The 100 Mile Race: Is there a Gender Bias?

Lotteries for two of the most sought after 100 mile races were both this weekend (in case you know nothing about 100 mile races, those would be the Western States 100 and the Hardrock 100). I was not going to write anything about this topic, but up in my FB memories today came posts from years past about not getting into either race via their lottery systems. Furthermore, my Facebook feed is blowing up with articles/blog posts/ commentary about how we make the system more “equal” for women.

The issue, as I see it, is that we are talking about two entirely differently subjects.

  1. Are the number of women drawn via these lotteries in proportion to the number of  female entries?
  2. How do we make the number of entries more equal, as in 50-50? Currently, most statistics show the finishers of 100 mile races are approximately 20% female.

Lotteries

Let me start by saying, no lottery system is ever going to be perfect. So, this is not a critique of the lottery system, but rather a look at how these lotteries promote or do not promote fairness among male and female applicants.

Western States and Hardrock are extremely popular races for different reasons. If you are a road runner, think ‘the Boston Marathon of 100 mile trail races’. It has a storied history and attracts top talent in the ultrarunning world. Hardrock has a reputation for being incredibly difficult. It has a 48 hour time cutoff. Think brutally long, difficult climbs/descents in the unforgiving but beautiful San Juan Mountains of Colorado. If you can hang in there long enough, you can witness some of the most beautiful land in the world.

These two race lottery systems differ quite a bit. Western States gives out a certain number of automatic entries (past top ten male and female finishers) in addition to a number of golden tickets via sponsors, etc. So, for many elite runners, Western States may be able to provide a way in, bypassing the lottery system.

Hardrock, on the other hand, divides everyone into three lotteries. 45 spots go to the ‘Never Started’ category (for people who have never started the race for any reason). 33 spots go to the Veterans (those who have FINISHED five or more Hardrocks). 67 spots are allocated for ‘Everyone Else’. This could be people who have DNF’d previously at HR, for example.

But wait, there’s more…you have to qualify for both races (which is good, IMO). Once you qualify, the first time you enter the lotteries, you get one ticket which goes into the pool. If you don’t get in the first time, you have to requalify and then when you re=apply you get TWO tickets in the pool, and so on.

This is a gross oversimplification, but the bottom line is, you have a very low chance of getting into either race on your first try…think 2%. If you do not get in that first time, you have to go back and requalify at select races each year in order to get your name back in the hat. If you miss out on a year of running, say due to pregnancy, or in my case, injury and cancer, you have to start all over again with one ticket.

So let’s go back to the two issues at hand.

Are the number of women at these popular hundred mile races proportional to the number of women who apply?

Let’s look at Blake Wood’s statistics from this year’s Hardrock.

gender ultramarathons Hardrock

Here are the number of applications, by catagory, broken down by gender, for the Hardrock 100.

 

First it must be noted that the Hardrock system is kind to veterans. This is not a judgement. It is simply a statement. Women made up 17.3% of the total applicants, but they came in at a hair under 9% of total acceptances into the race. You can see how this is broken down by category.  In total, 13 women were accepted via the lottery system for this race. In my opinion, ensuring the acceptances mirror the actual application rates would create a more equitable system for women who qualify, but that, again, is up to the race director and board to decide.

For Western States, I do not have a complete breakdown on the entry statistics, but my quick calculation of those selected via golden tickets and lottery show the entries to be approximately 17% female. 105 of the 369 spots were automatic entries, meaning NOT distributed via the lottery.  What was the gender breakdown of lottery entrants? Was it close to that 17% we see on the entrant list? Since I do not have gender breakdown of the applicants, it is impossible to say if there is a proportional number of females to males in this case.

I do not believe any female runners think it is their ‘right’ to take spots away from male runners. However, I do think women would like to have proportional representation at these races. Right now, if you are a 5+ year male or female veteran at Hardrock, the system works in your favor. In addition, at Western States, if you are an elite runner, either one who has come in top ten before, or one with connections for a Golden Ticket, the system seems to have ways to help top females find their way in.

Of course, for elite runners who are seeking money, either in the form of prize money or sponsorships, this issue comes to down to wanting to have the same opportunity to put food on  your table as the elite males. Of course, parity is important to these elites. But it is also important to women who simply want the opportunity to test themselves at these big, competitive events. The bottom line is, I think races that do entry via lottery should work hard to make sure women are represented in proportion to the rate at which they apply.

