The heroine of my childhood was an obstinate literary beauty: Elizabeth Bennet, the quick-witted, brash protagonist of Pride and Prejudice.
In fact, most of my idols as a girl were buried in Austen, Brontë, or Montgomery novels from the early eighteenth and nineteenth century. Perhaps not the most relevant example of feminism, but certain principles are timeless and some lessons are learned through an example of what not to do.
Leaving the gym sweaty, I was considering whether I should go for a run (I am officially in taper for the races I’ve been training for all year), and I heard the voice of Elizabeth’s competitor and jealous rival, Miss Bingley, float through my head:
“To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ankles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! what could she mean by it? It seems to me to show an abominable sort of conceited independence.”
I am 16 days away from stepping up to a race series fewer than 10 women have ever completed.
Fewer than 50 people have finished it total.
Most would say that racing the Triple Crown of 200s (three race events, each 200-240 miles, each three weeks apart) shows an inspiring amount of humble independence. I would not have registered, trained, budgeted, asked friends to crew, bought so many pairs of socks, or eaten this much freaking kale, if I did not fundamentally believe I could cross those finish lines.
But what could I mean by it? Why do it?
Maybe Bobbi Gibb, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, says it best: “I was running against the distance and I was measuring myself with my own potential.” I am attempting these distances to explore the perimeter of my capacity for endurance.
There is no feeling on earth like watching the third pink sunrise peak up behind a mountain. Sometimes a fourth. There is probably sand behind my eyeballs and my hands are swollen and clinging to hand warmers and poles, my feet may be ragged and my stomach sunken (or bloated), but I want to see what the distance hooks out of my character and reels to the surface.
Ultrarunning is hard. Half a million Americans finish a marathon each year; barely 7,000 run a 100 miler. That’s a far cry from even 1%. It is often painful and unglamorous, no one gives a crap about you when you’re twelve miles halfway up a mountain at midnight alone with your paranoia and the bobcats. The drive for relentless forward progress is a spring within, not a cup handed to you.
One word that rings true, whether it is two miles or two hundred: independence. If you have ever wanted to measure your aptitude for self-reliance, take up ultra running. Although I am unbelievably fortunate in my friends – the most genuine people who are willing to road trip and crew thousands of miles with me – there will be times I am alone (quite alone!). There always is during an ultra. There will be in life, too.
Those times present themselves deep into the terrain or when darkness settles, when you are too far out to turn back, autonomously fighting your own enemies. I use that word specifically; according to the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant, autonomy means fulfilling a moral duty rather than acting on present desires. Maybe ultras are about fulfilling a spiritual duty despite present desires.
The times no one is watching us are the moments that prove who we are. In those moments you must finally face that pesky question why. I have answered it before, and I will answer it again. Many times over. Again and again we hold up the ruler to measure our own potential, each of us, and double or triple-digit mileage is a lengthy ruler.
The first race of the series, Bigfoot 200, is 206.5 miles through the Cascade Mountain range. I will climb 42,500′ and descend 43,000′ (the more you run, the more you will realize the descents are worse than the ascents). I have 15 aid stations to check off. I will sleep very, very little in three days. I plan to finish well under 100 hours. I will hallucinate. I will burn tens of thousands of calories (even though I will eat constantly). I will run through the day and the night and the day and the night and the day. I will take several hundred thousand steps. I will.
Running is individual, but there is a collective movement as well that I feel I am part of. Only 50ish years ago, women weren’t allowed to run marathons, and today more women finish races than men. 200s are not normalized in the ultra community quite yet, but the wave is breaking and new ones crop up every year. It is a special time to be a female athlete, when strong is the new skinny and women are welcomed to step up to the front row.
“She has nothing, in short, to recommend her, but being an excellent walker. I shall never forget her appearance this morning. She really looked almost wild.”
Pride and Prejudice
A Slapdash Timeline of Momentous Events in Women’s Running
1897 – The first Boston Marathon
1898 – The German Journal of Physical Education publishes that “violent movements of the body can cause a shift in the position and a loosening of the uterus as well as prolapse and bleeding, with resulting sterility, thus defeating a woman’s true purpose in life, i.e., the bringing forth of strong children,” which perpetuated a myth for the next 100+ years.
1961 – The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) bans women from competing officially in all U.S. road races. WHAT the hell.
1966 – The first woman, Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb’s application to run Boston was rejected with a letter stating that women are “not physiologically able to run a marathon” and they would not accept the liability of a female athlete. She bandited the race in her brother’s shorts anyway and finished in the top third (3:21). Her finish is recognized by the Boston Athletic Association today.
1972 – Title IX passes, which insists both women and men must be provided equitable opportunities to participate in organized sports and obtain athletic scholarships.
1972 – The AAU allows women to register for marathons, but insists they are required to start at a separate time or starting line than men. Separate and unequal?
1972 – At the New York City Marathon, women refuse to subscribe to this “special” start, and sit down for 10 minutes at the starting line until the men’s gun goes off. They start with the men.
1977 – Sports bras are invented. Finally.
1978 – Nike invents the first women’s running shoe.
1984 – The first female Olympic marathon is held in Los Angeles (U.S. wins the gold).
1989 – Ann Trason wins Western States 100 for the first time (she went on to win it thirteen more times)
1996 – The Boston Marathon starts giving top females awards in the female division.
1996 – “Girls on the Run” is founded; today over 130,000 girls participate annually.
2002 – Pam Reed wins Badwater 135
2010 – 200 mile races enter the ultra scene; the first popular 200 miler was Tor de Géants (Italy).
2015 – The first Triple Crown of 200s series is held by Destination Trail.
2018 – Solomon designs its first vest for women. Seriously Solomon? In their own words, it is the “first truly specific design for women.”
2018 – For the first time in history, there are more female than male runners. 50.24% of race finishers were female globally.