF: You said that knee surgery changed your racing approach. How?

Anderson-Abbs: Choosing races has become easier. They have to be races I can get into at the last minute since I don’t really know, from one day to the next, whether my knee will handle a race.

My husband Alan and I have focused on races within a few hours’ drive as we both work full time. We choose one or two far-off events each year to tie into vacation time but most everything else is close to home. Some of our vacation destination races have been to Costa Rica for The Coastal Challenge, Hawaii for the HURT 100, and Vermont for the Vermont 100.

iRF: What kinds of races get you excited?

Anderson-Abbs: I prefer races that don’t coddle runners as well as the non-commercial ones. I loved Plain 100 and hope to go back to that. I am hoping to get into the Barkley Marathons next year.

Running with Alan has sustained us both and made running a truly enjoyable experience over the years. We’ve been able to train together and travel to races together. The past year-and-a-half has been hard on us both because we couldn’t run together. It has been very special to be able to join him again as my knee gets stronger.

Community Connection

This one’s for you, ladies, let’s talk. Why do you race? Do your motivations change from race to race? If you’ve been at this sport for a while, have your motivations changed through time, life stages, or important life events?

Meghan Hicks

is iRunFar.com's Managing Editor and the author of 'Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running.' The converted road runner finished her first trail ultramarathon in 2006 and loves using running to visit the world's wildest places.

There are 33 comments

  1. Sophie Speidel

    Thanks for bringing this topic up, Meghan! I have been interested in knowing what motivates the ladies in the front of the pack, and am not surprised that, in no particular order, it comes down to adventure, challenge, beautiful trails, how well a race fits into work and family life, community, and training/structure. I may have missed it, but not one of the women above mentioned prize money or the desire to see who is the best female ultrarunner in the nation/world (Kami mentions wanting to see how she stacks up among the other women, which is a universal feeling among women from the front to the back of the pack, I believe). IMO, they have their priorities right where they should be!

  2. Mary Ellen

    I run ultras because I am 57 years old and feel blessed to still be able to do them. I love training for them, and I love the challenge of competing and the sense of accomplishment when I have finished one. I learn things too. Last weekend I did the 50 mile North Face at Atlanta, and did not make the official cut off time, because I got lost. So, I learned how to mentally overcome that glitch, and to keep moving. I finished just a little bit late, but I did finish.Next time I will know the course better before I head out…part of the learning curve. I am SO lucky to still be able to run for hours on end. It is awesome!

  3. Emma

    Thanks for this post Meghan, I loved it and it was really motivating to read. I just ran my first ultra last weekend, the New River Trail 50K, and had an amazing experience. But I did notice that there were not that many women at the race. Of about 100 runners total and only 24 female runners, I was the youngest female running. It would have been nice to have more ladies out there, but it’s a pretty small race as it is. I had an amazing time and I loved it for many of the reasons the ladies you interviewed above cited; scenery, race organization, RD, etc. The transition to trail running and ultras has been a great one for me and I really am looking forward to my next races! Thanks again!

    1. Andy

      I saw that too. Apparently ill conceived as an effort to attract more women runners (or most of us mortal men for that matter), but good for the sport I suppose.

      1. Ian Sharman

        One thing that wasn't really mentioned is that the top women on trails are also the top women in road ultras (in North America, at least). And the 100k Worlds were 2 weeks before UROC, taking out basically all the top contenders before they'd even consider entering. For men it had much less effect since very few top trail ultra men also do roads…especially since Mike Wardian would turn up to a race the day after Worlds, so 2 weeks is no real issue for him.

        Other motivations are probably not that dissimilar between men and women – everyone I know loves to run, loves scenery and loves the camaraderie. Plus very few fast men or women would argue that testing themselves against the top runners isn't a huge motivator for them (or at least was at some point in their running lives).

