Fit Femininity

Exploring the intersection of culture, gender, and exercise.

Why Do Women Run Ultramarathons?

Pushing the Physical and Mental Limits in Endurance Running

In my previous blog I discussed how I rediscovered running when I started to use Nike Free shoes. These alleviated my knee pain and also allowed me to think of my running, not as compulsory drudgery, but as a 'technical' event which made it more interesting to me. This is not, of course, the case for all women: not everyone gets excited about 'technique,' neither does simply changing shoes make everyone love running. I see many women running grimmacing with pain and exhaustion when they drag their feet to move slowly forward. Others tell me how much they hate running, or that running is not just 'their thing.' On the other hand, I have several friends who run marathons and even ultramarathons and absolutely love it. I never had a desire to run for such distances, but I am constantly curious as to why anyone would enjoy these types of endurance challenges.

As I mentioned previously, anthropologist Niobe Thompson, in his TV documentary, ‘The Perfect Runner’ asserts that ‘human beings are nature's perfect endurance-running animals.’ Based on evolutionary biology, he argues that it is natural for all humans to run long distances, we just have to find the endurance animal within ourselves. His documentary, however, focused almost entirely on men's running. While his argument regarding the naturalness of endurance running is still being contested, there is also some psychological and social-cultural research on why some women and men participate in endurance events such as the Ironman triathlon and marathon.

Laura Chase (2008) noted that in the United States, marathons became highly popularized and consequently, commercialized during the 1970s and 1980s when also 'fitness oriented' participants, in addition to elite competitors, became interested in long distance running. She further explained that marathons have now become geared towards any participant interested in improving their physical condition. Andrea Abbas (2004) added that marathon running is mainly a middle class activity because it values self-empowerment and nonaggressive bodily toughness. Some psychological studies provide motivational techniques for participation, other researchers focus on accounts of pain, injury, and suffering during an endurance event. Maylon Hanlon (2010) found that pain and injury occupy a prominent place in distance runners’understandings of themselves. Running is typically constructed as demanding, arduous, and injury prevalent and runners expect pain to be a normal part of their experience. For example, William Bridel and Genevieve Rail (2007) noted that self-identification as a 'runner' included adherence to rigorous training of which pain and injury were frequent and expected aspects.

No doubt these are all part of the embodied endurance event experiences of the participants, but such results paint a picture of distance running as a tortuous activity during which the participants get used to being in pain. Although there must be some enjoyable aspects of endurance running, few researchers focus on these. I want to highlight particularly women's experiences of endurance running to find out if running long distances is all about enduring pain and if it is, why do women voluntary engage in a painful and injury prone activity. As an example, I use Hanlon's study in which she interviewed exclusively women ultramarathon runners.

Ultramarathon (any distance longer than a marathon, but the most common distances are 50k, 50 miles, 100k, and 100 miles) is an interesting event for women in several accounts. Hanlon observed that while not equaling the participation rates for marathons, women's participation rates in ultramarathon have increased sixfold since the 1980s. In addition, women excel in ultramarathon running: the overall winner of a race where participants are men and women can be a woman. One of Hanlon's participants remarked: “all of the top men have been beaten by all of the top women at some point in their racing careers”. This does not happen in marathon running. Ultramarathons also differ from marathons in that they typically take place on unpaved roads or trails through forests and up and over mountain passes. To better understand why women are attracted to ultramarathons, Hanlon interviewed 8 very successful elite ultra runner women from the United States who consistently placed top five in nationally recognized races during 3 years.

These women came to ultrarunning through different backgrounds: while some where previous elite athletes (for example, in triathlon), some began their sporting career with ultramarathon. Different things attracted them to participate, but they also indicated that the prominent ultramarathon attitude centers around breaking down one's own barriers. One of the participants defined the meaning of participation as "seeing one's limitlessness" and the extraordinary things that can happen when one manages to break through the barrier of one's bodily ability during an endurance event. Following this sentiment, these extremely successful ultramarathoners did not value winning a race or obtaining a fast time, but finishing the race. The most feared thing was having the letters DNF (did not finish) printed after one's name in the results list of an event. Despite the prominent attitude that down played winning and valued participation, some of these runners did find successful placing in the results lists an increasing important aspects of their enjoyment in ultramarathon. For example, one participant defined success as “winning races and setting course records, but it’s also really a sense of pushing myself beyond my preconceived limits.” These runners found pushing the limits and finishing extreme running races empowering – a sense of achievement that made them feel good about themselves.

