Top 25 most inspirational women ultra runners of 2023
By Henry Howard
After five years of putting together my annual most inspirational list of ultra runners, I’m instituting a change.
Due to the increase of inspirational athletes, I’m doubling down. This year’s list is actually two — one for the most inspirational males and another for the most inspirational females. I did not want to leave out nonbinary runners.
In fact, nonbinary runner Riley Brady was an easy choice for my tribute. But their nonbinary status did not lend itself to the two categories I had selected. Since Brady was born female, I thought it was best to place them in this category. Before publishing this, I asked Brady for feedback and they agreed with handling it this way.
Thanks to Gnarly Nutrition for sponsoring these lists. I use Gnarly BCAAs before and/or during most of my workouts, as well as Gnarly's chocolate vegan protein powder, creatine and performance greens to help boost my recovery. I love Gnarly because their products are NSF sport certified, made with real ingredients and work well.
And now on to the honorees, the most inspirational women ultra runners:
Katie Asmuth: It’s been quite a cycle for Asmuth the past few years. Success at Western States. Subsequent injury. Surgery. Healing and recovery. But you wouldn’t know it from her demeanor. Asmuth shines brightly whether she is crushing her beloved Western States or sharing her latest news about surgery and recovery with her followers.
Allison Baca: A talented and joyful runner, Baca ran into some issues before CCC which led her to drop at the race. But even amid her disappointing injury and race result, she has exuded positivity, uplifted others and continued to inspire on social media. “I had been trying to balance the most stressful time of the year for me at work with family time and heavy training in the mountains,” she wrote on Instagram, explaining her issues over the summer. In the new year, I expect her to be back and better than ever.
Claire Bannwarth: What a year! By my count, Bannwarth ran 10 races of 100K or longer, finishing on the women’s podium seven times. Among the notable finishes, she took fifth at Hardrock and then was the overall winner of the Tahoe 200 just a week later. Other incredible performances included a roughly six-week span with a victory at the Kodiak Ultra 100, running more than 400K (tops by a woman) at Big’s Backyard UItra and winning the North Face Transgrancanaria in mid-November. It’s tough to wrap one’s head around any of that. It’s her world, we’re just living in it.
Shalini Bhajjan: While not a household name, she should be. The Indian-born Bhajjan is a talented runner, gives her time as a race director and volunteers at other races like Hardrock. I love how she incorporates sustainability and zero waste into her races. This year, her big push was to partner with Forest ReLeaf, an organization that plants trees. Participants at her races can opt to plant a tree instead of receiving a race shirt.
Riley Brady: A nonbinary athlete, Brady continues to inspire by shining a light on the LGBQT community. Brady was born female and competes in the women’s category. And perform again they did in 2023 with victories at the Gorge Waterfalls 100K and the Bear Chase 50K. Brady also took third at the Javelina Jundred following up on a second-place finish a year earlier. I’m looking forward to seeing her compete at Black Canyon in February with a potential Golden Ticket and return to Western States on the line.
Candice Burt: The architect of North American 200-mile races achieved a world record that literally spanned more than six months. In May of this year, Burt finished her daily streak of consecutive ultra marathons at 200. That’s 200 days straight with at least a 50K run. That also includes her 100-mile effort at the HURT 100, with — of course — an ultra both the day before and after. A little more than five years ago, I profiled Burt. The headline to the story says it all, “What drives Candice Burt.”
Alyssa Clark: The former world record holder of the daily marathon streak, Clark is now focused on ultras. In 2023, she kicked off the year with a win and second overall finish at the HURT 100 and then took the top spot at the Canyons 100-miler in April. Beyond kicking tail at races, she is living the dream. Clark and her husband live in a trailer, explore the outdoors constantly and she now coaches, podcasts and handles other duties for Uphill Athlete.
Courtney Dauwalter: I mean, where do we start? The legendary, cheery and mind-blowing ultra runner was an easy pick for the list, which she has been on every year I have been publishing these. For the record, Dauwalter clicked off a rare Triple Crown in spectacular fashion, setting the course record at Western States, doing the same at the Hardrock 100 and then winning UTMB, all within about two months. What’s next for Dauwalter? Who knows, but I’m stoked to follow along.
