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A tipping point for women’s ultra running

When Ann Trason was in the zenith of her ultra running career, she envisioned change.

“I was bouncy and had found my new love and I was all into it,” the 14-time Western States Endurance Run 100-mile champion says. “I would train with a bunch of guys. Those who crewed us were all the wives and girlfriends — I was so embarrassed. I kept thinking, ‘Some day, this world is going to change. And it’s going to be the reverse — women will be running and men will be crewing.’ That’s what I like about it now. Not that it should be one way or the other, but now it seems a lot more equal.”

While the percentage of ultra runner participants is not even, the trend shows women are gaining ground. According to Ultrarunning Magazine, in the past 10 years the annual percentage of women ultra finishers has grown from 27 percent to 34.4 percent.

But it’s not just ultras. Women are running 5Ks through marathons, often outnumbering men. Women are serving as coaches. Women are directing races. All of which were rare, if not nonexistent, when Trason was setting records in the sport.

“That’s what I see — women going out and enjoying the trails, being free and enjoying stuff they never thought they could do,” Trason says. “It gives them confidence and inspires other people. It keeps them fit, out of the doctor’s offices — and keeps them sane.”

Breaking the glass ceiling

Trason’s success inspired a generation of women runners. Today’s elite women runners are inspiring legions of women runners with their performances. Consider these feats, just in 2017:

Camille Herron, left, debuted at the 100-mile distance, shattering the world record by over an hour with a 12:42:40 at Tunnel Hill in Illinois. The next month at the Desert Solstice Track Meet in Phoenix, she broke three long-standing American records, running 5:59:10 over 50 miles; 7:36:39 to take 13 minutes off Trason's 100K record from 1991 and later passed Trason’s world record for 12-hour distance.

Courtney Dauwalter won the Moab 240 Mile Endurance Run — directed by Candice Burt — by more than 10 hours. It was clearly a breakout year for Dauwalter, who also won Run Rabbit Run 100, as well as finishing first overall at Coldwater Rumble 52-miler and the Bear Chase 50-miler. (In late 2016, she was the overall winner of the Javelina Jundred 100K, breaking the overall course record.)

Cat Bradley won the women’s Western States as well as the Canyons Endurance Runs 100K. Undaunted, she also broke the women’s record for the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim by more than 20 minutes. Bradley completed the 42-mile, 21,000-feet of elevation change circuit in 7:52:20.

“Whoa! They’re still running after Ann Trason,” says Trason, whose Western States time record was broken after 18 years in 2012 by Ellie Greenwood. “It’s good that they now have someone else to run after and chase. Have fun. It’s awesome! Records are made to be broken. I was surprised it (the records) stood for so long with so many talented women runners.”

Herron credits Trason for her role in establishing standards for women ultra runners.

“How does what I did impact women in ultra running?” Herron wonders. “In general, Ann Trason broke the glass ceiling for women in trail and ultra running. We’ve kind of put her on a pedestal for 20-25 years. And that fact that I am shattering that glass ceiling helps open the gateway for other women who can think we don’t have to stay at that level, we can go above and beyond. And there are other women who are starting to surpass the men too.

“It’s really exciting to see a lot of women doing exciting things in ultra running now. We’re all pretty compelled by each other”

‘An inflection point’

As records were shattered and social media was abuzz during 2017, some wondered aloud whether it was the “Year of the Woman Ultra Runner.” Instead, 2017 was the culmination of what had been a slow burn for women ultra runners when sparks from Herron, Douwalter, Bradley and others ignited media attention beyond the sport itself.

“I’ve been in awe of Camille and Courtney for the past couple of years in which they have redefined what’s possible, not just female ultra running, but for ultra running,” says Andy Jones-Wilkins. “When I look back, you start with Ann Trason and how she finished second and third overall at Western States. And how she got out on the roads and broke records, which were not very far removed from the male records at the same distances.”

Meghan Hicks quickly lists off elite women from previous years in the sport: Kaci Lickteig’s strong showing in the United States trail scene in 2016, while Caroline Chaverot dominated the international scene; previously, Magda Boulet, Nathalie Mauclair and others were setting the pace.

“Women kick ass in trail running and ultra running every year!” Hicks says. “These are just the 'leading ladies' each year, as I'd argue on the breadth and depth of women's competition each year, too. I feel like I could go on like that, year after year after year back in time. As we went further back, say more than a decade into time, we'd see a decrease in competitive breadth and depth, but each year there would be several women who had outstanding years in trail running and/or ultra running.”

Jones-Wilkins agrees, noting others who have broken out like Nikki Kimball at the 2006 Western States and Diane Finkel at Hardrock. He thinks the women’s ultra running scene has been progressing steadily and 2017 might be viewed historically as a turning point.

“An example from the guy’s side is when Kyle Skaggs ran 23:23 at the 2008 Hardrock and beat second-place finisher by six hours, the same thing happened,” Jones-Wilkins says. “We thought this was a paradigm shifting deal. That was 10 years ago. I do think it is extraordinary and may very well be the beginning of something. When you look back 10 years ago at the publication of “Born to Run” and the movie “Unbreakable” and the 2010 Western States — with Geoff Roes, Kilian Jornet and Anton Krupicka — we think of that as an inflection point. I wouldn’t be surprised if we looked back at 2017 about 10 years from now as one of those other inflection points. Only time will tell.

One thing is for certain: As today’s elite women runners continue to crush races and generate attention, they are inspiring future generations of women runners.

Hicks’ message to girls interested in the sport is multi-layered. Besides the physical benefits, Hicks notes, it can help you learn about the environment around you.

“Running allows you to become strong and have endurance,” she says. “Physical health is so important because it's connected to everything we do and want to do. Want to grow up to be an energetic mom who can play with her kids? Want to have a garden or chickens? You'll need you physical health for this! Running is a way to help you be healthy.

“Running gives you confidence. You try running a little faster or a little farther today than you did yesterday, and you learn you are capable of more than you know. And any confidence you gain can and should be applied to other parts of life, too. If you did something you didn't know you could do in running, that means you are capable of doing something new in math, in science, in your other hobbies, in language, in friendship, in everything in life, too.”

Inspiring the next generation

(Ann Trason / By Tempus Photography)

The continued growth in women ultra runners is inspiring to Herron.

“It’s amazing for the sport — to see ultra running starting to grow and see women take on these larger than life goals. It’s amazing to see women going further and starting to catch the men. Women of all ages and abilities thinking, ‘I’ve done the marathon — why don’t I go further?’ I think that’s really cool when we put our mind to it.”

For Trason, “beating the boys” was never her goal.

“One of the things everybody thought I was trying to do was beat the boys,” she recalls. “Why would I want to do that? It really hurt — it really hurt. If I was a mom and had a girl and a boy, would I have to tell her that she needed to be better than the boy for me to believe in you? And I don’t want that to be the standard — you should be the standard.

Trason competed before Title IX. “I had to run with the boys,” she says. “And it’s so cool now that they (girls) get to run against themselves. They are inspired to run marathons now. Some 5Ks have more women than men. Now that’s the way it should be.”

With her ultra running career complete, Trason’s new adventure is hiking an ultra in every state and every Canadian province. Along the way, she hopes to inspire yet another generation of young female runners.

“If you can inspire those girls to reach out and find a challenge, that’s great. But they don’t have to beat their brother, or the boy down the street, to feel good. That isn’t what Ann Trason was about,” she says, fighting back tears. “And it never was.”

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