For 34-year-old nurse, Erin, getting up at 4am is just one of the many sacrifices she has to make to fit workouts around her family and, well, work. But the awkwardness of slipping on fitness gear in the dark and sneaking out of the house without waking anyone is nothing compared to the discomfort she will experience when it comes to race day. The mother-of-one is training for this year’s Ultra-Trail Australia in the Blue Mountains; a gruelling 100km trail run up and down valleys, cliffs and across
gum tree-lined mountain tops.
“I love the idea of testing myself, and my resilience and also being a part of a race like that,” she explains. “It’s so different to anything else I’ve done before but I’ve been training throughout lockdown and it’s been a motivating goal for me to have.”
The Melbournian is part of a growing breed of female athletes who are drawn to ultra-challenges around Australia and overseas. Whether it’s a 100km trail run, swimming for 40 hours (yes, 40), cycling for 160km or a combination of all three disciplines, ultra-races are quietly gaining in popularity.
In fact, participants in ultra-running races have grown by 345% in the last ten years, and according to a 2020 study by RunRepeat, females entering ultra-running races has doubled in the last two decades.
“Over the last few years, I’ve seen a lot of mum’s and everyday women wanting to get out on the trails more. And I think that’s a huge thing; to create space for yourself to do something that’s really for you, that takes bravery,” explains professional endurance athlete, Sam Gash. “And it has a roll-on effect. If you see people do it, especially if they’re not elite athletes, they’re just everyday women, that makes ultra-racing feel more accessible.”
Gash points out that even 10 years ago there were very limited resources online about how to optimise your gear and your nutrition if you were a woman.
“Especially if you were a female who was a vegetarian or if you were particularly small. Even all the measurements of electrolyte requirements were skewed to males in their 40s,” she remembers. “Now there’s more women doing ultras and more support; I think that creates this excitement and belief that anyone really can do this.”
Shona Stephenson, former ultra-athlete, ultra-running coach and Brisbane Ultra Trail director, agrees.
“The female body is just as capable as a male body when it comes to performance in ultra-races. And in fact, females are even starting to perform a little better in some cases,” she says.
And she’s not wrong. Over the past few years a slew of female athletes has taken out the top position in ultra-races around the world. In 2019, for example, British athlete Jasmin Paris became the first woman to win the arduous 431km Montane Spine Race in the UK. She did so by smashing the race record by 12 hours and still making time to express breast milk for her 14-month old baby, Rowan.
Then in May the same year, British runner Katie Wright won the Riverhead Backyard ReLaps Ultra-marathon in New Zealand, running just over 200km and completing an impressive 30 course laps. In August, German cyclist Fiona Kolbinger cycled for 10 brutal days, across nearly 4000km to win the Transcontinental Race across Europe. She finished a full 10 hours ahead of her closest opponent. Even during the pandemic in 2020, Australian ultra-swimmer Chloe McCardel managed to beat the men’s record for most swims across the English Channel.
“Women are actually more adapted for ultra-racing than what they think and believe,” explains Stephenson. “Physically, we’re better fat-burners than men, we have 10 per cent more body fat. And we also tend to deal with heat (and possibly pain) better. Plus, biomechanically, we naturally have more strength in our legs, not in our upper body like men.”
But Stephenson believes it’s more than just our physicality that helps propel women across the line. She says women are more strategic before and during the race.
“Women don’t tend to run on ‘guts alone’ like men. They seem to be more strategic and they use their brain power as well as their strength and natural ability,” she adds. “Perhaps women are used to having to think outside the box a little bit more, we know that we’re not necessarily the strongest or the fastest, and because of that fact, we tend to be the smartest when it comes to racing these events.”
And while that may be the case for professional athletes, for Melbourne mum, Erin, it’s not the finish line placement or even her time that motivates her, it’s testing her own strength and ability.
“I’m loving the process of getting stronger, fitter and giving myself this huge challenge,” she says. “It’s something I’m doing just for me. And I’m loving it – blisters and all!”
Meet the Ultra Athletes
Chloe McCardel Ultra Swimmer
Melbourne-born Chloe McCardel, 35, is a machine. Not only does she hold the world record for the longest swim ever recorded (a whopping 124.4 kilometers in 41 hours, 21 minutes) but she also broke the men’s record for most swims across the English Channel by swimming her 34th crossing last year.
What first attracted you to ultra-swimming as a sport?
“I have a background as a competitive swimmer as a teenager, but I really wasn’t that good! I was nowhere near Olympic qualifying standard, but I had this strong yearning inside me to be the best in the world. I did my first marathon swim when I was 21, and I just had this feeling, this innate connection to the sport.”