Stephanie Flippin: As an Asian-American female, she believes her presence in the elite and professional space can inspire others and create meaningful change. “What am I actually doing to make meaningful change in the sport?” she wondered. Flippin is helping to create the change she envisions as she discusses topics through her social media, writing contributions, and as podcast co-host of Making Strides. The podcast focuses on experiences of underrepresented and marginalized communities in the sport of running.
Michele Hartwig: The race director, runner and owner of Ornery Mule Racing (OMR) is anything but ornery. I’ve had the pleasure of doing several Hennepin Hundreds, among the OMR races. Hartwig puts the wants and needs of runners first. As an example from our interview, she reflected back to when COVID forced the first race cancellations. “My first gut instinct was that I felt sad for the people that had trained for Earth Day and for Kettle. And I had to tell them that they couldn't run the race.”
Camille Herron: Along with Dauwalter, Herron is the only runner to appear on this list every year. There’s no slowing her down after her late 2022 victory at Desert Solstice. In February of this year, she set a masters world record with 100 miles in under 13 hours at The Raven 24-hour race in South Carolina, then knocked off 270 miles in 48 hours at the Sri Chinmoy Festival in Australia, setting a world record; and completed the 245K Spartathlon in under 24 hours. That also was a course record, taking more than two hours and 12 minutes off the previous best, while also adding to her legacy as the first athlete to win both the Comrades Marathon and Spartathlon. And, also like Dauwalter, Herron spreads joy and positivity. She has certainly blossomed even after a car wreck.
Marianne Hogan: Injury forced her to miss most of the year, but she came back strong in the fall. Hogan won the Tsaigu 100K in October and then placed second in the Ultra-Trail Cape Town 100K a month later. In 2022, Hogan finished in second place at UTMB and third at Western States. It was at UTMB, where she tore her psoas muscle, which led to a sacral stress fracture in April.
Jacky Hunt-Broersma: What do you do for an encore the year after setting a world record for consecutive daily marathons? If you are Hunt-Broersma, you raise awareness about the disease that took your leg but propelled you on a running journey. On Aug. 1, she celebrated her 21st year of being cancer-free by starting a new streak — a half marathon every day until she reaches 5,250K or 3,262 miles. The distance represents the number of people who are diagnosed with cancer every day. She will finish in about 250 days.
Kim Levinsky: I first learned about the inspiring Levinsky through Bigger Than The Trail, a nonprofit that raises awareness of and money for mental health therapy through trail running. Levinsky is a mental health advocate, race director and amazing runner. This past summer, she set the fastest known time (FKT) on the Long Path — an appropriate name for New York’s longest contiguous trail, which is 358 miles. Perhaps appropriately, during our interview earlier this year before the Long Path FKT, she said, “I've got that all-in, all-or-nothing personality.”
Corrine Malcolm: This isn’t about results, though Malcolm did finish on the podium at the Cascade Crest 100 over the summer. It’s about the best ultra race commentator — male, female or nonbinary — being silenced for doing nothing more than offering her opinion. When Malcolm is behind the mic at Western States and other ultras, she brings an unmatched combination of insight, knowledge and passion. UTMB was dead wrong to fire her from announcing duties.
Jacquie Mannhard: Saying she was “running in utero,” Mannhard explains that her mother was a runner. Her mom competed in marathons in the 80s and 90s when it was rare for a woman to do so. Now, of course, is different with women competing in races of all distances. Mannhard is a competitor for sure. In 2023, she won the Leadville 100 in 21:24:55 — nearly two hours over the women’s runner-up. But what’s inspiring about her is not just her performance at an epically challenging race. It’s that she is a genuine positive force, volunteers as coach for her kids’ cross-country teams and has passed on her running genes to them “in utero.”