        Money in the sport isn't big enough to really motivate people (how many people earned five figures in ultras this year in the US? And that's not exactly a living wage). It's more of an incentive since it tends to mean a better field will attend, which is where the fun lies. The money is secondary to that.

  4. Matt Smith

    Great interview with a nice panel of superb runners!

    I wonder if many men would mention the need to balance family time as a reason for choosing a race? Somehow, I doubt it…

    1. AJW

      Matt, I hear you on this but, I have to admit, some of our most meaningful family times have been around races. You can ask my wife and kids for confirmation but I would guess that they would say the best summer of their lives was the Summer of 2009 when we ran WS and HR. It was glorious. And, we're hoping to do it again in Summer, 2012.


    2. Ben Nephew

      This is a good point that pertains to many runners, and many athletes that spend a significant amount of time training. It is really a complicated personal matter that depends on the personality of the racer, the personality of the spouse, work status, and the family dynamic. Although there are a number of things that don't interest me about 100 milers, the time cost to my family is high on the list.

      If I wanted to do well at Leadville, for instance, I would need two weeks to acclimate. I have no interest in spending that much time away from my family, and the family trip around a long race is complicated. The longer the race, the more days are spent devoted to the race. However, other than our honeymoon, our best vacation was to race in Serre Chevalier France. We went over shortly before the race, and since it was only 45 miles, I was able to lug my son around on my back for the next six days after the race. That was probably the most climbing I have ever done in a week, even though only a couple days were running. I'm not sure how that would have worked out if it had been a 100 miler in the Alps. Probably much more time in the hot tub than on the trails!

      With most race family vacations, it is likely to be expensive. Most of the big trail races are not cheap, and that is before factoring in the family.

      It is really hard to deny that running is selfish to some degree, and ultrarunning can be ultra-selfish due to the greater time commitment involved. I can certainly relate to Kami, and I'm lucky enough to be able to tolerate things like 36 hr trips to Europe to fit in races with work and family responsibilites. It really is a very personal matter with incredible variability. I could never even ask my wife to crew me in a longer ultra even if she wanted to, and she probably would not ask me to do the same for her. Other families have a great time crewing at long ultras.

      There are a number of very talented guys out there who rarely race due to work and/or family constraints, but when they do, often at small local races, they do very well. There are actually a number of top US male ultra runners who really don't race that frequently, and balancing training time is probably more of a challenge than race logistics.

  5. Average Runner Shann

    Thanks for posting this. I have toyed with the idea of running an ultra, but don't know if I could do it. Seeing profiles and interviews, though, of such strong women in the race community is really motivating somehow, though.

  6. Kix

    I have run a few ultras and love to push myself through the tough parts. I am a stronger person for it. Running ultras gives me confidence to tackle other things. I love meeting other runners out on the course. I love to see the trails where other people get to run – I always think on race day that the "local people" are so lucky to be able to run that course any time they want!

  7. Susan MacCall

    Really great topic & series of interviews! Thanks.

    I just completed my first ultra, and agree that it feels very empowering. I even bonked and made some rookie mistakes, but the entire process of planning, training & racing was fantastic.

  8. Amy C

    Thanks for bringing up a great topic with wonderful and inspiring interviews. I love that each motivation is unique, yet the thread of pushing our boundaries, realizing our inner strength, and loving the challenge are present throughout.

    Thanks ladies for pushing your own boundaries and that of this incredible sport.

  9. Anna Hughes

    Great interviews and in-depth responses, fantastic. I'm a German ultrarunner currently residing and training in Germany. Ultramarathon running is gradually gaining popularity, yet still far off from what the situation with female ultras is in the US.

    Having been a runner for 18 years (now 32 years old) my passion for ultrarunnung started with running the Marathon des Sables in the Sahara in 2008. Since then, I feel home in the ultrarunning world and have developed into a top female ultrarunner placing amongst the top 3 in all the races I run.