Now, on to topic two: ‘Why are the genders not represented 50-50 at 100 mile races?

Really? Do we even have to have a discussion about this? Is it because our uteruses will fall out? Hmmm…no, that’s not it. Is it because our breasts are too heavy and we keep falling over when we try to run downhill? (Well, maybe, in some cases). Is is because we keep getting lost in the woods because we are more into touchy, feely things rather than map reading?

It really should not be a mystery to anyone but MOST women are still working double duty. We have jobs AND do the majority of child care, house cleaning, cooking and emotional labor at home. Please don’t tell me ‘oh but this one elite runner ran 100 miles and nursed her baby along the way’. Yes, yes, I have read her story and I was nursing babies at marathon finish lines long before most people reading this probably laced up their shoes for the first time. Certainly there are people who can make it happen, but MOST women are just trying to make it through each fucking day without keeling over from mental and physical exhaustion.

Many women just do not have the time available or the physical or emotional energy to train for 100s. When my children were young, I could find time to train for a marathon. I could justify giving myself four hours alone each week, but I 1)did not have time to run more and 2) did not have the money to pay enough babysitters to train for a 100. This is not whining or complaining. It is simply the truth. I was ‘lucky’ that I could run marathons. Many women I know did not have time even for that. There is a reason why the most popular race distance for women is the half-marathon. You can run for 30-90 minutes a few days per week and be home, showered and ready to tackle the day by 7 am.

There are also reasons why most of the women I know who run 100s either a) do not have children b) do not work fulltime outside of the home if they DO have children or c) have children who are grown.

Yes, it can be done, but it depends upon many variables, including having a nonrunning spouse or the ability to pay for childcare so you can fit in running together. Because women do the majority of emotional lifting at home, too, we often feel that we are not entitled to take the time from our families to train. It is a multifaceted issue, for sure, and I am not blaming men, per se. Women carry the babies, women nurse the babies. Our bodies make things different for us. The division of labor at home, both physical and emotional, has evolved over time. Certainly men are doing more than ever, but it is not 50-50 for most couples yet.

Whether right or wrong, women are judged by their ability to mother, keep house, work and do many other things. I have known tons of men who have run numerous 100s, taking time from their families to train and race, and no one judges them. They don’t seem to think it makes them a worse parent. Women who are not available to their families ARE judged, by themselves, by other women and by society at large.

Many women still do not have access to quality, inexpensive day care just so they can work full-time while they raise their children.  Running 100s is pretty far down on the list of priorities for most women. Throw in safety concerns many women have about running alone and it is no wonder women do not make up 50% of 100 mile race fields.

Until women and men carry equal loads at work and at home, and until women feel safe out in the world alone, I do not expect there to be equal numbers represented at longer ultras. These are the real issues women face when it comes to running 100s.

I wanted to run a 100 since I started running at the age of 28. I wanted to push my boundaries. I like doing things that scare other people. I like doing things that not many other women do. It’s exciting and enjoy being an outlier. I did not have the time to train until I was 44. I waited not for the time to be perfect, but until it was manageable.

In 2013, at the age of 44, I finished as tenth female at the Vermont 100. For those who do not know my story, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a couple of months after finishing Vermont. I took the year off from racing to undergo major, radical abdominal surgery followed by six months of chemotherapy. I ran the Bear Chase 50 mile race 3 months after finishing chemotherapy. I came in second at the Bryce 100 just shy of one year from finishing treatments. In 2016, I finished Run Rabbit Run 100. I had a torn labrum repaired in March 2017.

I don’t know what the future of running 100s is for me, but as I approach 49, menopause and all of the changes that brings with it, I know the clock is ticking. Maybe I have another 100 or two in my body, but maybe I do not. Either way, I do not have time to play the lottery game at this stage in my life. I made that decision last year, and while I was sad not to be playing lottery roulette this past weekend, there are lots of beautiful races out there. While I have would have loved to run WS or HR, I’ve overcome a metric shit ton of stuff just to finish a 100. If I have it in me physically to train for another 100, I will choose a different, beautiful race that wants me there, grey hair, wrinkles and all.

women 100 mile

With my super supportive husband who has crewed and paced me at all three hundreds I have finished.

 

 

 

 

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