Starting from a young age, children are divided into two different groups when they join sports— boys and girls. From soccer, to swimming, to even golf, boys and girls are divided into two separate divisions, sometimes as young as 5 years old.
The main argument for this is that men and women are built biologically different. Men have higher levels of testosterone, and starting from puberty, they experience an increase in muscle mass, making them on average stronger and faster than women. This physical edge that men have has kept men and women competing in different divisions for almost every sport played today in the world. All except for one— ultra-running.
In 2019 in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, Maggie Guterl ran 250 miles over the course of three days to win the Big’s Backyard Ultra, a last-person standing ultra-marathon. In a race where 72 competitors —both men and women— entered on October 19th, only one runner remained by the 60th hour of the race— Guterl.
The rules for the Big’s Backyard Ultra (BBU) are simple. Every hour, runners must complete a 4.16 mile loop along a trail. If a runner doesn’t make it back to the starting line by the beginning of the next hour, they are cut from the race. This continues on and on nonstop until all but one of the competitors gets cut or drops out of the race. After there is only one competitor left, the sole competitor must then complete one more victory lap to officially complete the race. Otherwise, there is no winner.
Maggie Guterl won the 2019 BBU, outcompeting her 71 opponents and becoming the first woman to win the BBU. “I wanted to keep going,” Guterl said after she won the race. “I had this thing in my mind that it would be cool to beat what they did last year, and even break that 300 barrier. I’ve never run through three nights.”
And Guterl isn’t the only woman to come close to winning the BBU. In 2018, competitor Courtney Dauwalter was the final person to drop out of the race after running 279 miles for 67 consecutive hours, creating a women’s record. Over the past decade, ultra-running has become one of the few sports where men and women not only compete on even grounds, but according to some, women may even have the upper hand.
According to Shawn Bearden, Idaho State University professor of exercise physiology, women have certain physiological traits, such as a higher proportion of slow-twitch muscle fibres and a stronger resistance to central fatigue, which helps them in long-distance runs. While the idea of whether women are actually better than men at ultra-marathons is still hotly debated within the running community, one thing is clear— as the distance increases, the physiological gap between men and women shrinks. As time goes on, it becomes less about strength and more about endurance. It doesn’t matter how strong you are physically after 100+ miles, what matters is that you keep going.
These unique circumstances that ultra-running present have allowed for men and women to compete against each other in races and be one of the few sports where the factor of biological sex is thrown out the window. The winner is whoever has the strongest mental endurance and the will to keep going, not who has more muscle.
This is also supported by many statistics showing that in ultra-marathons, women are just as likely to win as men. In the 2019 BBU alone, two out of the four final competitors were women, despite the fact that out of the original 72 runners, there were only 10.
2018 BBU runner-up Courtney Dauwalter has also competed and won several ultra-marathons throughout her career. She won the 2017 Moab 240 Mile Endurance Race, beating the second place runner —a man— by an astounding 10 hours. And in 2019 alone, Dauwalter participated in 7 ultra-marathons and won first place in 5 of them.
The Montane Spine Race, considered one of the hardest endurances races in the world, also had its first female victor last year in 2019. Shattering the previous course record by more than 12 hours, Jasmin Paris managed to finish the 268 mile course in only 83 hours and 12 minutes, creating an all new course record that has yet to be broken. Paris managed to beat 136 other competitors, including 125 men. Not only that, but she also finished the race over 15 hours before the second place runner, and all the while was breastfeeding her fourteen month old baby daughter at checkpoints along the trail.
And in a new report, called The State of Ultrarunning 2020 where more than 15,000 ultra-races were compiled and analyzed, it was found on average that female ultrarunners have faster pace times than male ultrarunners at distances over 195 miles. The report continues that as time goes on, we will likely continue to see women consistently outperforming men in more and more ultra-races.
And on Saturday October 17 2020, the Big’s Backyard Ultra 2020 began. Due to the pandemic, only 15 runners from America participated. But with global collaboration and remote setups, 385 other competitors from 20 different countries also joined remotely. This made it so that runners from the same country were now more or less competing on the same team. The last person remaining from each country won their country’s division, but then was forced to drop out of the race immediately after completing their victory lap, eliminating their country from the overall championship title.
Out of the 15 Americans, 4 were women. This included Maggie Guterl, defending champion, Courtney Dauwalter, holder of the BBU women’s record, Amelia Boone, former obstacle-course champion, and Sarah Moore, winner of the 2020 Ode to Laz Michigan Backyard Ultra.
3 days, 68 laps and 283 miles after the Big’s Backyard Ultra 2020 started, and the U.S. finally had a winner. Breaking her own women’s record and landing the U.S. in overall second place, Courtney Dauwalter emerged as the 2020 U.S. Big’s Backyard Ultra Champion. She was the last American in the race, and placed 3rd out of 300 runners.
Furthermore the United States, Germany, Canada, Finland, Denmark, Russia, and Belarus all had female champions in their divisions. This is despite the fact that only 23% of the runners this year were women, and some countries such as Japan and India had no female participants at all. All in all, the results of this year’s Big’s Backyard Ultra only further prove that women are becoming more and more involved in ultra-running. The number of women participating in this year’s race alone was almost 10% higher than last year, and the number of countries with female champions was over ⅓.
The trend is clear. In ultra-running, women are slowly seeing more and more success as they continue to win new races and shatter new records every year across the globe.
Ultra-running has become a sport where both male and female competitors alike can stand on even ground and compete together in races as equals. It’s not a sport where the physically strongest win, but the mentally toughest do. And as time goes on, we will continue to see ultra-running become more diverse, as both men and women compete side-by-side in one of the most challenging sports in the world.