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When Becky Bates finished the Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run in Silverton, Colorado, in July in 36 hours, and 15 minutes—an impressive time for any age or gender, especially given this year’s scorching heat—the 61-year-old Canadian was surprised to hear that she smashed the 60-69 female age group record by more than five hours.
Then, she was doubly surprised to learn that she also holds the 50-59 record (32:46) from the one other time she ran Hardrock in 2017 at age 55. So focused on her own race, she hadn’t paid attention to the event’s age group categories.
“I had no thoughts of an age record at Hardrock—I was just trying to survive out there,” says Bates, who didn’t take up ultrarunning until her 50th birthday and had never heard of Hardrock until she finished her first 100-miler in 2016.
Her midlife success at ultras, including this year’s seventh-place Hardrock finish, is even more remarkable considering she spent her first 49 years disliking running.
“When I’d try to run, I’d think it was stupid, because it hurts,” she says. “I didn’t like hiking either—hiking was a waste of time. I’d hike to go climbing, but I didn’t hike to go hiking.”
Bates hasn’t attracted much attention in ultrarunning, likely because of her age and her low profile on social media (fewer than 700 followers on her Instagram). Yet she has achieved an enviable string of top-10 finishes at 100-milers in just seven years, including fifth at Hardrock in 2017, 2nd at the HURT 100 in 2018 (more than two hours ahead of third-place Sabrina Stanley), and eighth at High Lonesome last year.
At last year’s 145K (90-mile) TDS in the Italian Alps—a sister race to UTMB, considered tougher despite its shorter distance due to more climbing and technical terrain—Bates finished in the top 10 percent overall of starters, 22nd female, and the only woman in the 60+ category to register.
How did she become a phenomenal ultrarunner late in life, during a decade when most older runners think their best years as an athlete are behind them? She didn’t plan it, and she struggles to piece together her running origin story because it sounds like a fluke.
“Like my whole life, everything has been by accident,” she laughs during an interview from her home in Kimberley, a small mountain town in the southeast corner of British Columbia.
Her runner friend and Hardrock pacer, Pascal Gray, credits her success to her personality. “She’s one part mountain goat, one part social butterfly, and one part sandpaper—super gritty. She knows how to suffer and persist through really difficult things. And she always wants to engage with people, especially in the ultrarunning world.”
Her story shows that life has many chapters, and you can pivot to try something new anytime, even near retirement age. You also may think a particular sport or hobby is not your “thing,” but then that thing becomes your specialty, as is the case with Bates and ultrarunning.
A Mountain Upbringing
“When I look back, my story makes absolutely no sense,” says Bates when asked to describe how and why she tried a 50-mile ultra—the 2012 HURL Elkhorn 50 in Helena, Montana—for her 50th birthday with little training and no prior ultrarunning experience.
But perhaps it makes sense that she skipped the typical 5K-to-marathon progression of a rookie runner and went straight to gutsy mountain ultras, because mountain sports—biking, climbing, and backcountry and cross-country skiing—have shaped her whole life. Her earlier jobs as a park ranger, a backcountry ski and climbing guide, and a stunt double for movies make ultrarunning seem relatively tame by comparison.
Bates grew up in Kimberley in the Purcell Mountains, on the west side of the Rocky Mountain Trench area, which is nicknamed “The Valley of a Thousand Peaks.” Her brother Pat, older by seven years, role-modeled an adventurous life that included hang gliding and climbing. He started taking Becky hiking and introduced her to mountaineering.
“He was active outdoors, and I was a very curious witness as a teen,” Bates recalls. “In my 20s we backcountry skied together, and in my 30s when I was climbing a lot, we shared some great mountain rock pitches.” (Related story: her brother Pat Bates is still climbing strong in his late 60s.)
As a young adult, she gained seasonal work as a British Columbia Provincial Park ranger and became certified as a climbing and backcountry ski guide. “I quit university because I was having too much fun living,” she says. “I liked my life because I could work six to eight months a year, and then go climbing or biking. … I spent a lot of time in Yosemite, Joshua Tree, and New Zealand, climbing big peaks.”
But mountaineering wasn’t exactly easy for her. “I’m only 5 feet tall and 100 pounds, and back in the old days, when gear wasn’t super light, it was pretty hard on me. In my early 30s I decided I better make a living, so I stopped guiding.”
Around that time, she stumbled into the film industry thanks to a chance encounter. “I met somebody who asked, ‘Would you be interested in doubling a little girl in a film?’ So I did, and the second one I did was the original Jumanji [in 1995] doubling the little girl in that.”