So, what are you in training for, and focused on, now?
“I’m training up to break the world record for most crossings of the English Channel [32km] by anyone. The current world record is 43 swims and that’s held by an English lady, Alison Streeter. I’m at 37 English Channel swims, and I’m in in the middle of planning my trip to the UK this year again. Last year I swam it six times.”
What’s the biggest challenge with swimming the Channel?
“The weather and timing with other swimmers and the availability of spots… It’s just a hard thing to lock down. It’s also an expensive exercise; you can’t get away with it costing less than $20,000 if you’re doing it as a one-off activity. And there’s the rise of hypothermia, and of course you’re swimming through cargo ships and tankers, so it can be dangerous!”
Beginners Guide to Ultra Swimming with Chloe
Join an open water swimming group: It’s always safer to swim with other people and you really need to get used to swimming in different conditions.
Find a swim mentor: Look for someone who really understands the journey that you’re going on, what you want to achieve and someone who believes in your capability and who knows what skills you need to get to the next step.
Focus on your next race: Always try to work with those around you to achieve the next level.
Sam Gash Ultra Runner
Mother-of-one, Sam Gash, 36, made history by becoming the first woman and the youngest person to finish the gruelling 4 Deserts Grand Slam, running four 250km marathons in Chile, China, the Sahara and Antarctica. Since then she has completed (and won) some of the world’s most challenging ultras and has raised over $1.3 million for charity.
What’s the secret ingredient for finishing an ultra?
“I think people who can have realistic optimism, who know how to balance naivety and ego, who know how to think of the many options at their disposal before quitting. Those are the types of people that can do really well in this sport. And I’ve seen a lot of women demonstrate those kinds of attributes, but I wouldn’t say that it’s an exclusively female thing.”
What’s the biggest trend in your sport at the moment?
“It’s moving away from your typical ultra-racing, now I’m seeing female adventurers creating their own trips. These days, since becoming a mum, I’m very much more into the ‘create-your-own-expedition’ adventures, with a group of friends. It’s more enjoyable that way.”
Have you noticed more women signing up for ultra races?
“Yes! When I first started ultra-running seriously about 11 years ago, I was racing internationally, and we were lucky to be getting 20 per cent of the field made up of females. Now, there’s so many more women doing it, there’s more articles, even movies about females in ultra-racing.”
Beginner’s Guide to Ultra Running with Sam
Build your fitness gradually: Find a program that takes you to a half marathon, and then a marathon, and then go to an ultra-marathon. Gradual build-up actually trains you to be in the outdoors for a long time.
Look for good people to train alongside: Your training crowd can make the experience pleasurable, especially when you train for ultras, as there’s a lot of time on the trails. It’s nice to share that with like-minded people.
Don’t take it too seriously: Always remember, this is just running. We’re usually pretty hard on ourselves, but this is an opportunity for you to be the inner child and just play.
Sabine Bird Ultra Cyclist
When Alzheimer’s disease researcher, Dr Sabine Bird, 38, isn’t in a lab coat she’s cycling up to 600km a day in ultra-cycling races. Her first race was a hectic solo ride in the 24-hour Delirium race in Western Australia, and last year she qualified for Race Across America – an epic 4800km race from coast to coast.
What are your training and event goals for this year?
“I’ve been trying to live in that ultra-endurance world for a while now, I took a little break last year though but I’m hoping all the events will be back up and running soon. I have a few goals on my radar; I really want to have a good shot at a decent 24-hour racing time and maybe hit a world record. And I definitely want to go back and try to do Race Across America again. I had to abort the race halfway through in 2019. So, I still have unfinished business.”
Do you think ultra-cycling is becoming more popular?
“Yes, more and more people are now getting into this sport, and one of the reasons might be that in order to be good at it, it pays to be a little bit older. Whereas with other sports you usually peak in your late twenties, but with ultra-endurance cycling a lot of people peak in their mid-forties. And females tend to be at least on par with men in terms of performance. In any other sport, there’s always an obvious male dominance, but in ultra-endurance sports, that’s not a given any more.”
Have you noticed more females in ultra-cycling?
“There’s certainly still more guys at this stage, but there are more females who are interested in the sport. The problem is it’s a time-consuming sport, and by default, I think guys have a little bit more time, whereas women are perhaps tied up with family life and lifestyle. But in general, more and more females are coming through the ranks. And they’re starting off with high intensity cycling so they’re already really fit. For them, it’s just a matter of enduring the pain, staying in there and holding on for longer.”