    For me, it's always a journey to myself. There are physical and mental barriers to overcome in every race as one foot is set in front of the other and the journey never stops. It's like a stage finish in life. Each time I cross the line feeling overwhelmed with emotions I realise that this was yet just another start of a new journey.

    The shifts and srengths evolving from running ultramarathons have an overall positive effect on my life. On top of doing all my training, I take full care of my two daughters and notice how much of a stronger, determined and passionate person I have become since specifying in ultramarathons.

    As a founder of my ultrarunning website I want to help spread the word about this extraordinary sport and inspire more females who learn that we may be the minority but that our inbred strengths and powers enable us to turn into superwomen once we put our trail shoes on and line up for yet another ultramarathon.

    All the best to every one!

  10. lisa


    Very good observation. I do think women shoulder the burden of raising, organizing, feeding, etc., the family, and sometimes never seem to have time for themselves. But let's face it, training and running ultra distances require time and money. I often wonder about these top male runners who have families and it appears that they run all the time. When do they take care of the kids? The answer is- their wives do. i suppose there are those supermen who can take care of their kids AND run well in ultras but knowing the role of females in our culture makes me even more impressed with women who do.

    I think that women who have children and run ultras are AMAZING!

    Great post!

    1. Meghan Hicks

      Lisa, thanks for your thoughts.

      I definitely agree with you and know wives of ultrarunners out there who go above and beyond equal duty to care for their kids to help support their husband's goals. But I also know some seriously amazing family men who just happen to be ultrarunners, too. I think it depends on the family dynamic, mostly. Check out Ben's comment above, as he touched on some of the same things as you did from the perspective of being a husband, father, and ultrarunner.

      I, too, agree with you that women who have kids and who run ultramarathons, whether they are elite or not, are true bada#ses. :)

      Now, let's go out and run!

  11. Meghan Hicks

    Sophie, thanks for chiming in!

    While a few of these ladies mentioned wanting to race against the sport's best, almost all of them mentioned wanting to reach toward personal goals/create circumstances by which they could surpass internal expectations.

    The pushing of oneself stuck me as the most universal motivation among the five women with which I chatted. Thus, I wonder, is it a close-to-universal motivation among women trail and ultrarunners in general?

  12. Meghan Hicks

    Mary Ellen, thanks for sharing what gets you out there!

    I'm sorry that your 50-mile race didn't go as planned, but it sounds like you've already taken the good from the situation and applied it to your future training and racing.

    I will pray to the good running gods that I can run like you at 57. ;) More power to you, sister!

  13. Meghan Hicks

    Emma, woot for your first ultra! Congratulations.

    As you continue to run ultramarathons, you will find the majority of entrants remain men. This is especially true in international races. I've run a race abroad that contained only 14% women.

    This will change, however, I have no doubt. Give us ladies a few more years. And for now, Emma, run on, girlfriend!

  14. Meghan Hicks

    Ian, thanks for sharing your thoughts and perspective.

    In my reply to Sophie's comment above, I mentioned that all five women shared one common motivation about racing: to get to events that create circumstances for them to test themselves against themselves (rather than external factors). I surely think this is a pretty universal motivation among both women and men.

    I can't help but also think that, in the future when/if there is more prize money offered in ultrarunning, elite women (and men) will become motivated by it if for no other reason than the fact that a little cash will help fund a little more doing of what they love. I'd love to hear folks react to that thought…

    Thanks again, Ian!

  15. Meghan Hicks

    Matt, your wondering has me wondering.

    Indeed, AJW's family gets wildly into his races. It's so awesome to see his whole family stand behind him and have legitimate fun at ultramarathons. I've also seen AJW get wildly excited about the sports that his kids are into, as well. It seems like that kind of support is a Jones-Wilkins family value that both Andy and his wife have created.

    We ultrarunners all have stories about the spouses/families/friends we've seen form the support crews/pacers of their loved ones. We also know stories about families falling apart because of ultrarunning, too.

