Big Dog's Backyard Ultra - Where did the women go?


Author: Sabine; Translated by Diana

Since last Saturday, Big Dog's Backyard Ultra is underway - the Individual World Championships in this discipline. It seeks to crown the “last person standing”. Or should that read “last man standing”? After all, when looking at the entry list, I ask myself: Where are the women? 

In a field of 75 athletes from around the globe, only 4 women are toeing the line: Angelika Huemer-Toff from Austria, who won the 2022 Team World Championships of this event in Austria; Jennifer Russo (USA), who ran 74 yards at the Capital Backyard Ultra this May, more than any woman to date; as well as Claire Bannwarth from France and Amanda Nelson from Canada. Four out of 75 is a mere 5% – A much lower proportion of women than at most ultramarathons. Even the UTMB – itself notorious for its lack of female starters – can claim a female participation rate of 12%. Meanwhile, women make up 26% of the field at Western States.  

What are the reasons for this? Are female runners simply not interested in the Backyard Ultra format? Is an event that has neither a clear finish line nor a clear timeframe less attractive for women?

Problematic qualifying system and a myth

The statistics indeed show that the proportion of women participating in Backyard Ultra events is, on average, lower than for other ultra events. At the silver and bronze label Backyard races in the USA, for instance, women account for 19% of the field on average, significantly less than the 32% at other (trail) ultramarathons. The situation in the German-speaking countries is similar: 14% at Backyard events, 22% at all other ultramarathons. Meanwhile, in France, the rate of female participation in Backyard events (12%) barely deviates from that at other ultras (14%). 

However, a lack of interest cannot fully explain the extremely low number of female starters at the Big Dog's Backyard Ultra Individual World Championships – otherwise other Backyard Ultras would see numbers in a similar ballpark as the Big Dog’s Backyard. Rather, the problematic qualification system must be held responsible for this “disappearance of women” – which appears to be based on a myth.

The Big Dog's Backyard Ultra Individual World Championships are held every two years and offer two modes of qualification: Firstly, the National Champions from the Team World Championships are invited. This year, 33 spots were filled this way, one by a woman (= 3%). The remainder of the 75 spots are filled through the At-Large List, which records the top achievements in the 2-year qualification period. For this year’s event, this was from 16 August 2021 until 15 August 2023. In this case, it is irrelevant whether the mark was achieved by a winner, an assist (i.e. first loser) or any other participants at a Backyard event anywhere in the world. 3 (= 7%) of the 42 spots assigned on this pathway went to women.

The qualification system for Big Dog's Backyard Ultra does not distinguish between men and women. It is basically assumed that men and women are capable of the same performance at a Backyard Ultra. In other words: The inherent 10-20% performance advantage men have over women in all running disciplines from 100 m to ultramarathon distances (see this article) does not exist at the Backyard Ultras.

Certainly, after the consecutive Big’s Backyard Ultra wins of Maggie Guterl in 2019 and Courtney Dauwalter in 2020 (before the introduction of the qualification system), many commentators indulged in speculations: It was noted that for Backyard Ultra events, it was the psychological performance parameters that mattered, rather than speed – And that in terms of mental strength, women are either on an equal footing with men or even have an advantage. 

Following Maggie Guterl’s win in 2019, RD Gary Cantrell stated“Other backyard events have a men’s and women’s divisions, which is handicapping the women by doing this. Everyone wants a chance to win, and not just the women’s division. Of any racing format, the difference between men and women is negated here because they are on an equal foot.”

Nothing but speculation! The facts point in a different direction. In all distances from 100 m to marathon, world records show an average performance gap of 11% between men and women. In ultramarathons, this difference in performance is somewhat more spread out between 7.5% and 18.3% (see Table 1). At present, the top performances at Backyard Ultras are 102 yards for men (Phil Gore) and 74 yards for women (Jeniffer Russo). That represents a 38% performance gap!


Performance gap between men and women in different ultramarathon disciplines, calculated on the basis of current world records.


Another fact that points towards Gary Cantrell substantially misinterpreting the situation is the list of the winners of the 2023 Team World Championships: Of the 522 athletes who competed in the 36 individual events, 63 (= 12%) were women. Now, if men and women were truly on an equal footing at Backyard Ultras, women could be expected to win around 12% of these individual events – i.e. 4 of them. However, the Austrian event was the only one to crown a female champion.

In a scientific setting, we would now conclude: The hypothesis put forward by Gary Cantrell that women and men were on an equal footing at Backyard Ultras has been empirically disproven.


Where does this lead?

Zoe Rom, Editor-In-Chief for the US-magazine Trailrunner, noted in her rather interesting article on "Beating the Boys" that female runner’s performances are covered in the media to a much greater extent when they outpace all the men and clinch the overall win. She writes: “To be great shouldn’t mean achieving feats that transcend gender categories. It can bolster the false sense that male is the default [...] Professionally, personally and especially athletically – women are constantly measured against men in ways that aren’t helpful.”

This tells us that the extremely low number of women at the Big Dog's Backyard Ultra Individual World Championships is more than just a numerical issue. With his statement quoted above, Gary Cantrell not only negates the physiological differences between men and women in sport, but he also implies that winning the women’s category is a lesser achievement than an overall win. That is not the case. Should Courtney Dauwalter’s win at Moab 240 be given greater credit than her win at Western States, because she left everyone – including the men – in her dust at the first but “only” set a course record at the latter with five men finishing before her? The quality of the men’s field (or lack thereof) does not change the degree of excellence of a woman’s performance!

We can only hope that the Backyard Ultra organisers acknowledge this issue in due time, and allow themselves to be guided by evidence rather than (disproven) hypotheses.

There is no need to overcomplicate the qualification system. There is no need for set rates of female participation. There is no need for separate events. The only thing that is needed is two categories. 

Given that most Backyard Ultras have rather low entry numbers, the men and women should continue to race together – women can assist men and vice versa. The only – and important – difference would be that a “last man standing” and a “last woman standing” is crowned at the end.

One of the myths surrounding the initial conception of the Backyard Ultra format is that the idea was derived from Stephen King’s book The long walk. Here, a group of 100 volunteers embarks on a march where anyone falling below a pace of 4 mph is shot, but the last survivor is promised lifelong luxury. What stands out is this: All of the protagonists in Stephen King’s book are men. It would be sad if the Backyard Ultra devolved to that point. 

Acknowledgement: I wish to thank Diana Obermeyer for kindly translating this article into english.