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 Rebel Females of Ultramarathons

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.

Channeling my inner Madonna with the bleach blonde hair as a young 20 something.

Channeling my inner Madonna with the bleach blonde hair as a young 20 something.

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:

http://www.irunfar.com/2015/10/sugar-and-spice-and-too-nice-for-the-trails.html

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.

http://www.irunfar.com/2012/10/twenty-seven-percent-why-arent-more-women-running-ultras.html

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.

With Lisa, who means the world to me.

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.

Steve calls this my going to battle look.

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.

With Kathy, who finished her first ultramarathon! So proud of her!

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.

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