    I, thus, do wonder how often the family-cohesiveness motivator crosses the minds of both women and men. Thanks, Matt, for the comment!

  16. Meghan Hicks

    Ben, wonderful thoughts and thanks for sharing your experiences on racing while married and with kids.

    At a 100-mile race this year, I heard one racer's crew member say the following, "It takes a whole da#n village to raise an ultrarunner, doesn't it?" It was clear by the smile on his face and the meticulous detail he went to for his runner that he meant it in the most positive of ways.

  17. Meghan Hicks

    Shannon, I have no doubt that you COULD run an ultramarathon. But, as I'm certain you know, few runners will finish a race of any distance without WANTING to. ;)

    I so agree with you, as a woman, that the strength of other ladies in the sport is super-motivating.

    Best of luck with your running and thanks for the comment!

  18. Meghan Hicks

    Susan, thanks for your note!

    Probably you would agree that your "rookie mistakes" enhanced your empowerment process. That you encountered and surpassed issues is what made achieving your goal feel so-dang good, I imagine.

    Also, few of the most seasoned ultrarunners go a whole race without making a mistake or encountering a problem. It's surpassing those issues that's one of ultra-distance racing's biggest challenges. :)

  19. Meghan Hicks

    Amy, you mentioned something that I think is at the heart of ultrarunning (and most other sports out there).

    As elite women (and men) push the edges of their own boundaries, they are also expanding our sport. What an honor they have, don't they? I think it's a supremely awesome opportunity.

    Thanks for your comment!

  20. Jenny Handy

    I have run a couple ultras and my husband willingly took care of the kids so I could get in a few extra training miles. I never had the time to put in 60+ mile weeks but I did what I could and managed to run my races the way I wanted to. Granted I'm an extreme back of the pack person but even that takes a great amount of effort. I train for these kind of races because I enjoy the solitude out on the trail, meeting new people at the races, and the very supportive environment in ultrarunning. Being as slow as I am I have never had another ultrarunner tell me I shouldn't be out there. If anything they offer me support, advice and encouragement. I will continue to run as long as I can.

    1. Meghan Hicks

      Jenny, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Your story of being a wife, mom, and an ultrarunner is super inspiring to me and, I'm certain, will be to other readers. I hope you keep after it for as long as you're happy doing so, as our sport needs awesome people like you. Thanks!

  21. tite

    glad to see we are all working on the same thing, globally: to make 2012 even a better YEAR OF THE WOMAN of TRAIL RUNNING. We'll get to that sooner than (men) expected, because we are historically trained by life to be resilient, tough, supportive, persistent and in balance. We got STRONG like the Kenians got fast. Namasté,

    Twitter: titeyogarunner

    Facebook: tite togni

  22. Venetia

    Meghan, what a great article, spot-on questions and insightful answers! But a bigger-picture question leapt out at me and it would be fascinating if you were to do a piece on it in the future. Basically, why is there such an increased disparity in the proportion of male vs female trail runners as we go up in any distance above 5/10K? For possibly the most popular trail race here in Quebec, I calculated 60% of the runners making up the 5K were female, down to 37% for the 10K, and only 20% for the 21K. It was far less than that for another longer race. I think that most trail runners are cut of the same cloth and have similar training constraints irrespective of gender, so what makes women hesitate or hang back whereas a man might jump in and say "let's try it!" I think an interview with women who did NOT sign on for a longer distance would be very helpful in finding answers about how to motivate women to sign up for those distances and ultimately the broader quest of increasing our representation in the sport in general.

    1. Mary Ellen

      This really would be interesting. I bet it has to do with how busy women are, espcially working women with kids. I am older (57), work full time,and have no kids, but it is still hard to fit in a 4-7 hour training run, and to keep up the weekly milage needed to do an ultra. Maybe part of the reason there are so few senior women running ultras is that they never participated in their younger years. This is a neat thread.

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