John Seivert: When will women win an ultramarathon outright?
In June of 1996, I competed in the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run. A trail run from Squaw Valley to Auburn. This is the original ultra-marathon race that began in 1974. This ultramarathon race is akin to the Hawaii Ironman triathlon because of its originality and history. Both races have stood the test of time.
While coming into Michigan Bluff aid station at the 55-mile mark, I could hear the CB radios crackling, stating Tim Twietmeyer was in the lead with Ann Trason less than thirty minutes behind. Volunteers were cheering; spectators were a gassed, and the group of runners I was with started to talk as we dropped into the American River Canyon as the mid-day heat was close to 100 degrees.
“Do you think she can do it? Beat Tim?” I asked my cohort as we scrambled down the switchbacks.
“No way,” said a runner on my heels, “He’s already won the race three times in the last four years.”
I chimed in, “And Ann’s seven consecutive victories with times getting close to the men’s times – you don’t think she can pull off the upset of the world?”
While we bantered back and forth and ran through the night, Tim Twietmeyer would end up winning the race in 17 hrs., 42 min., Ann Trason would finish 3rd overall that year of 385 racers in 18 hrs., 57 min.
Ann had placed 2nd overall in 1994 and 1995. Her finishing time of 18 hrs., 40 min. in 1995 was the closest split of only 5 min and 5 seconds from overall victory. She was on Tim Twietmeyer’s heels all day. The endurance sports world and the sports scientific communities were abuzz with this historic event. The question continued to come up: Can a woman beat a man in an ultradistance running event?
These elite athletes pushed the limits so far and so often that course records were broken regularly. Ultra-endurance racing is defined as any exercise that exceeds six hours. A few exceptional, record-breaking performances by female athletes other than Ann Trason in ultra-endurance sport have roused speculation that women might be predisposed to succeed in such events and possibly beat men while they’re at it. The data shows that the male-to-female performance gap in traditional endurance sports like the marathon remains at ~ 10%. The disparity in ultra-endurance competitions (running and swimming) has been reported as low as 4%. Females generally outperform males in extreme-distance swimming.
Physiology favors women
The literature shows that women have phenotypes (characteristics) that give them an advantage in ultra-endurance competition. They have greater fatigue resistance, greater substrate efficiency (breaks down nutrients faster and better), and lower energetic demands. They also exhibit some characteristics that can negatively affect their performance. They have a lower oxygen-carrying capacity, increase prevalence of GI distress, and sex-hormone effects on the cellular function, which can mean more injury risk.
It is late afternoon, and I have been running for almost eighteen hours. I make it to the American River at the Rucky Chucky crossing. I hear people screaming, “Twiet just won his 4th States.” I still had twenty-two miles to run. Ann would finish an hour later in 3rd overall. I was impressed at their speed but mostly envious that those top finishers will have received their massages, eaten a healthy meal, gone back to their hotels to shower, a nap, and then return to the finish line at the Placer High school track to cheer the rest of us age groupers across the line before the 30-hour cut off.
I would need another two to three weeks to recover from the race. The elite racers took a few days off and got back to training again. I am told Ann would go for an easy run the next day to “loosen up.” I could barely walk. Her ability to recover so quickly was remarkable. These recovery traits allowed her to stay on top of the sport and win another six Western States titles, many in the overall top 10. Ann was 36 years old during the 1996 race. This happens to be a time when her physiology is at its peak for endurance racing. Her aerobic capacity, muscular strength and endurance, and her ability to withstand physical stresses allowed her to be at her best for ultra-marathon racing.
A few years later, I would watch the race from several aide stations. When I saw Ann come up from the trail, I saw a perfect running gait. As she ran past, I understood why she was a world-class runner. Her gait was perfect, effortless, smooth, and quiet. She then disappeared down the single-track trail bouncing from side to side like a Gazelle. She was built to run.
The time has come
Over the past three years, there have been several races where a woman has won the overall title. These amazing women have demonstrated incredible talent. Courtney Dauwalter and Maggie Guteri have won at Big’s Backyard, an ultra-marathon in Tennessee, and Meghan Canfield (Arbogast) and Krissy Moehl have won Waldo 100 in central Oregon outright.
Congratulations to all you women who train hard, work hard, compete at your highest level, and give everything you got to be the best you can be.
John Seivert is a doctor of physical therapy and he has been practicing for 34 years. He opened Body Logic Physical Therapy in Grass Valley in 2001. He has been educating physical therapists since 1986. Contact him at bodylogic2011@ yahoo.com.
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