Why do fewer women than men do ultras?

Paul Halford suggests tougher cut-off times for senior men in long-distance events would make things fairer

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A recent blog by Trail Running contributor Lizzie Rosewell surveyed more than 1200 women to endeavour to find out why fewer women than men take part in ultra races. 

To elaborate on the stats behind the gender divide I investigated further. A study published in the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health recently performed a “physiology and pathophysiology” review of ultra running and found the typical participant to be male and aged around 45. Female runners, it noted, accounted for only around 20% of the number of participants.

However, anecdotal and statistical evidence shows women normally make up at least 50%, sometimes a lot more, of the field in races of 5km and 10km.

A 2016 report by parkrun and Women In Sport found 43% of the field in the weekly 5k events were women. In fact, this is a surprisingly small percentage and perhaps it has risen since. I did some calculations on random races - mainly trail events - and found the following percentage of women competing: Gravel Hill 5 (61%), Cardiff 10k (52%), East Leeds 10km (49%), Castle Eden 5km (62%), Solstice Saunter (68%). Yet, and perhaps backing up the American paper, only 30% of last month’s Lakeland 50 field were women.

We know it’s not a question of ability. When it comes to running ultra, women are at least as well equipped as men, except on average a little slower. That said, the difference in speed narrows the longer the distance, which makes it all the more surprising that fewer women take part.

Perhaps the biggest reason some women don’t want to run ultras could be lack of time, according to the responses to Lizzie’s survey.

Also, it could be that some are put off by the mid-race and finishing cut-off times that organisers put in place to ensure volunteers aren’t on course too long. A radical suggestion: but perhaps organisers should have different cut-off times based on gender and age group. This would probably mean tougher cut-offs for senior men and younger veteran men, but at least it wouldn’t be hindering women’s participation in ultra.

We’ve seen so many examples of amazing exploits by female ultra runners - but we’d all like to see more of them.

Lizzie Rosewell is now looking for men to complete a similar survey on ultra running. Click here to take part.