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Women Are Closing the Gap in Ultrarunning

The landscape of ultrarunning is changing—and fast. In the largest collection and analysis of the sport to date, a recently released report shows shrinking gaps between men and women, and young and old runners.

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We already knew that female runners are making strides in the world of ultrarunning. But according to the recently released report the State of Ultrarunning 2020, women are actually outperforming men at long distances. “The longer the distance, the shorter the gender pace-gap,” the report notes. “Female ultrarunners are faster than male ultrarunners at distances over 195 miles.” 

Paul Ronto, staff writer at Fort Collins-based RunRepeat, a website that reviews athletic shoes, confirmed this reality while compiling data for the report, which looks at more than 15,000 ultra races—defined as distances longer than a marathon—and 5,000,000 race results between 1996 and 2018. It’s the largest collection and analysis of ultrarunning to date, spanning 85 percent of races in a 22-year time period. With such an immense pile of information, Ronto and his partner in this project, Ivanka Nikolova, were able to make a number of fascinating observations about this rapidly expanding sport. 

Courtesy of RunRepeat

While differences in performances based on gender is one of the more monumental insights, Ronto insists that the data can be interpreted many ways. On one hand, he asserts that some studies show that women have a physiological advantage” in ultrarunning over shorter distances. On the other: “Because of the lower numbers of women in longer distance ultra races, the women who participate tend to be professional, elite runners, while perhaps men are still amateurs at those distances,” Ronto says.   

And yet, many recent female race-winners and record-breakers in ultra races in running, biking, and swimming earn their livings elsewhere. One such example is British runner Jasmin Paris, who won the 268-mile Spine Race, known as the world’s toughest endurance contest, by nearly 15 hours in early 2019 (oh, and in case you needed further proof that women are incredible, she did it while pumping milk for her daughter along the way). Paris works as a veterinarian, and told Runner’s World UK that she wakes up at 5 a.m. every day to train.

The theory that women could outperform men in long-distance races has been on the table since 1992. But it wasn’t until women were afforded more opportunities to compete in such contests that their progress was scientifically noted. And it’s likely we haven’t seen their peak performances yet—the report hints that women will likely continue to outperform men in ultra racing as their full potential is realized. 

Courtesy of RunRepeat

The differences in performance between genders isn’t the only interesting finding from the report. Older runners are gaining on younger age groups, as well. The above graph, which shows paces by age in races over 26.2 miles, displays only a slight difference between runners under 30 years old and above 60 years old.

Ronto says he believes this is because longer distances require skills beyond physical prowess. “It’s a feat of your mind,” he says. “It’s about endurance and mental toughness. Older people are more mentally tough than younger people.” Factors like experience and patience are what make ultrarunners successful. The longer a marathoner has been tackling long distances, the stronger their sense of pacing will be. “That’s what’s exciting about ultra,” Ronto says, “it levels the playing field. A 30-year-old man can race with a 60-year-old woman and be real competitors.”

More runners are testing their endurance in ultrarunning than ever before. According to the report, participation in the sport has increased by a whopping 1,676 percent since 1996—from just under 35,000 participants to more than 611,000. At the same time, fewer people are signing up for shorter races. As more runners get into the sport, Ronto predicts the culture will continue to shift. “We looked at which groups of runners are more obsessive, meaning racing twice or more a year. Ultrarunners and 5K runners were the two most obsessive categories,” Ronto says. And as RunRepeat begins to look at data from 2019 races, Ronto assures that these trends aren’t going anywhere. 

So why is ultrarunning—an activity that can tax you physically and mentally—so popular? Ronto believes its because of the sport’s powers of perspective-giving and confidence-boosting. “If you can run 100 miles, you can get this job,” he says. Distance running is also in our nature. He cites Born to Run, an ethnography of the Tarahumara tribe in Mexico and their sustaining legacy in ultrarunning. “Humans are meant to go long distances. The reason we stand on two legs is so that we can go long distances.” It’s just a matter of reminding our bodies what they are capable of.

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