I was a bit of a rebel growing up. I liked being a girl, but I was not always accepting of societal conventions. I grew up in a fairly small town and I never really felt like I fit in. I wanted to be bold, daring, and did not relish the role of being the good, quiet, compliant female. I wanted to see the world, explore, experience life, warts and all, from an early age. I had a yearning to see what else was out there. I decided to graduate early from high school so I get just get on with my life already. I wrote my college entrance essays about ground-breaking women like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. In my adolescence I learned that girls were still expected to be “nice”, “polite”, “undemanding”. It was important to be a “good girl” in the traditional sense: Pretty and attractive and friendly but somewhat asexual. None of it felt right to me. I had a wild and reckless side to me. I felt like I could not be who I was expected to be. I often felt badly about myself, because I didn’t know why I couldn’t just conform.
I looked for socially acceptable ways to burn off my energy. While other girls played volleyball or were cheerleaders, I took up weight lifting. While I started off with the little cutesy weights, I ended up eventually benching 155 pounds and squating 200 pounds. I loved it. I felt powerful and strong, and sexy. I was often the only girl in the gym. I worked out with guys who pushed me hard and never told that girls couldn’t lift heavy weights.I had always felt like I had big legs and I hated them. Eventually I realized that I might as well make them really big and strong.
As life went on, I settled down in marriage and parenthood. I was the Military Officer’s Wife who could just not be the proper officer’s wife. I didn’t do teas. I wanted to spend my time at the gym. I started to get the itch again. I had to expand my experiences and try new things. For a variety of reasons, I started running just days after Riley was born. Suddenly, I had a new avenue to express myself and experience life. When we got stationed in Colorado, I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. I discovered trail and ultrarunning and felt rejuvenated. I met Cathy, a complete badass female, who had run may 100 mile races, stage races, done the Eco Challenge, etc., and she opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was the first female ultrarunner I had ever met. I knew there were more out there, but they were a rare species in a sport highly dominated by men. She trained with male running partners because that is all that had been available to her.
It never bothered me that ultras were a male-dominated sport. I like men very much and enjoy their company. However, there is really something unique about being able to see other women doing something that really pushes boundaries in an unconventional setting. Cathy, like me, was different. She has always chosen to live a life that is a little outside of the box. I love that about her. We could run together, tell stories, laugh, spit, swear, stop to pee and feel 100% comfortable. However, Cathy lived far away. our chances to run together were few and far between. Her inspiration stayed with me, though. She showed me that I could do anything I wanted to do.
Over the next few years, I took a break from ultras while my life went through some major changes. My first husband and I split. Steve and I met. We had Peyton. I was caring for two young children instead of one. He works long hours. Running ultras was just not in the equation for me for a while. Then, suddenly, it was. I ran a few 50s, a 100k, a couple of 100 milers. Steve and I continued running together, but I also started meeting other women who ran ultras. I was so happy to meet other ultrarunners who looked like me. Women who wanted to experience big challenges and push themselves. But they are also runners who have similar life experiences simply because we are women. I love my female friends and really enjoy sharing miles and time with them on the trails. There is comfort in that familiarity of experiences.
Nevertheless, ultrarunning is still a sport dominated by men. Women make up a much larger percentage of road runners. In some shorter road races, the number of women now exceeds the number of men. But for ultras, particularly the 100 mile variety, the number of women is still very low.
This opinion piece came out in Irunfar.com recently:
In it, the three very well-known and well-respected female ultrarunners talk about why they think we have fewer women competing in ultras. A big theory that they float is that women don’t feel comfortable getting dirty for long periods of time.
In Ellie Greenwood’s earlier post, the 27%, she also wonders why more women don’t compete in ultras.
I really believe that the fact that we don’t have an equal number of female participants has nothing to do with not wanting to get dirty and everything to do with the demands of working and raising children. Most of the women runners I know can find time to train for a half-marathon or even a marathon. But finding time to commit to longer distances seems impossible. Women tend to feel guilty for pretty much every choice they make in life, but we really feel guilty for taking time away from our kids. We feel like we are not entitled to time to ourselves. We are not being good mothers if we have our own needs and goals in life. I am certainly no different. I waited until my kids were at a sweet spot in their ages, where they could stay home alone but they were not completely over scheduled by their own activities. I only train for a couple of long races per year, but I find time. I make it work because I need to for my own mental health.
The other reason why I believe more women are not running ultras is because the thought of being out alone on the trails for a long time seems scary to women. I would argue that being out alone on a trail is far safer than running through many city streets, but I can understand the fear of the unknown: creepy people in the middle of nowhere, animals, getting lost, getting hurt outside of cell phone range. Women have been conditioned their whole lives to be careful, to fear what “could” happen, while men have always been taught to be bold and unafraid.
But this is where ultramarathons hold a great deal of appeal to me. I LIKE the fact that I am in the minority in the sport. It appeals to that rebellious part of my brain. I am a happily married 46-year-old mom who still harbors that bit of a wild child. I love my husband and my kids and I go to bed at 9 pm every night. My life sounds like a snooze fest to most people. But, I do things that other people are afraid too take on. I love the thrill of doing something that most other people perceive as nuts, crazy or risky (for the record, I think running 50s-100s is none of those things). Go ahead though, and call me crazy. I consider it a compliment.
Here is part of why ultrarunning appeals to my inner rebel: I get to run around in the woods. I get dirty and sometimes bloody. I get to run with and compete against the boys AND the girls and no one thinks anything of it. I do not have any idea what I look like, nor do I care what I look like when on the trail. Running has nothing to do with my size or shape. It is all about how I feel and perform. I can spit, blow snot, swear, pee, etc., and no one gives it a second’s thought. When you realize that less than 1% of the population has finished a 100 mile race, just entering one feels subversive. When you realize that only about 20% of that 1% is female, well, it feels almost revolutionary.
I love my female ultrarunning friends. I also love the fact that it feels like we are part of a small, special sacred tribe. We are housewives. We are doctors. We are scientists. We are writers. We are teachers. We are single. We are married. We are partnered. We are moms. We are child-free. We are all expressing that little bit of rebellion within ourselves. We are tackling things that we did not think was possible. We are taking our passions to an extreme. It is exhilarating and thrilling and scary all at the same time. If more women want to join us, we will welcome them with open arms.