Women leading the way in ultra distance running races
Another long-distance running race has been won outright by a female. Earlier this week, Sabrina Verjee, 38, finished first in the so called summer Spine race, the Montane Spine Fusion. Earlier this year, Jasmin Paris, made history when she was the first person home in the Montane sister event, the Spine Race. She beat the course record by 12 hours.
In other examples, in 2015, Karen Hathaway won the Thames Ring 250 outright and set a new record, while, in 2012, Debbie Martin-Consani, now 44, was the outright winner of the Grand Union Canal Race 2012. She also set a course record.
Yorkshire farmer Nicky Spinks, 51, has set many new records becoming the first person to complete a Double Charlie Ramsay Round in 2018 and, in May this year, the first person to complete a double Paddy Buckley Round and first person to do doubles of the three UK mountain round classics, the Bob Graham, the Ramsay and the Paddy Buckley.
Overseas, Courtney Dauwalter, of Colorado, won the Moab 240-miler in Utah outright by 10 hours in 2017.
In the same year, Camille Herron, 36, of Oklahoma, set a new world record for 100 miles – in 12 hours, 49 minutes, 39 seconds – at the Tunnel Hill 100 in Vienna, Illinois. She also placed first at Bandera 100K in Bandera, Texas, and the Jed Smith 50K in Sacramento, California.
Women beating the men in ultra races is not new, however. In 2002, Pam Reed, of Wyoming, won Badwater, the tough 135-mile race across Death Valley, California.
Ann Trason, of California, in her late 50s, has overall wins at several 50 milers and has placed second or first overall at competitive races such as Leadville 100 and Western States 100 Endurance Run.
Women, ultras and beating the guys
The start lists of ultra distance running races are notably male heavy. In many races, the female field is by far the minority and often less than 20%. Yet the number of women who DNF (Do Not Finish) is usually proportionally lower than the men and, as we have seen, there are women who are capable of beating the guys.
I have asked three of the UK’s ultra winning women to tell me why they believe women are as good, or better, than men in ultra distance races.
Also have a read of this blog post: How can we attract more female runners to multi stage races?
Debbie Martin-Consani, of Glasgow, is a multiple winner of ultra distance races. She believes that distance plays a big part in female vs male running. She says: “Due to physical differences, on a level playing field, women are less likely to win. After a certain distance, however, we start to close the gender gap.
“There are physical advantages, such as carrying less weight and therefore causing less stress on the body; having shorter legs and a higher cadence, which makes efficient use of energy; and the body’s ability to utilise a higher fat metabolism.”
Sabrina also believes women have physical advantages. She says: “Running slightly slower causes the body to burn fat and women naturally have more fat. I rarely see women running out of energy in longer distance races, when compared to the men.”
This theory is backed up by science. In this 2006 study, it was shown that women utilise calories differently, deriving more of their needed energy during a lower-intensity activity from fat than carbohydrates. In practice, this means that during an ultra race, far fewer calories need to be consumed to avoid the dreaded bonk.
Good pace judgement
Another factor that places the women above the men is claimed to be pace. All the women I have spoken to state they are far better at maintaining a consistent pace over longer distances.
Nicky Spinks says: “I think, we are also more sensible than the guys. We don’t go mad at the start of events and I think that many women are very good at pacing themselves.”
Debbie adds: “Women don’t have the bravado and inflated self-belief that men tend to have, so they don’t go flying off at the start. DNF excuses such as cramping, injury, nutrition and dehydration are often down to poor pace management.”
Sabrina adds: “While my 10k time it is never going to be faster than the men, as soon as the race is longer than 100 miles then I have a chance of being faster than the men. In a race of 270 miles, like the Spine, women can do better.
“Of course, it also depends who is in the race and there are men who could have been faster than me if they had raced but I think that women can be better at these longer races.”
In the Montane Spine Fusion, Sabrina ran a lot of the race with male runner Cees van der Land, who was forced to withdraw after 166 miles (236kms). She says: “Cees is faster than me as a runner and was capable of picking up the pace at almost any point but my slower and steadier pace suited this sort of challenge better I think.”
Again the studies confirm this proposition. In another study in 2016 it was shown that most men overestimated their marathon finishing times and slowed down towards the end of the race. Meanwhile, most women were more likely to predict accurate finishing times and pace themselves evenly throughout the race.
Race statistics also prove that women slow down much less in the second half of races, because they start at a pace that matches ability.
Confidence (lack of it)
Confidence, or lack of it, plays another interesting role. The women who turn up to race in ultras are usually very well prepared. They will not be on the start line unless they feel they have done enough training. Meanwhile, as many women state, the guys are far more likely to believe they can “wing it”.
Nicky says: “I think we prepare better because we have less confidence in the first place and so we place greater emphasis on the training. I know I work hard in training. We are also better organised and stricter with our own plans.”
Sabrina agrees. “I think I am able to race smarter. I observe time after time that women, on average, seem to be more prepared when they start these sort of races. They will be less likely than the men to be on the start line without good training and preparation. I think more men will ‘give it a go’ while women do not leave so much to chance.”
Many ultra running women talk about setting their own pace and sticking to it. Nicky says: “I think women are better at running their own race rather than being caught up with the other competitors.”
Sabrina believes women are more organised during ultra races, too. She gives an example of her speed at food stations and checkpoints. She says: “I have taken part in many mountain marathons and adventure races and so I have a lot of experience. I am slick at checkpoints. I do not hang around. I might be slower than the men when running but I spend less time sorting myself at CPs.”
Another theory is that women are mentally stronger. Sabrina says: “I think we are definitely mentally tougher as well. As an example, we have to deal with the effects of hormones on our body each month and we get used to coping with that. So we are better at finding a way to crack on even when a race is long and difficult.”
Nicky adds: “I believe that women can put up with more discomfort than many men. We don’t whinge as much in my experience.”
The barriers to ultras
Despite women being good at ultra distance running races there are still many perceived barriers to reaching the start line. Debbie says: “Time – and lack of it – is a huge barrier in a sport that can be quite selfish. Plus, on average, women spend much more time on household chores and childcare than their partners. Finding the time – and energy – to fit in high mileage weeks is no mean feat.
She also points to a stigma of women being away from their families for training or racing. She says: “I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been out running and asked if my husband is ‘babysitting’. I doubt a man would be asked the same thing.”
There’s a safety issue, too. Debbie makes the point that training often needs to be done in early mornings or late evenings. Many races involves running through the night and include navigation.
She says: “Being alone in the dark or being left behind on a training run could put women off even trying. Some women prefer to run with others and might not have training partners keen to cover the distances required.”
Winning by stealth
In conclusion, Debbie sums up what other women have told me. She believes that female runners who take part in ultra distance races have the drive, ability and – most importantly – the pace judgement to beat the guys.
She says: “Don’t be fooled by our skorts and visors. We don’t think the term ‘chicked’ is derogatory or condescending. It’s empowering. So let the guys fly off and reel them back in. The female of the species is in fact more deadly than the male.”
Your thoughts, ladies? And gentlemen?