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 the Managing Editor of iRunFar 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.