Women in Endurance Sports (Part One)

In the last week alone, we saw 62-year-old U.S. endurance swimmer Diana Nyad stick it out for more than 30 hours after she was stung and partially paralyzed by deadly jellyfish  (turns out they were more of a problem than the curious whitetip sharks), and the formidable English runner Lizzy Hawker bust out in a 24-hour run that smashed an 18-year-old world record. This just four weeks after she snagged an unprecedented fourth win at the women’s Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc.

No question: if we’re talking endurance, women can hold their own with men, even kick our butts sometimes.

Skydiver with Stars and Stripes drops over the Air Force Marathon's post-race party.

Recently, someone wrote to ask me if I thought a woman could break the world record for fastest crossing of the United States on foot. (I do think it’s possible, but I wonder if anyone else will attempt it. It’s pretty much a no-glory, costly undertaking, so I’m curious to see if there will be any word-class athlete who will make another attempt. You know that if someone does, I’ll be cheering ’em on, man or woman.) I’d just returned from the exceptional Air Force Marathon in Dayton, Ohio, where the organizers are women and, I have to say, outdid many of the other race organizers around the country. As both a presenter and a runner, I couldn’t find fault with a thing, and I felt as if they’d anticipated everything we could need.

So I asked, on Facebook and Twitter: In endurance sports,

Which Women Do You Think Kick Serious Butt?

The roll call of elite athletes wouldn’t surprise you, I don’t think: women’s marathon world-record holder Paula Radcliffe, ultrarunning legend Ann Trason,  long distance champion Kara Goucher, newly crowned (for men or women) 24-hour world record holder Lizzy Hawker, and so on. I was pleased to see that Dr. Lisa Bliss was mentioned a number of times, and want to congratulate her here again, publicly, on being the first woman and second person ever to cross Death Valley unsupported and completely self-contained.

A few astute individuals also mentioned my wife, Heather. I’m not being cute, here. There are so many women who play a crucial role in endurance sports who don’t actually log the miles. They are seriously admirable. The women who crew (I’ve always said they do it better than men — sorry, guys), who organize events, who serve as medical personnel under crazy conditions, who coach and guide athletes.

My own mental coach is a woman so private she doesn’t even want to be named. She is an unacknowledged giant, an advocate of the athleticism and purity of the sport, and my ultrarunning muse. In Running on Empty, I wrote about how she helped me condition my mind for the transcon,  how she did a kind of desirable brainwashing with me to get me ready for the contest. Invaluable. Completely irreplaceable stuff.

The truth is that women are all over endurance these days. About 30 years ago, Kathrine Switzer was the first woman ever to officially enter and run in Boston, the world’s oldest annual marathon. Since then, the numbers of women running every endurance event, from 10K on up, has been steadily increasing. Almost 60% of runners at half-marathons today are women.

One of my favorite posts was from someone who observed, “While the top runners are easy to admire, the ones that train the hard miles day after day without the incentive of sponsorship or a hands on coach to keep them motivated are just as kick-butt awesome as the elite.”

In a future post, I’m going to continue on this topic, as I’ve only barely touched it. For today, though, I’ll stop on that. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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5 Responses to Women in Endurance Sports (Part One)

  1. David Hart says:

    I stumbled across your posting, I’m the skydiver in your picture. I actually ran the half after the jump. There is a story behind these flags you might enjoy, we jumped them on 9/11/08 over Ground Zero. Go to Norman Kent’s website, he took all the stills and video from the jump http://www.normankent.com/nkp/2008/09/16/september-11th-memorial-in-new-york/
    Blue Skies!
    David

  2. Women of today’s world are very competitive compared before. We can see a lot of women who are successful without the help of men.
    Stephanie Mario´s last blog post ..How To Get Going Quickly In The Morning

  3. coopertx says:

    Hi Marshall,
    Thanks for this informative post. Yup-there was a time when people believed that women couldn’t participate in these sort of sports, but things are changing now …

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