I'm an ultramarathoner - here's why Jasmin Paris becoming the first female to ever finish the Barkley Marathon needs to be on your radar

History-making and record-breaking.

Jasmin Paris Barkley Marathons: Jasmin at the finish line of the ultramarathon event
(Image credit: David Miller)

If you missed the news this weekend, 40-year-old Jasmin Paris has become the first female in history to complete the notoriously difficult Barkley Marathon in Tennessee. 

The ultramarathon has only seen 20 finishers in total throughout its history, largely because it's 100 miles long and requires contestants to self-navigate a course double Mount Everest's height. Not only that, but the race is predominantly off-road and has a cut-off time of 60 hours - a time Paris managed with just 99 seconds to spare on Friday.

She shared that she ran the race -  which she'd entered twice previously but not managed to finish in the allocated cut-off time - to inspire "women worldwide" and test her own human potential. Speaking to BBC News, she shared: "I did it for me and I'm super happy that I achieved what I set out to do after the three years of trying. I'm also glad that I did it for women worldwide. Not just runners, but any woman [who] wants to take on a challenge and maybe doesn't have the confidence."

"The idea that I might have inspired them to believe in themselves… that's huge, especially all the young girls. You know how hard it is to keep young girls in sports," she continued.

To many of us at home, the thought of doing an 100-mile ultramarathon seems incomprehensible. Finding the time for a 5km jog around the park can sometimes be a challenge while juggling work, social and life commitments, let alone finding the time to train for and then make history by finishing one of the world's toughest multi-day races.

That's why Paris' story has made headlines worldwide - for proving that women can. She's also going above and beyond personally to prove it, and has encouraged unprecedented coverage of women's sporting wins over the last few days; news of her epic achievement has been running on the BBC, Guardian, CNN, New York Times, and even The Daily Mail.

Below, I share why Paris completing the gruelling event is so important for everyone. It's not just another sporting achievement or an example of someone pushing the limit of their potential - it's a stark reminder that women can, and will, continue to push boundaries and shows that we deserve more when it comes to research into our endurance.

Why Jasmin Paris becoming the first woman to ever complete the Barkley Marathon is so important

As a marathon runner who completed an ultramarathon myself back in 2021, I can't stress enough what an unbelievable achievement this is. For context, my ultra marathon was 37 miles, completely flat, and completed over the course of one day. Paris, on the other hand, completed a race that was nearly three times the distance, took two and a half days to finish with minimal time for sleep, and had enough elevation to make even the greatest of ultrarunners think twice.  

While she's not new to the sport - she became the first woman to win the 268-mile Spine Race back in 2019, smashing the course record by twelve hours - she has made headlines globally for the first time. This is largely because she's the first woman to finish the infamously difficult-to-complete Barkley course, but I think the iconic images of her reaching the finish line and the fact she had to sprint after running for nearly 60 hours played a part, too. It painfully highlighted the sheer physical and mental determination completing such an event takes.

Many find ultrarunning as a sport hard to grapple with as it's so far removed from your stereotypical Parkruns or local races. Even as a fairly "fit" individual, you might not like running, and if you do enjoy the sport, you likely lace up for anything from 5km to 10km at the weekend, the latter being the most popular race distance in the UK. If that's you, you're in the majority, too. Research from the International Institute for Race Medicine (IIRM) back in 2019 found that only 0.01 per cent of the world's population complete a marathon each year, making the number who go one step further to complete an ultramarathon even smaller. 

The sex data gap and how it impacts you

While ultramarathon running is a niche sport, it's not to be underestimated. Running for hours, sometimes even days on end, is the ultimate test of endurance and human potential. Interestingly, too, it's one of the only sports where women seem to be performing at a similar level to men (just look at ultramarathon Courtney Dauwalter's many wins as an example, only fuelling the debate around whether female psychological power can beat male strength over endurance distances).

One thing's for sure: as the distance grows, research seems to indicate that men's biological advances shrink, with one preliminary article published in the journal Sports Medicine highlighting as much. Over most distances, like 5kms, 10kms, half marathons and marathons, there's a ten to twelve per cent difference in finishing times between the genders. At the ultramarathon level, it lowers to four to eight per cent, building a case for the theory that women are built to run longer distances.

Sadly, though, this hasn't translated into the research. A study from Liverpool John Moores University highlighted that, between the years of 2016 and 2020, only 6% of research into endurance sports was female-specific. While this actually marked a significant increase from previous years - an almost 50% increase from the five years prior - it's still shockingly low.