Pain was, nevertheless, a prominent aspect of ultra running. It was also something that needed to be overcome. One runner felt that “to become a better ultrarunner, you’ve got to be in discomfort. . . but that’s good. Discomfort is not going to hurt me.” Hanlon found that the women, nevertheless, described different levels of pain. Quite typically for runners, they distinguished between good and bad pain. The difference between them was negotiated based on how the pain affected their performance: Good pain was felt to be part of running a race, pain that allowed the participant to continue running. Bad pain resulted in injury which meant not finishing the race. The third level of pain was related to negotiating painful moments during the race in terms of enduring pain to get 'second, third, or fourth winds' during which one shifts from feeling very bad to feeling good. Hanlon noted the patient attitude that the women ultrarunners had to their feelings of discomfort. One asserted that it is “a matter of surviving those lows and knowing they would pass.” Another told herself during painful moments, “It’s no big deal, you always live. You always come back from it, so don’t worry about it.” A third revealed that she tried to be conscious, but "free with it [transitions] rather than fighting it—not being caught up in one specific moment.”

While pushing one's limits by enduring pain was an important aspect of running, these participants also referred to the ideal, thin feminine body often associated with long distance running. This is the type of body often seen on such magazine covers as Runner's World. For example, one of the runners suspected that “a lot of people get into ultra because they think it’s going to give them a certain body". Another refers to the marathon runners' body type observing that "marathoners, road marathoners, when they are winning . . . the top people all look the same, either tall and very thin. Ultra runners could be thought of having a similar type of body. Surprisingly, these runners did not find that there was a perfect ultramarathon body shape. They asserted, instead, that one cannot judge a successful ultrarunner based on her looks: they came in all body sizes from 'overweight' to thin and everything in between. This diversity made the participants feel good about current shape of their running bodies. For example, one participant explained: “my body type is more muscular and a little bit heavier than other runners. But it’s who I am. I’m not going to change that." Hanlon found that these successful ultramarathoners consciously created "their bodies according to 'what works' rather than on the 'lean and muscular' shape of the normative running body" (p. 179).

It is evident that running extremely long distances provided the women runners a sense of empowerment as they pushed their physical limits. It is also interesting that in our often sedentary society an engagement in physical activity is considered a way of pushing one's limits in favor of other demanding (such as mental) tasks. As physical inactivity has become more common place, we have perhaps started to value some physical prowess, such as extreme endurance running, more highly. Endurance feats of Ironman, marathon, and ultramarathon are, nevertheless, a part of most participants' leisure time. Few women earn a living as professional endurance athletes. The recreational participants, nevertheless, have a need to push their physical limits and while it might be painful, gain a sense of achievement that cannot be obtained elsewhere in their lives.

Pushing one's physical limits and the pain barrier need not, however, be everyone's goals. We exercise for several reasons and it is usually safer to avoid pain. In addition, our physical limits are different: it might be a major achievement for someone to walk for 30 minutes while for another, running for 5k is a huge accomplishment. We have plenty of choices regarding types of activity and we definitely enjoy very different forms of exercise for different reasons. It is, however, interesting that extreme physical endurance events have become more popular during our times when, on the other hand, many women remain entirely physically inactive.

Works cited:

Abbas, A. (2004). The embodiment of class, gender and age through leisure: A realist analysis of long distance running. Leisure Studies, 23(2), 159–175.

Bridel, W., & Rail, G. (2007). Sport, sexuality, and the production of (resistant) bodies: De/re-constructing the meanings of gay male marathon corporeality.Sociology of Sport Journal, 24, 127–144.

Chase, L. F. (2008). Running big: Clydesdale runners and technologies of the bodies. Sociology of Sport Journal, 25(1), 130–147.

Hanlon, M. T. (2010). Beyond the marathon: (De)Construction of female ultrarunning bodies. Sociology of Sport Journal, 27, 160-177


Pirkko Markula, Ph.D.,
is a professor of socio-cultural studies of physical activity at the University of Alberta, Canada.

more...

Subscribe to Fit Femininity

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.