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Women who run, and women who RUN

February 19, 2010

I am a woman. I am a runner. I have always thought that men, because their bodies are anatomically bigger, are physically stronger than woman when it comes to competing in races (in general; though this does not apply to everyone). In my own personal experience, men have always out-run me in running races.

I have a love-hate relationship with running. While I dabbled in some cross-country running in lower and middle schools, high school was when I really fell in love (or hate) with it. I joined the cross-country team in high school because my school needed a fourth girl on the team in order to qualify in races. I was never any good at running, and usually came in last place out of all of my team mates.

While being on the cross-country team, I learned endurance and strength. I also learned that while it is a experience-by-yourself kind-of sport, I never felt lonely. Especially when you’re running outside, it’s about connecting with your surroundings: whether you’re running along Lake Michigan or on the streets of New York (ouch! for your feet).

I began to love it and hate it even more when I trained last summer for a half marathon. Afterwards, I wanted to know why running hurt my body so much. A friend had recommended that I read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, where the author explores the very question, “Why does my foot hurt from running?” McDougall tells of his adventures to seek out the Tarahumara, a group of people from Mexico who are secretly skilled ultra-athletes. They run hundreds of miles in a week. Wow, I thought to myself while reading this book, I wish I could do that.

So. Going back to the men-are-generally-physically-stronger point: What really surprised me were the women ultra-runners mentioned in this book. McDougall points out one in particular, Ann Trason. Sarah Lavender Smith, who has a runner’s blog, described Trason as “no less than the Joan Benoit of the ultra-distance world, redefining what female runners could do and inspiring a new generation.” Trason started her ultramarathon career at the age of 24 in 1985, winning several races. As she’s grown older, she’s had many injuries and has had to cut back her 100 miles-a-week routine (geesh!).

Trason was illustrated in McDougall’s book as a fierce, small woman who competed in the Leadville Trail 100 in the 1990s against the infamous Tarahumara men. It was during that chapter depicting the race where the author mentions that women are more likely then men to finish ultramarathons. This doesn’t mean that women are necessarily faster than men. But why do they have more endurance compared to men in ultralong-distance races? My first theory was that women have a higher threshold for pain because our bodies were built for childbirth. One article pointed out that women burn fatty acids better than men do. Estrogen may also be an answer, too.

Either way, it’s a pretty fascinating observation to make about women and ultra-running. The more and more I learn about running, the more intrigued I am, despite all of the pain it gives me. I also admire women and men who have the strength to compete in these ultramarathons, because I could barely complete that half marathon last summer. Goal for this summer: complete a triathlon—less difficult on the feet, and more engagement of the arms.

Below are some interesting articles about women and ultrarunning:

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