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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The Panther or the Rabbit

I last posted at the end of April, 2016, following a disappointing finish at the Cheyenne Mountain 50 K.  Throughout the spring and summer, I had plenty to say but simply could not give voice to my thoughts. These last few months have been filled with change, uncertainty, beginnings and endings. As the numerous stressors mounted, many of which I am choosing to keep private, I felt my suit of armor cracking. And so it was after several months of facing an ongoing series of challenges, I found myself staring over a literal and metaphorical abyss, facing an existential depression, wondering, “Why did I survive my cancer? Why am I here?”

Depression

After being told by so many  for so long that I was ‘strong’, I at first failed to heed the warnings. A bad day. A bad week. A stressful month. Finally, I could no longer avoid or ignore the reality. It felt like I was being stalked by a stealth black panther. At first, there was a sense that ‘something’ was lurking in the background. Then I could see glimpses of it, far off between the trees. It drew closer, watching and waiting, until finally it pounced, knocking me to the ground, with claws drawn and jaws wide open. Would it snap my neck? Would it rip my heart out? Would I, could I, fight back?

To the outside world, all was fine. I kept up appearances and took care of all of my responsibilities. But my contact with most people dwindled. Instead of reaching out, or calling for help, I moved more deeply into dark recesses of my inner world as I tried to make sense of what I thinking and feeling.

Finding a Way Out

In January, 2016, I signed up for the Run Rabbit Run 100 mile race. Located in Steamboat Springs, CO, the race is actually over 100 miles. The website says that it features about 20,000 feet or ascent and descent. In other words, it is quite challenging. After my 50k in April, I not only considered not running the 100, I contemplated never racing again. My foot had hurt for months. Maybe I was too old to keep running ultras. After facing cancer, surgery and chemotherapy, maybe I just needed to give myself a break and take it easy. Or maybe the truth was that I just no longer cared or had the drive to train. I specifically remember being out with my husband on what was supposed to be a flat 20-mile run. I had thrown in the towel and was walking down the trail saying, “I think I am done, not just for today but for good.”

My emotional state was chipping away at my physical well-being. Once an every day runner, I was now even questioning that part of my identity. I could jog a few short, flat miles, but I had lost my interest in going farther or faster.I had been dealing with foot pain and endocrine issues. Running just did not feel fun anymore. I always swore that when I stopped having fun, I would move on to a new activity.

Embarrassed and ashamed of feeling as I did, I kept my thoughts between my husband and myself. I have since learned that it is very, very common for cancer survivors (and survivors of other significant medical conditions) to go through a period of depression following their illnesses. We put everything we have into fighting for so long, that when the clear and present danger passes, the bottom can fall out on everything else. I felt frustrated with myself. I was alive and OK. Why did I feel the way I was feeling?

Running

As I questioned my own life, and struggled to make sense of who I was at this point in my life, I decided that I had to at least make a decision on something simple. Was I still a runner or not? Would I train for Run Rabbit Run 100, or would I close the door on the ultra chapter of my life?

A brief conversation with a friend helped point me in the direction I needed to go. She was discussing someone in her life who was facing a goal that would take sacrifice and work. She did not think this person would be able to reach her goal. The reason? “She isn’t willing to suffer.” The conversation quickly moved on to something else, but I came back to the line many, many times in recent months. I wondered, “Was I willing to suffer to try to reach a goal?” If I could endure the suffering, then maybe I could embrace the physical pain while I worked through my emotional pain.

I knew the only way I could answer this question was to go hit the hills.

north slope

Running Ultras

In April I wanted to quit racing. Within a couple of weeks, I fully committed myself to training for Run Rabbit Run 100. I felt that I needed it desperately. My life, physical and my mental health depended on it.

 

I have finished two other 100 mile races. The first time around, I just wanted to see if I could do it. The second time around, it was a very public experience. I wanted to have a big comeback from pancreatic cancer. I raised money for charity and wrote a lot about the training process. This time around, my journey to running 100+miles has been deeply personal. I have spent hours alone on the trails trying to discover just how much I am willing to suffer and endure. That probably does not sound fun, and it often isn’t. Was I trying to run from something? Was I trying to run to something? Was I trying to make the physical pain feel as intense as the emotional pain felt? The answer to all of these questions is yes.

elk

Along the way, I found that even when it felt like the world was cracking, shifting and imploding around me, I could eventually find peace in being alone, pushing myself, feeling my heart exploding out of my chest, and feeling my muscles and lungs burning. I kept myself alive and moving forward, with each challenging step.

As I learned during my battle with pancreatic cancer, sometimes it is the most difficult battles that we face that bring the deepest sense of meaning to our lives. Sometimes the battles take place in the public sphere. Sometimes those battles are internal, away from even our closest friends and family.

7 bridges

The hardest part of an ultra endurance event is usually not the race itself, but the training process. When you sign up, you commit to train and make sacrifices towards reaching your goal for months at a time. With each ultramarathon training cycle, I have learned something new about myself. This time around, I am redefining what ‘strength’ means to me personally. I am not afraid of suffering and sacrifice. In fact, there is a deep sense of satisfaction that comes through incredibly physically and emotionally demanding hard work. I needed to spend days, weeks, even months, exploring my own ability to endure, even embrace, suffering. In life, after all, we will suffer. Sometimes it seems like we have to endure way more than our fair share of suffering. But that is life. We all will face hardship and must learn how to endure pain. As I pushed myself, I knew if I could endure, I could survive not only the difficult trails, but what I was facing in my life.

Though it has not always been easy, my countless miles on the trail have been a much-needed time of learning and reflection. In times when I felt alone and lonely, I found peace, contentment and a sense of self-reliance on the Colorado trails. I did not find a quick fix to any of the issues I was trying to sort out. Instead, I found that sometimes what we need is not a solution or a quick-fix but trust and patience in ourselves and the process. Gradually, the laughter and joy began to emerge again. I learned that I can look out into the abyss and question my purpose but that does not mean that I will disappear into the depths and darkness.

dawn