Western States and the Female Pioneers of Ultrarunning

WS Top Ten
Photo with permission from iRunFar.

One might wonder how exciting watching a 100 mile race could be, but Western States Endurance Run proved itself once again to be the holy grail of ultra running this past weekend with spectacular and gut-wrenching performances by so many. This year’s women’s elite field was deeply stacked, with seven of last year’s top 10 returning, including champion and Olympian Magdalena Boulet, as well as 55-year old Meghan Arbogast, who accomplished her 10th finish under 24 hours, and 12 Golden Ticket winners including Devon Yanko, Amy Sproston, and Amanda Basham.

Before the race, it was impossible to confidently predict a winner because there were so many strong contenders, but in the end, it was Kaci Licktieg who took the lead from the start and ran a fantastic performance that earned her the fourth fastest time in race history. This inspired me to dig deeper into the history of women in ultrarunning: to find the beginning of the trail and the stories of who first forged it, the stories that lead this year’s hard core women to the finish line.

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Molly Knox high fives her son as she finishes Western States.

I spectated the Western States finish line for the first time this year, wanting to absorb as much of the energy and toughness of these runners as I could. Realizing that only 26% of entrants were women, I wondered why. Women make up 57% of all U.S. running event finishers, yet they make up only 35.5% of ultra finishers. While that number is steadily growing, it’s not growing as rapidly as I would expect, considering the growth rate of ultra events in general.

Current Western States record holder Ellie Greenwood speculates a couple reasons why this may be. Ultrarunning is a male-dominated sport, and women might feel uncomfortable joining the men. Also, the average age of an ultrarunner is early 40s, and many women at that age are raising children and may not have the long hours of time needed to train. Finally, she says women might not feel comfortable running solo for long miles at a time. Nevertheless, spectacular performances like Kaci’s make it clear that women are capable of running extreme distances with the same fortitude as men.

However, in 1978 only 1.5% of ultrarunners were women, so who were they? Who were the Katherine Switzers and Bobbi Gibbs of ultrarunning who blazed the trails for us? Through Internet digging, I found surprisingly little information about the female pioneers, and in fact, I found no information about Pat Smythe, the first woman to complete Western States in 1978, 12 years after Bobbi Gibb ran the Boston Marathon. When I contacted Western States and UltraRunning Magazine (a magazine that’s been around since 1981), neither of them could provide me with any information. How strange is it that a woman who literally forged new trails for women is merely a blip on the radar, with not a mention on the Internet beyond a single statistic?

This lack of recognition has prompted me to put together a short list of women who emerged as pioneer ultra runners, and who defined their careers as formidable competition for men in a sport once untouchable to women and still dominated by men today.

Oh Pioneers!

Marcy Schwam

After Smythe’s Western States finish in 1978, a handful of women emerged in 1979 to prove themselves. Among them was Marcy Schwam, who began her athletic career as a tennis player, and used running as a means to stay in shape. As an exercise physiology major in college in 1973, she ran the Boston Marathon alongside only 11 other women and became fascinated by endurance, quickly moving into the world of ultrarunning. At a time when there were no sponsors in the sport, Schwam was single, living in a shared apartment, and selling the Nikes that she won at races to pay for her groceries. In addition to a 100K world record (7:47:28, set in 1981) in which she finished 3rd overall, Schwam has three female-firsts to her name:

  • first woman to complete the 72-mile circumnavigation of Lake Tahoe (1978).
  • first woman to run a 100K under 8 hours.
  • first woman to run 50 miles in under 6 hours (1981).

Sue Ellen Trapp

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Photo courtesy of UltraRunning Magazine

Trapp started running in the late 1970s, after giving birth to her daughter and while attending dental school. As a full time dentist, she managed to train for her races by running 10 miles home from work every day. After running her first 100K in 1979 and finishing two minutes behind the American record, her career spanned more than 20 years, but she didn’t reach her peak until her 40s. By then, Trapp dominated the 24-hour race, setting seven national titles, often finishing among the top five men in the race. Her additional achievements include:

  • won 25 100K national titles and one world record (8:05:16).
  • set a 24-hour distance world record (123 miles, 593 yards).
  • reclaimed her 24-hour American record from Ann Trason in 1993 that remained unbroken until 2012 (145 miles, 503 yards).
  • set her last world record 17 years after her first in 1997 at age 51, winning the Surgeres 48-hour race in France, with a distance of 234 miles, 1425 yards, which stood as the American record until 2014.

