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Beating The Boys

This is an opinion piece. 

Any ultra-runner, upon sharing their love of long-distance running with a friend, has gotten the response, “Have you heard of Courtney Dauwalter?”

It’s hard to overstate Dauwalter’s contribution to the sport. Her performances have pushed the envelope at a variety of distances and across different terrain. She’s fast. She’s good in the mountains. She’s a great human. And at races over 100 miles, she’s almost unstoppable by anyone on Earth, regardless of gender. Dauwalter has racked up a first overall finish at the Moab 240 in 2017, and second overall finish at the Tahoe 200 in 2018.

But we need to be honest about what we’re saying when we constantly bring up what it means to outrun the boys (like I have, for this very magazine). I’ve made the mistake while reporting Maggie Guterl’s win at Big’s Backyard Ultra, where she and Dauwalter have both claimed victory. Headlines like this one from the New York Times imply that to gain mainstream attention outside of the sport, women must be better than men. That standard implicitly devalues the achievements of women, as badass women whose performances stand on their own. As Dr. Stacey Sims says, “women are not small men.” Similarly, we shouldn’t wait to pay attention until a woman’s performance makes all the men feel small.

Changing The Frame

In 2021, Ruth Croft won the Tarawera 102k. It was a monumental achievement. And oh yeah, she beat all the men. Afterward, she wrote on Instagram that she couldn’t help feeling disappointed in how others saw her race, and why it was getting so much attention.

“I can’t help but wonder if my performance of winning in my field and breaking the race’s course record would have generated so much attention, had any man ran faster than me on the day? Sadly, probably not.”

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A post shared by Ruth Croft (@ruthcrofty)

Croft’s race, like Dauwalter’s, like Stephanie Howe’s at the Bandera 100k in 2017, like many other women who have crossed the finish line before the men—all are totally badass. But they would be just as badass if a man happened to be a few steps ahead. We can celebrate women without checking to see the men’s standings as validation.

It’s a trap I fall into in my own reporting, and it’s definitely not done out of malice in any of the articles I have seen. But it can still reinforce a perception that the default for the women’s category is as “small men” rather than “badass bosses.”

Let’s be clear. There are physiological reasons that men and women compete in different categories according with their self-identified gender, and I’m not disputing the importance of those categories. What I’m disputing is that we habitually frame one category (women) as less worthy of attention, or only worthy of attention in the context of male competition. Women’s sports are undercovered, and this type of coverage is a symptom of the problem that risks buttressing continued undercoverage, rather than a cure that shows women’s sports are in the headlines.

To be great shouldn’t mean achieving feats that transcend gender categories. It can bolster the false sense that male is the default, or that female athletes should always aspire to the qualities of male athletes. Almost every female athlete has had the experience of being called “good for a girl.” Professionally, personally and especially athletically – women are constantly measured against men in ways that aren’t helpful.

Professionally, personally and especially athletically – women are constantly measured against men in ways that aren’t helpful.

To truly celebrate women’s accomplishments in sport, we should focus less on using men’s accomplishments as a major framework for making headlines. We might struggle to properly contextualize women’s achievements in sports partly because participation is still relatively new (Title IX was only passed in 1972), and because there are fewer women participating in ultra-endurance events. Whatever the cause, the goal is to move to a place where there are more women in the sport and no woman feels like she has to beat men to be worthy of celebration.

Flipping The Script

I’m hoping that by examining how we tell stories about women’s unquestionably amazing accomplishments in ultrarunning, we can invite more women into the sport. It’s not about lowering the bar, but examining who put the bar there in the first place. This feeling is so deeply internalized that I consistently struggle with it in my own training and competition. Am I even good if I can’t beat my male partner? Training partner? Why does “first female” still, on some level, feel like a consolation prize?

The goal of competition amongst women is not to acquiesce to the standards established by men, but to re-write them altogether. The objective isn’t to have more competitors fighting over increasingly small pieces of the pie. It’s to grow the pie and invite more people in. Or, to question the pie altogether when what we really wanted was our own cake.

The goal of competition amongst women is not to acquiesce to the standards established by men, but to re-write them altogether.

Why is it so important to beat the boys? Because in this world, and certainly in this industry men are brokers of power. The media skews male, and their coverage does too. So too does their context when they attempt to cover women’s sports.  For so long, capturing the attention of the world has meant setting our sights on standards that weren’t created with us in mind, and were never meant to celebrate our distinct abilities. But, that’s changing. We’re learning to talk about women in a way that doesn’t say they’re “good enough” but that they’re really freaking good.

It’s not wrong to celebrate any one woman for her excellence. It’s wrong to perpetuate a culture that primarily celebrates women’s accomplishments in relationship to men’s, rather than as excellent in their own right.

Courtney Dauwaler would be excellent if she never beat a man again, or if gender categories stopped existing altogether. Ruth Croft too. They are excellent because of who they are, badass athletes who happen to be women. If anything, their extraordinary ability should push us to rewrite our expectations of what it means to excel as an athlete, and how we tell those stories.

Women’s excellence does not need men’s times for context. Women’s excellence stands on its own.

Zoë Rom is Associate Editor at Trail Runner magazine and host of the DNF podcast.