Mother Earth, Venus, Triple Goddess, protector, siren: women are temptresses and nurturers. It is not a duplicity but a congruency that is imperative to our spirits and our ability to provide, strengthen, and guide. Women should have the dignity to uphold this duality and claim their status as the fierce Empress–she does not submit to a patriarchal society, but rather is an architect of it. For years men have dominated cultures and communities because of their virile, testosterone steeped minds, resourcefulness and physical size while women have had a long history of being dismissed, oppressed, and devalued even though she has been the deputy and, often times, the chief. Her strength is less conspicuous though just as robust. In the realm of sports, this perennial theme weaves through each field, court, road, and track; only since about the mid-twentieth century have women begun their ascendancy as powerful players deserving to compete at the elite level, and in some cases, against men.
Most sports now have a division for women and it is critical to respect the physical heterogeneity between the sexes which does create an inequality in many activities. Women have wider hips, shorter torsos relative to leg length, a lower center of gravity, smaller muscles, and generally weigh less despite having a higher percentage of body fat. Many studies have concluded that men have higher aerobic capacities (measured in maximum oxygen consumption (VO2max)) than those of women. The outcome of these differences is that women generate less absolute force and produce about a 10 percent variance in the results of professional competitions. So, to be sure, there is some fairness in establishing separate races or start times or isolating rank based on gender. However, the lines become blurry as the distance increases making ultra-running a perfect sport for women and men to come together in a battle of consummate endurance (muscular, cardiovascular, psychological).
Women are capable of training at the same volume levels as men, and it may be safe to say that they are even more capable when it comes to pain tolerance. At the 2010 Hardrock 100-Mile Endurance Run held in Silverton, Colorado, Diana Finkel led the entire race for most of the first 90 miles before succumbing to debilitating leg cramps and metabolic difficulties allowing Jared Campbell to finally pass her for the win. The Hardrock 100 is considered the most arduous and physically exhausting 100-miler footrace in North America with 33,000 feet of climbing at high altitude. The second female finisher was Darcy Africa who placed fourth overall. Though ultra-marathon races are typically heavy in male participation, we are seeing more and more women joining the ranks and dominating the field. Local ultra-runners, Devon Yanko and ITR team member, Caren Spore, are two women who give the guys a run for their money and make them quiver in their La Sportivas. These gals consistently place in the top 10 and have just as much brutishness as they do femininity. Finkel, Africa, Yanko, and Spore are just a few examples not only of how women rival men and should be taken as serious competitors, but also that their bodies may be better suited for endurance sports that rely heavily on pain threshold and strength-to-weight ratio.
The most discernible feature of a woman is her size. Her average total body strength is about two-thirds of a man’s, which secures us with a false belief that she cannot outrun him. Women are smaller, however they are relatively stronger in their legs and have the biochemical benefit of being potential child-bearers. In cycling, it is advantageous to be small as you have less weight to take up the hills; the same is true for runners ascending the mountains over long stretches. Having the benefit of stronger (pound for pound) legs and weighing less than a man, a woman can clip past him on the uphills and decrease the amount of damage to her muscles on the downhills because she doesn’t have as much weight to catch as gravity pulls her down. This is one reason why continuing strength training throughout the year for women mountain and trail-runners is so great-you’ll make up much lost time once you hit the incline.
Both Darcy Africa and Caren Spore are mothers and have seen better and better times since having their children. It is notable that women experience a small, yet significant, increase in VO2max during and after pregnancy because of their increased red blood cells which can contribute to better athletic performances if they’ve maintained overall muscular strength. Could a man cope with contractions the way a woman can? Probably not. This sets up an interesting, indefatigable argument that woman are more capable at enduring than men and, physiologically, there is some truth to this. To withstand the pain and stress of labor, the female body has specific biological responses that ensure her ability to transcend (not always) the physical suffering and deliver the baby safely. She experiences pain differently from the way a man does, and scientists are just now unearthing the processes and dissimilar interactions with opioid receptors.
Beyond the physical elements attributing to the ultra-running success of women we find a favorable psychology that promotes her endurance as well. Sports psychotherapist Bruce Gottlieb claims that a considerable part of a woman’s psychology is diligence and persistence. “Men tend to think ‘harder, faster, stronger’,” while, “women tend to think with more determination and tenacity. Especially the kind of woman who tackles ultra endurance events.” He goes on to reference women’s history of persecution and socializing differently. “Women were really stifled not too long ago,” he says, “and therefore have a tendency to be more complex, in a good way.” Women are more likely to associate poor performance with lack of ability instead of lack of effort. This can create a stubbornness and a tireless will to achieve what others believe she can’t.
It is time for our society and culture to adjust its perception of what women athletes represent. It is time for men to take a step to the side (or down) and share the podium. Women are exceptional athletes; they are competitive and tenacious, they have unforeseen power that is bleeding out onto the trails of 100-milers, and their unparalleled determination is a flicker of how they are, possibly, the stronger sex.
As a woman and mother myself, I find that any sport that makes you feel strong and confident is worth the effort. Trail running and ultra-running definitely require hours of training and finding time in a busy day that is constantly devoted to someone else (ie. your children, your boss, the laundry machine, other drivers) can be an incredible challenge. Schedule it. Wake up early, invest in a BOB off-road stroller, make a deal with another mom and swap kid duties. As long as you are making fitness gains and feel good about yourself, you are treating yourself kindly. It might not always be fair to strap my daughter in for a 2.5 hour run, but it makes me a happier person, and in turn, makes me a better mom.
Writer and trail runner