Those projects led to more physical assignments in stunts. “I wasn’t happy because I’m more of an aerobic athlete and not a fighter, jumper, or car driver. The kids’ stunts were fine, because kids don’t do crazy stuff, but jumping from a second story building onto a mattress—I didn’t want to hurt myself. It was awesome money, but it didn’t suit me.”
She says that by virtue of being the only female in the stunt department, she was given administrative tasks to handle, which developed into her current career specializing in the administrative side of special effects for film and TV projects. Normally her work keeps her quite busy on a contract basis, working and living part time in Vancouver, but now the work is on hiatus due to the writers’ and actors’ strike.
Less work means more time in the mountains with her husband, Ian Binnie, whom she met during a trip to New Zealand 17 years ago. Together, they devote themselves to building and maintaining trails for bikers and hikers and developing crags—adding bolts and anchors on rock faces for climbing routes—for climbers. “It’s something we both love doing,” she says.
Her husband “is the best crew person ever,” she adds, because he used to compete in and help organize multisport adventure races such as the Eco Challenge. She didn’t discover this about him, however, until her ultrarunning took off in her 50s.
Becoming a Podium Finisher In Her 50s
Bates had participated in one 30K trail run prior to turning 50, because it was part of a team effort and she got recruited for the team. Other than that, she barely ran and didn’t train. “I didn’t know a tempo from a taper” when she approached her first ultra in 2012.
She has a good friend who competes on the track at the 800- and 1,500-meter distances, which intrigued Bates. “I was always curious about running but thought I was too old to start with speed, so I came up with an ultra,” she says. “I didn’t know any other ultrarunners.”
She showed up to the 50-mile race in Montana—her way to mark turning 50—carrying a bike pack and a granola bar. “There were some really kind and encouraging runners at the pre-race meeting for the HURL Elkhorn, and they gave me confidence to get to the start line. I followed and watched and copied—how long to stay at aid stations, what to eat, drink, carry, etc. I was a bit in awe.”
She finished strong, in fifth place out of 19 women, but definitely was not hooked. “I hated it, and I felt awful the next day and the next week,” she admits.
She disliked the experience so much that she stopped running for a year and a half, and that might have been the end of her ultrarunning story. But something gnawed at her.
“I thought, I can’t call myself an ultrarunner because I did one run, and it wasn’t pretty,” she says. “So, I thought, I’ll try again.” In 2014 she ran the Mt. Hood 50 and Run the Rut 50K, “but what really changed it for me was the Gorge Waterfalls 50K” in 2015, where she felt a runner’s high. She finished third in a large and competitive field.
Bates progressed to her first 100-miler in 2016, IMTUF in Idaho, and placed second in 28:11, even though “everything that could go wrong went wrong.” Right after her finish, friends told her about the Hardrock Hundred and encouraged her to enter the lottery.
A few months later, “I was driving to start a seven-month work contract in Vancouver when my coach called and told me I won the lottery,” she recalls. “All I could think was that he was out of touch—why would I be driving to work if I won a lottery?”
From “Imposter” to Record-Setter at Hardrock
When it sunk in what Hardrock is and what she had won, Bates says, “I felt like an imposter. When I got in with one ticket, I felt so guilty” because hundreds of other runners wait the better part of a decade for a Hardrock spot due to the long odds of getting drawn.
“I was motivated to do the best job I possibly could because I really didn’t think I deserved to be there. I was working 60 hours a week, and every weekend I’d go out in the pouring rain of Vancouver for sea-level training and just hammer out the miles and do what I could to get ready for the biggest run of my life.”
In the 2017 Hardrock edition, which is remembered for strong hailstorms, Bates nailed her effort in 32:46, setting a 50-59 age group record by more than five hours.
“I had a great race and still have no idea how I did that well,” she recalls. “I met Darla Askew and Adam Hewey at the top of Little Giant [the first mountain pass on Hardrock’s counterclockwise route], and they invited me to run with them. I stuck with them until the big hailstorm when we lost each other in the chaos. I am forever grateful for their support in the early miles, and I was blessed to run with Darla again this year.”
Fast forward to this year’s Hardrock, which Bates approached with a training block that included a lot of crosstraining. She works with coach Darcie Murphy of CTS and appreciates that her coach “respects the fact I don’t just run. … I am not a huge mileage runner. I had a few weeks of 15,000-plus-foot vert with 40 to 65 miles of running. I mountain bike or gravel bike every week and have rock climbing hours. I call climbing my yoga and strength training.”