Sally McRae: The “Yellow Runner” was an easy selection for this list for her relentless positivity, contagious laugh and incredible performances. This year McRae set out to complete her own Grand Slam of 200s in less than six months. First up was the Cocodona 250 in May where she finished in fourth place. Then McRae tackled the Candice Burt’s trio of 200s. First up, McRae took third at the Tahoe 200 in July, then finished ninth at the Bigfoot 200 in August and won the Moab 240 in October. Her cumulative time of the Triple Crown races was tops among women and fourth overall.
Sarah Ostaszewski: In the weeks leading up publishing this, I invited my followers to make their recommendations. I knew who Ostaszewski is but admittedly she had not been on my list until she was nominated. And I agree with the person who floated her name, who wrote, “I’m nominating Sarah Ostaszewski for putting in the work over three years at Cocodona 250 to come back for the win and for the new course record at Ouray 100. So impressive to everyone who has been watching her grind these many years.” Agreed 100 percent. Taking first woman and fourth overall at Cocodona was especially impressive.
Pam Reed: Think you had a busy summer? Reed can top that. She completed an eyebrow-raising triple of sorts, finishing Western States, the Badwater 135 and Hardrock all within three weeks. It’s also worth noting that Reed is in her 60s. “I’m surprised I survived it,” she said after crossing the Hardrock finish line with 40 minutes left before the 48-hour cutoff. Reed, the 21st inductee in the American Ultra Running Hall of Fame, talked with me about her career soon after she completed her 100th 100-mile race.
Megan Roche: In some cases, you don’t actually have to run a race to be included on this list. Roche, the wife of my coach David (for full transparency), is a talented runner who has been beset by health concerns the past few years. But you would never know it from the joy she spreads on the Roches’ SWAP podcast, social media channels and elsewhere. It is so inspiring to see her focus on beauty, joy and good vibes while being a top coach and contributor in other ways to the ultra running community. Among the ways: applying her science knowledge and research to help women runners.
Katie Schide: What an incredible year of race achievements for the American living in France. Schide won the challenging Diagonale Des Fous, in the third-fastest women’s time in history (worth noting that the 170K course does change routes each year). Additionally, Schide ran the second-fastest time ever this year at Western States (behind Dauwalter’s record, of course) and also finished second at OCC. This film by The North Face follows her journey from her UTMB victory in 2022 to last year’s Western States runner-up finish.
Karen Sparks: A shoutout to the Adventure Jogger podcast for sharing Sparks’ incredible story. She had a loving husband, two amazing kids and a house in the suburbs. But Sparks realized her husband was not what he appeared to be. After she filed for divorce, her ex-husband murdered her kids and took his own life. The grief sent Sparks down a dark path of depression until she eventually discovered running, and used the miles to come to terms with everything that she lost.
Jennifer St. Amand: What an interesting life story, which includes going from being a potato farmer to joining the military after high school to completing Western States as the last Golden Hour finisher this year. The motivation she took from her drill sergeants not only led her to her own leadership role in the National Guard, it sent her on a journey where she won races, embraced the running community and inspired onlookers at the 2023 Western States. St. Amand crossed the line with 21 seconds to spare. “I immediately collapsed and was just sobbing,” she told me after the race. “Everybody was. I've never seen that. I couldn't believe how many people even cared.”
Van Phan: In August, “Pigtails” joined the club of ultra runners who have finished at least 100 100-mile races after winning the Hamster Endurance Runs 32-hour race. She is the 25th member of the 100x100 club. Her numbers are impressive — more than 400 completed ultras, including 18 with a distance of 200 miles or longer, and over 600 races of a marathon or longer. Of her 100 100-milers, she has won more than 20. Last year, we chatted after she finished her 400th ultra. Her secret to success? “I listen to my body, eat well and try to rest more than I used to as I age," she says in this interview with me.
Leah Yingling: Few athletes have the combination that Yingling possesses: elite running skills, the ability to offer depth as a commentator in the sport and a passion that inspires runners of all levels. After taking second at Way Too Cool this year, Yingling followed that up with top 10 finishes at Western States and UTMB. When not racing or offering commentary on a podcast or other media, Yingling has a demanding career as a biomedical engineer. For all this and more, she is a choice again this year for the most inspirational list.