12 women ultra runners who inspire
By Henry Howard
What better time to celebrate some of the most inspirational women ultra runners than in March, Women’s History Month?
This list is intended to highlight a collection of women ultra runners for their inspiring contributions to the sport over the years. There are many more who inspire for various reasons and others who left their mark on the sport yet their accomplishments still inspire.
That approach is slightly different than my annual list of the Top 20 Most Inspirational Ultra Runners of the Year, which is published in December. My most recent one, the fifth annual, is published here. To check out my previous compilations, you can find the 2021 list here, the 2020 version here, this one from 2019 and the first installment in 2018.
Two runners (Courtney Dauwalter and Camille Herron) have been on every annual list so far. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that they are also on this list.
Without further delay, here are my picks for a dozen inspiring women ultra runners:
Katie Asmuth: The former top 10 finisher at Western States was stymied by injury for the second half of 2022. But that did not pause her vibrant outlook and love for the ultra community. And her upbeat attitude was clearly present as she anticipated her return to ultra racing at the Way Too Cool 50K, which was March 4. As she wrote the previous day on IG, "It’s been seven months since my foot surgery- and it has taken A LOT of effort from my INCREDIBLE team to get to this point🙏🏽😘 I’m going to soak up every minute out there- because tomorrow will be a PARTAAAAY!! 🕺🏼🍾🎉" And, party she did, finishing in third place.
Candice Burt: As I write this, the ultra runner/race director is doing the unthinkable. As of March 3, Burt has completed 119 consecutive days of running a 50K. That’s 3,844 miles since she began a little under four months ago — and she’s not stopping. In our interview from four years ago, she talked about her drive. “I always want to do the best I can and the most I can,” she said. “’Content' is a word that I don't understand or feel; I never have. I enjoy reaching for the next challenge and so it is a natural thing for me to keep pushing my own boundaries as a runner and a race director and in every other aspect of my life.” Follow her journey on her Twitter feed, Instagram page or athlete page on Facebook.
Courtney Dauwalter: Just last month, Dauwalter won Transgrancanaria’s 128K race in 14:40:39, two hours ahead of her nearest competitor. In January, she finished the Bandera 100K in less than nine hours, the first woman to accomplish that feat. Last year, she won Madeira Island 115K, Hardrock 100 Endurance Run and Grand Raid La Reunion (Diagonale des Fous) 170K. Dauwalter is the only woman to win Western States, Hardrock, UTMB and Diagonale des Fous. As eye-dropping as her results are, her ever-present smile, contagious laugh and cheery outlook are just as endearing and inspiring to her legions of fans. (Here’s a look back to our interview a few years ago.)
Clare Gallagher: Perhaps no ultra runner, male or female, does more to advocate for the environment than Gallagher. While she has accumulated significant victories on the trails, her long-lasting legacy could very be well what she does off-trail to foster conservation. And her advocacy goes beyond the trails, as evidenced by her commitment to being somewhere between a vegetarian and vegan, as she told me in our interview from five years ago. “The reasons why I don't eat meat are because it is one of the worst things we can do for our climate. It's pretty simple. Ideally, I would be vegan. I'm in the process of going there, but I really would love to be able to have my own chickens so I could eat their eggs.”
Camille Herron: Her 2022 highlights included setting 11 records at Desert Solstice, nailing a top 10 finish at Western States and breaking the course record as she won the Strolling Jim 40-miler. And, of course, there was the world record set at Jackpot Ultras, only to be rescinded by USATF eight months after the fact. Her career has been marked by ups and downs. In fact, she even had to come back from a harrowing car accident just a few short years ago. Herron also is a huge supporter of other runners. After deciding not to race Tunnel Hill due to snowy conditions, she stayed and cheered on the finishers as they came through. “She is a true leader and great ambassador for the sport,” said Terri Durbin, spouse of Tunnel Hill race director Steve Durbin.
Jacky Hunt-Broersma: The amputee ultra runner set a world record in 2022, completing 104 marathons, one each day for 104 days. While her record, which was certified, has since been broken, Hunt-Broersma’s quest and accomplishment triggered an outpouring of support. As she approached the record, she told me in an interview, “It's been incredible just to see the response. It's just been phenomenal, just the outpouring. I've always got that in my back of my head. I can't quit now."
Van Phan: Better known as “Pigtails,” she is closing in on her 100th 100-miler, as very few runners have achieved. But she doesn’t focus on just the century distance. Phan has completed somewhere north of 400 ultras, as we talked about in this interview from a few years ago. Since then, she has continued to pile up the miles and smiles. And there is no stopping her. A glance at her Ultrasignup page, shows she is signed up for six ultras in the next six months. That follows this weekend’s races. As she posted on her IG page, she’s celebrating her 52nd birthday by running the USATF 100 mile on March 4 and the regular 100-mile the following day at the Jackpot Ultras in Henderson, Nev.
Pam Reed: Running a 100-miler is an achievement few runners can claim. A small percentage of those can match Reed’s career total, which is over 100 100-milers. It was perhaps fitting that she won her 100th century race last year at the Grandmaster Ultras wearing bib No. 100. Reed has also been the overall winner at Badwater, a race she has completed 11 times. And every one of those resulted in a podium finish. How does she do it? As she told me in an interview for this story after her 100th, “Keep putting one foot in front. Never stop.”
Megan Roche: Elite runner. Science guru. Loving mother and wife. She is all of that and a lot more, freely sharing her knowledge about running, science and more with the ultra running community. Not only that, she is on a quest to help make other women trail and ultra runners more successful (our interview and story here. (For full disclosure, I am coached by Megan’s husband, David.)
Ann Trason: The 14-time — yes, 14 times — winner of Western States is widely regarded as the most successful ultra runner of all time. It’s hard to argue, given her body of work, even beyond the domination and longevity at Western States. Among her other achievements: winning Western just 12 days after also taking first at the 56-mile Comrades Marathon in South Africa in 1996 and 1997; setting the women’s course record at Leadville, 18:06:24, which still stands; and setting 20 world records during her illustrious career. About five years ago, Trason and I chatted about the future of women and ultra running.
Devon Yanko: Like several other runners on this list, Yanko has a stellar record of performances and victories at some highly competitive ultras. Just last year, she won the Umstead 100, Javelina 100 and Brazos Bend 50-miler, along with a fourth-place finish at High Lonesome. And those wins at Javelina and Brazos occurred after her diagnosis of lupus. But the disease is not slowing her down, just causing her to pause to make sure she is staying on top of it. She’s even started a podcast aimed at women trail and ultra runners, which is a great listen for females and males alike. We covered all of this and more during a recent interview that you can read about here.
Leah Yingling: Not only is she a talented ultra runner, who finished as the top American female at the 2022 Western States, Yingling is among the top commentators during live coverage of ultra races. It’s a joy to get a knowledgeable first-hand account as races are happening from Yingling. When it comes to her own racing, she demonstrates serious determination and grit. After just missing a Golden Ticket last year, Yingling rebounded and took second place at the Canyons 100K, earning her way into Western. As I wrote in a profile earlier last year, “Her relentless drive is fueled by a deep passion for the sport, a love of the mountains and the perseverance from overcoming an assault.”
Feel free to share your thoughts on this list, or let me know what other women ultra runners you would like me to feature on RunSpirited. For all the ways to reach out to me and follow me on my socials, check out my LinkTree page.