Hardrock 2023’s conditions will be remembered for heat and strong sun in a cloudless sky. “The sun kicked my butt, and the food thing was a big issue. I simply could not swallow anything unless I stopped dead and breathed.” She ate hardly anything between miles 30 to 84 and threw up a pierogi served at Kroger’s Canteen, the aid station atop Virginius Pass above 13,000 feet at mile 70.
Finally, at the Chapman Gulch aid station (mile 84) during the morning of the second day, Bates was able to eat while resting. She had been among a cluster of women vying for the fifth through 10th spots, and she let them go ahead on the approach to the infamous Grant Swamp Pass headwall while she took more time to eat at the aid station.
Refreshed, Bates and her pacer Gray got to the base of Grant Swamp Pass and saw several other women and their pacers inching their way up, some struggling and resting prone on the scree and snow. The ascent is so steep that runners crawl and scramble while using their hands, and this year, the top portion was covered with snow.
According to Gray, however, the headwall posed hardly any challenge for Bates and played to her strengths. “That terrain is beyond easy to her,” he says. She scrambled up the scree to be near the others.
“Then her mentor personality came out,” Gray recalls, “and she started to coach the other women up ahead. She said, ‘avoid this, do this, kick down on the snow to get better purchase.’ She was being very encouraging.”
When the women reached the top of the pass together, they paused and posed for Gray to take a group photo. “As soon as the photo was done, she dive-bombed the descent,” says Gray. Typically, Bates describes herself as a weak downhill runner, “but she underplays her abilities.”
In Hardrock’s final segment, she caught and passed Christina Bauer while traversing a talus field. “Becky just moves through that terrain so fluidly,” says Gray. That move enabled her to place 7th, ahead of Bauer by just two minutes.
When asked what she’ll remember about her Hardrock performance, Bates notably focuses on others rather than on herself. “When I think about Hardrock, it’s always about how much I enjoyed running with and being close to ‘the girls’—Emily Halnon and Darla Askew, and meeting Whitney Mickelsen and Christina Bauer. We were competing but also supporting each other.”
Post-Hardrock, Bates is recovering by volunteering at the Fat Dog 120 ultra in British Columbia and driving to pace a friend at the Bigfoot 200 in Washington State.
“She’s such a generous person,” says ultrarunner Amy Gordon, who crewed for Bates at Hardrock. “She crewed and paced for me at [the 2022 250-mile] Cocodona the whole time—she came from Canada to Arizona and was an amazing sport.”
Asked to describe Bates, Gordon says, “‘Badass’ is the first word that comes to mind, but she’s not just about running and sports. She’s a phenomenal athlete but equally phenomenal person. She and her husband do trail work quietly on their own, and she volunteers at races all the time, and she’s incredibly interested in the world. Some people whom I’ve met through running, all we talk about is running, but with Becky, running is a small part of our conversation. She’s interesting in so many ways.”
Since Bates has supported friends like Gordon at 200s, will she make the leap herself to 200-mile ultras? She confesses an interest in Europe’s Tor des Geants, but for the most part thinks that if she were to cover 200 or more miles, “I’d put on backpack and do a fastpacking trip.”
To support other women, Bates is open to talking to others about the aging process, especially running through menopause, since her ultrarunning career spans the peri- to post-menopause phases.
While she suffered some typical short-term running injuries early in her running years, she says nothing affected her running as much as the hormonal changes of menopause. Estrogen is known to play a role in the musculoskeletal system’s healthy functioning, and in Bates’ case, her menopausal drop in estrogen led to stiff tendons, especially around her ankles.
“My ankles were so sore for about a year and a half that I tried everything, but nobody could figure out what was wrong with me,” she recalls. “I was getting diagnoses like fibromyalgia and all kinds of crazy things. Then I thought it was my shoes.”
Finally, a gynecologist suggested that her soreness could be related to menopause, and Bates started taking a low dose of estrogen. “I can say without a doubt my issues were hormone-related because as soon as I went on estrogen, they went away.”
Asked if she has advice for over-50 runners, she says, “Get some younger friends, and go running with the 30- and 40-year-olds and forget you’re 50! I don’t really think about my age, and I do what I can within the limits of it.
“I remember when I hit 35 and people asked then, ‘You’re still mountain biking?’ Yes, I am. So what’s the difference between being told you shouldn’t be doing this at 35 or 50 or 60? Do what you can, and don’t listen to what other people say or the social pressures to conform. Maybe I’m lucky because my running mentors have always been younger than me.”
Sarah Lavender Smith lives and runs around Telluride, Colorado. Her weekly newsletter “Colorado Mountain Running & Living” focuses on midlife transitions and spotlights older runners.