Bjorg Austrheim-Smith

At age 40, Bjorg became the first woman to win Western States three times and is one of only three women to have set the record twice. While her running career is shorter than the others on this list, she stands out as a pioneer because she was one of the first women to take her running off the roadsand into the mountains (most of Schwam’s and Trapp’s ultras were road races as the only trail races at the time were Western States and Leadville). In a December 1982 interview with UltraRunning magazine, Bjorg describes encounters with bears, mountain lions and rattlesnakes at a time when few people were running distances of this magnitude on trails. Between the years of 1980-1990, she ran Western States 11 times (her course record time was 18:23:04), ran American River 50 eight times, and set course records for the Grand Canyon Double Traverse (11:39) and Skyline 50K (4:27:03).

Ann “Total Domination” Trason 

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Photo courtesy of wser.org

A list of ultra pioneers wouldn’t be complete without mention of Ann Trason, possibly the greatest American ultrarunner, male or female. Although her father introduced her to the track when she was a teenager, she took a break during college due to a knee injury and started cycling, but quickly grew bored. Just six weeks after reading about triathlete Sally Edward’s experiences running a 50 miler, she burst onto the ultra scene, winning the American River 50 (a race for which she currently holds the course record in 6:09:08). She claims to have declared the 50-miler a disaster and never wanted to run one again, but when a friend took her to run the first 30 miles of the Western States course, she fell in love with ultrarunning.

During her 19-year career between 1985 and 2004, she won Western States 14 times, twice beating all the men, set the women’s course record five times, and held the record for 18 years (17:37:51, set in 1994) until Ellie Greenwood broke it in 2012. As if that weren’t enough, Trason completed the “double” of winning Western States 100 just 12 days after winning the Comrades Marathon in 1996 and 1997. At age 56, she still holds nine course records (including Leadville 100), and currently owns the world’s best women’s 100 mile time of 13:47:41, and the American best 100K record of 7:00:48.

The Next Generation

So, who’s next? In addition to the women who ran Western States this past weekend, the list of ultra stars includes Ellie Greenwood, Anna Frost, Rory Bosio, Jenn Shelton, and goes on and on. The history of women in ultrarunning might be brief, but the groundbreaking performances of previous generations did more than just prove that women have the grit, strength and endurance to compete in the greatest of distances. These runners provide inspiration for the thousands of women who no longer feel like outcasts in a male-dominated sport, who don’t feel restricted by the expectations for their gender, and who wish to explore the vastness of the wilderness.

Inspired to sign up for an ultra now? 

A teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area who loves trail running, backpacking and cycling. Having grown up in the Sierra Nevada foothills, I secretly aspire to run Western States 100 someday. Realizing it might not be as crazy as it sounds (maybe it is), I am currently training for my next ultra.

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7 comments

  1. The longevity of their careers is amazing- Sue Ellen Trapp setting world records 17 years apart? Now that’s impressive!

  2. Camille Herron has 2 world titles to her name-50k& 100k on the roads….She’s part of that next generation.

  3. Great post! Ann Transon was the only one I’d heard of. Right now, ultra racing doesn’t fit into my life because of the childcare responsibilities alluded to in the article (too much time to train, especially the long runs, access to trails), but I hope it’s something I’ll be able to fit into my life a decade from now when I have a bit more flexibility.

    1. What amazes me about all these women is that they were all older than I’d have expected for competitive runners. It inspires me that I have much to look forward to.

  4. OK… totally inspired (and I am a self-described trail-atheist!). Can’t wait to pace my friend through the last third of her 100-miler this September!! Great post!

  5. We lived near Auburn for many years, volunteered at Western States several times (including when Ellie Greenwood and Kilion Jornet won), have friends (mothers) who’ve run this race, and have been SO inspired by the grit, fortitude, and talent of the women runners, both the pioneers and the current talented women, of these backcountry races. The time commitment is huge, the conditions can be outrageous (think deep snow, then triple digit heat, confronting bears in pitch black nights, losing the trail), the “magic” of the day ephemeral and unpredictable. But all that also adds to the allure, no? Personally I’d like to start trail running on a smaller scale but so admire those who tackle the 100 mile distance!