A few weeks ago, a curious article showed up in the Facebook group dedicated to the Keys ultra. In the article, the author wrote that men should watch out, because the day a woman wins a 100-mile race is near! (And don’t worry, she assured us, it’s not “feminist propaganda” – I guess the Little Red Feminist Book forgot to include a chapter on taking over fringe-y extreme sports.)
What makes it curious is that women already outright win hundred-milers – several times a year, in fact. It happens so often that Ultrarunning magazine actually has an annual feature that lists all of the women who won ultras that year, and in fact, you only have to look at the comments of the article to see several examples of women who have won ultras outright. (Including Pam Reed, who won Badwater twice.)
Last month, at the Keys 100, I was lucky enough to see one of those women break the tape. Alyson Venti covered the 100 miles from Key Largo to Key West in 14:42 – an average pace of about 8:50 per mile – and crossed the finish line 11 minutes ahead of her nearest competitor. As if that wasn’t exciting enough, her time was the second-fastest road 100-mile race recorded by an American woman. From a Running Times profile:
For perspective, Venti’s 14:42 finish trails Ann Trason’s 13:47 100-mile road record (1991) and Pam Smith’s 14:11 100-mile track record (2013), but is ahead of Jenn Shelton’s 14:57 100-mile trail record (2007). Venti’s 14:42 equates to 8:49 per mile. She’s on the all-time charts, and despite being a relative unknown, the legendary Trason’s name is the only name above Venti’s on the road chart.
(If you really want to be blown away and possible even feel a little inadequate, you can read the rest of the profile and learn that she’s also a PhD candidate in oceanography who has worked with the Peace Corps and speaks Fijian so well she wrote a series of children’s books in the language.)
Venti broke her own women’s course record, which she set in 2012, and came within an hour of the men’s course record, which was set the same year by Mike Morton. And heads up, all of you commenting in the “Lady Champions” thread on Metafilter – she also owns the overall course record in the 50-miler.
She wasn’t the only woman to have a spectacular race that day, though. Traci Falbo (who used to run on the U.S. 24-hour team) and Katalin Nagy (who holds the American record for the 200K) came in third and fourth overall respectively, which meant that three of the four top spots were held by women.
The 50-miler was also won by a woman. Anita Vadja came in first place with a time of 7:44:14. Second place? Also a woman. As were the fourth and fifth place finishers.
Women might outright win ulramarathons one day? How about they already are.
I admit that one of the things that appeals to me about ultrarunning – beyond the fact that it taps into that almost-primal pleasure I take in running for hours at a time – is the fact that being a woman who is heading into middle age isn’t necessarily an obstacle to success in this sport. I don’t think I’m alone in this regard. Before the 50-miler started, I spoke to a woman who said she became interested in ultrarunning for the same reasons.
There are some theories out there as to why the playing field is a bit more level in ultrarunning, theories that look at the possible physiological reasons why this might be: that women tend to have smaller frames, that we tend to have more body fat stores to call upon for fuel, even a greater tolerance for physical pain linked to childbirth. I’m not a physiologist; I can’t say.
But I am willing to speculate that one reason why it’s not uncommon to see men and women standing next to each other on the podium is because the further you go in a race, the less you need to call upon physical attributes like muscle mass and the capacity of one’s heart to pump blood, which are influenced by things like biological sex, and and the more you rely upon psychological attributes like tenacity, the ability to tolerate pain and boredom, and plain old will and determination, which are qualities people have independently of sex or gender. Furthermore, those are qualities that tend to develop and become more entrenched in our personalities as we become older and more experienced.
Men still tend to dominate the top spots at ultra races, but I imagine that’s in large part due to the fact that men still tend to dominate ultra races, period. If more women decide to get involved in the sport – and they may or may not, I can’t really blame those women who look at 100-mile races through the mountains and say NOPE NOPE NOPE OCTOPUS – I suspect we’d see more women winning.
As much as I like talking about and speculating about this stuff, it’s all sort of academic for someone like me, who will never, ever win a race like this. What means a lot to me, though, is the sense of gender egalitarianism that pervades the atmosphere of races like this, how everyone was awestruck by Alyson Venti, how people spoke of her 150-mile per week training regimen with near-reverence, how so many guys seemed legitimately excited by the fact that women had dominated the races. It’s like seeing the future, but even better, because it’s actually happening right now.