Like most runners I was completely fixated on The Spine race over the past week, witnessing one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen by a female endurance runner. In case you’ve had a complete media black-out for the last week, Jasmin Paris became the first female to win the 268 mile race outright in 83:12 hours, shattering both the male and female course records in the process and beating the next (male) competitor by some 15 hours. And she did this 14 months after having a baby, whilst working as a vet and writing her PhD thesis.
Since then, I’ve read a lot in the mainstream media and on social media about how this (and a handful of other high profile female outright wins in ultras) means women are now beating men at ultras, and that we should now get rid of gender placing in ultras and just have an overall winner.
At best, this is just lazy journalism, and at worse this is going to alienate more women getting into, what is still, a predominantly male sport.
It’s universally accepted that over shorter distances if you compare two identical athletes, then the male runner will be around 11% faster than the female runner. This is across the board, all the way down from world class athletes to recreational runners. And this is simply down to biology.
So if women are now beating men at ultras we’d expect to see this gender % difference reduced in ultras. In fact, if we compare the male and female world records at 24 hour racing, the difference is almost 16%. Similarly, if we compare the male and female winning times for something like the UTMB, which arguably attracts the best ultra runners in the world, the difference between the winning times is often as high as 20%.
Let’s look at four absolute stand-out performances in female ultra running over the last 18 months – the previously mentioned Jasmin Paris’s The Spine overall win and course record, Camille Herron’s 24 hour overall win and world record at Desert Solstice, and Courtney Dauwalter’s overall win at Moab 200 and 1st female at Western States.
All these performances were incredible in their own right, and yes it should be referenced that they beat all the male competition. However, these women are at the absolute top of their sport. I would put Jasmin Paris in the top 5 female mountain/fell runners in the world. Do I think her closest male competitors in The Spine (Eoin Keith and Eugeni Rosello Sole) are in the same class and are in the top 5 male mountain runners in the world? They are brilliant athletes and both previous winners of The Spine, but I don’t think anyone would argue that they are the very best in the world. There’s no point working up hypothetical scenarios about whether Jasmin would have beaten x top male mountain runner in The Spine, however let’s look at her Bob Graham Round time. In April 2016 Jasmin completed it in 15:24 (beating Nicky Spinks’s previous female record by over 2:30 hours) and placing her then 5th on the all-time list. However, since then Kilian Jornet ran the fastest ever Bob Graham time in 12:52, over 2:30 hours faster than Jasmin’s time.
In a similar vein, Camille Herron’s 24 hour world record performance at last year’s Desert Solstice was phenomenal, yet in the last 24 hour World Championships in Belfast four men ran further than this, and her 162.9 miles is almost 26 miles less than Yiannis Kouros’s male world record.
Courtney Dauwalter’s overall win at Moab 240, whilst again is another outstanding performance, it needs acknowledging that 200+ mile races are still very niche. If we look at her Western States win in 17:27 (which is the second fastest female time ever), this placed her 12th overall and almost 3 hours behind 1st male, Jim Walmsley.
I’m making these comparisons not to diminish the performances of Jasmin, Camille and Courtney, but to refute the misplaced notion that women are becoming better at running ultra marathons than men, so that means we need to just have overall placings. Out of all the ultra marathons run worldwide, we are talking about three female overall winners here (of course there’ll be other female overall winners in less high profile races, but these are still very few and far between). And if we compare these three women, who are undoubtedly the very best in the world, with the very best male ultra runners in the world, then they’re not beating them.
When I’m on a race start line, it never occurs to me that I’m racing against the men; I’m only racing other women. Of course women finish ahead of men at ultras, and that’s because ultra running often doesn’t come down to who is the best/fastest runner. Tom is faster than me at every distance up to the marathon, but sometimes I finish ahead of him over longer distances, but that generally comes down to the fact that he’s had a bad race and I’ve had a really good race and executed my race plan perfectly (whereas Tom doesn’t normally even have a race plan!). The fact that women often possess the skills needed to succeed in ultras, which means they sometimes finish ahead of faster men should be celebrated, but certainly not expected.
I think if we start to normalise these, still very very rare instances of women winning ultras outright, and start having an overall winner only, then it’s going to be detrimental to women’s participation in ultra running. And if a Race Director thought it was acceptable to not have gender placings, then I would deliberately avoid that race, as in the majority of cases these are going to be filled by male runners meaning the top female runners aren’t getting any recognition. Similarly, if a Race Director is acknowledging 1st/2nd/3rd male then I’d expect them to award the same female placings.
We celebrate male and female road running as separate categories (have you ever heard a commentator at a road marathon comparing Eliud Kipchoge and Mary Keitany’s times in the same race?), so we should celebrate male and female ultra running as two separate entities. And acknowledge that, on very rare occasions a female runner does outperform all the men, but by lumping male and female ultra running as one, then I personally think it’s doing a disservice to women in ultra running. If The Spine had just had an overall top 3, then Shelli Gordon wouldn’t have been recognised as 2nd female (finishing The Spine just 6 months after the death of her partner and raising over £20,000 for charity in the process) and Gabriele Kenkenberg as 3rd female, and we need these women to be recognised to help increase female participation in ultra running.
Male and female ultra running is going through exciting times, and there’s more than enough ultra love to go around to celebrate both, so let’s stand up and applaud both in their own separate rights.