As Bethan Taylor-Swaine, a sociologist of sport who's currently completing a PhD studying women in ultra running shares, this means that most conclusions made from sport and exercise science really only relate to one sex. Women are significantly underrepresented in sports performance research, with the "default" research group being men for so long that we know far more about how the male body will perform over long distances. The funding has been invested unequally, resulting in a huge gap in the number of research studies using male and female subjects.

Dr Emma Ross from The Open University shares that it's a deeper issue, too, and one which hugely impacts female performance. "Research conducted predominantly on men, or when women most resemble men, is not useful when developing training schedules and maximising female athletic performance," she shares.

"This focus on male research is referred to as "the default male in research" and it is not a positive situation for females who have a menstrual cycle, periods, breasts and slight differences in the structure of their skeleton. These physical and physiological differences... mean that the "female part" of being a female athlete or exerciser is often overlooked. As a result, sport and fitness environments are often not optimised for women and limit their chances of positive outcomes."

This is why Paris' achievement is so pivotal - not only is it history-making, but it draws into question why women have so long been overlooked when it comes to endurance sports.

Breaking new boundaries

She's not the only one making moves in a stereotypically male-dominated sport, of course - take lululemon's six-day Further ultramarathon, which took place earlier this month and saw ten female athletes push themselves to their limit over the course of six days. Ultrarunner Camille Herron set a new women's world record during the event, banking just over 560 miles over six days and scooping eleven women's world bests in the process.

Banking a staggering 2880 miles in total between them - and all-surpassing their furthest-ever distance run - the initiative, supported by the Canadian Sport Institute Pacific, promises to be one of the most comprehensive studies of female endurance to date. The aim of the event was simple: "to see how far women can go when they’re supported with resources and product innovations typically reserved for men."

Speaking exclusively to Herron before she embarked on the start of her training journey for Further last year, she shared her theory that women are actually made to run long distances, there just hasn't been enough investment into research to prove this as of yet.

"Ultrarunning allows women to excel," Herron told me. Her logic? More and more women are beating men, breaking men's records, and winning races outright. "It's so important that more women know this. I honestly think that women are made to endure."

The Sports Medicine article mentioned above seems to back Herron's theory. Other preliminary theories draw into question whether women can deal with pain better than men - something that's being researched as you read this. Interesting studies from the American College of Sports Medicine found that women don't notice mental fatigue as much as their male counterparts, while another Current Biology study found that, while more research is needed, women aren't as susceptible when having to negatively recount painful experiences from their past.

While as of yet we don't know if this is factually true or, if it is, why it might mean, I'm confident that in the next few decades, we'll have a definitive answer. That is, of course, if female endurance athletes keep getting the coverage they deserve and, in turn, the all-essential funding necessary to prove our capabilities once and for all.

What does this mean for you? 

According to Taylor-Swaine, while women could be equal to men when it comes to tackling ultra distances, it's not as clear-cut as it might appear. "There's a lack of consistency in the findings and some of the models used to project performance have been criticised," she explains. "In addition to this, the existing studies draw on very small samples because there are a lot fewer women participating in races that span hundreds of miles. As it stands, we're not really in a place to draw any conclusions about the question of whether women will outrun men, and I think it's unhelpful to suggest that it is likely off the performances of a few truly exceptional outliers like Jasmin, Courtney or Camille," she shares.

That said, we can continue to question - and fight for - research into female endurance being done and a more level playing field, as it impacts us more than you'd imagine. "The idea that women at this level are outliers is really important in the context of barriers to participation," Taylor-Swaine continues. "Once you start running longer distances, the participation gap widens, and I refuse to believe that this gap is simply because women don't fancy running longer distances."

Her take? "One of the worst things that can happen when a woman achieves something phenomenal like finishing Barkley Marathons is that it is used as evidence that women can achieve anything purely because of hard work and "wanting it"," she concludes. "This overlooks the diversity of experiences among women and actually diminishes from quite how exceptional women like Jasmin are."

And my own? I hope Paris' achievement opens up meaningful conversation about everything women are up against to even get out the door for a quick run. 

Ally Head
Senior Health, Sustainability and Relationships Editor

Ally Head is Marie Claire UK's Senior Health, Sustainability, and Relationships Editor, nine-time marathoner, and Boston Qualifying runner. Day-to-day, she works across site strategy, features, and e-commerce, reporting on the latest health updates, writing the must-read health and wellness content, and rounding up the genuinely sustainable and squat-proof gym leggings worth *adding to basket*. She's won a BSME for her sustainability work, regularly hosts panels and presents for events like the Sustainability Awards, and saw nine million total impressions on the January 2023 Wellness Issue she oversaw. Follow Ally on Instagram for more or get in touch.