The mountain face was baking in the August afternoon sun as Rory Bosio navigated the false summits, daunting boulders and rocky steps on the final climb of the 106-mile race known as The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc.
This last climb, outside Chamonix in the French Alps, featured 2,000 grueling feet of vertical gain. And then Bosio would have just five miles to go to complete her nearly 24-hour journey.
But her mind was elsewhere.
"All I wanted was to get to the top of the climb and get some Coca-Cola," Bosio said. "I just tried to let my mind go blank, except for thinking about how fast I could move my legs without throwing up."
Bosio had taken the lead in the women's race before reaching the halfway point, but the 29-year-old from Tahoe, Calif., didn't consider her place or time until she was just a few miles from the finish. She knows a twisted ankle or an upset stomach can ruin a runner late in a race, so it's best to simply focus on putting one foot in front of the other. In fact, she didn't even bother looking at her watch until 92 miles into the race, just before that final climb.
As she summited, a stunning panorama of the Mont Blanc massif mountain range came into view. It signaled the beginning of the steep descent back into Chamonix. With her quads burning from alternating between accelerating and braking down the mountain, she eventually reached the narrow, winding roads in the old town. On this day, the townspeople greeted the weathered runner with great merriment as they ate and drank along the cobblestone streets. For Chamonix and the world of ultra running, the UTMB is akin to the Super Bowl and Christmas all rolled into one.
As Bosio came through the finish, she collapsed before being helped up by a volunteer, then offered the crowd a lighthearted curtsy and a giddy wave. The loudspeakers boomed as the announcer attempted to verbalize the importance of her feat. What was remarkable about Bosio's finish was not that she was the first woman to cross the finish line or that she shattered the women's course record by nearly 2 hours and 20 minutes, but rather, the fact that she finished seventh overall, making her the first woman to finish in the top 10 in a race that has forever been dominated by men.
Even with the explosion of interest in trail and ultra running in recent years, the 2013 UTMB, the pinnacle of the sport, brought in just 223 women out of 2,469 runners.
"Imagine if that's how the Boston Marathon was," Bosio said. "That would look pretty off."
Breaking through the rock ceiling
While more women have been entering the ultra ranks in 50-kilometer and 50-mile races, 100-mile journeys are still largely men's events, despite the fact that the elite women who do compete often finish near the top. Aside from Bosio's performance, 38-year old Pam Smith finished ninth at this year's Western States 100, a field that was 19 percent women. Darcy Africa finished ninth in the 2013 Hardrock 100, where women constituted 12 percent of finishers. Back in 2010, Diana Finkel narrowly missed winning that race outright, leading for the first 90 miles before getting passed by Jared Campbell and settling for second.
Indeed, these long-distance pursuits constitute unique challenges. Bosio's record-breaking performance took her 22 hours, 37 minutes and 26 seconds through the black night and into the scorching afternoon light. She subsisted largely on sweet potatoes, bread, water and Coca-Cola in hopes of staving off uncontrollable nausea. The 106-mile circuit of Mont Blanc, known as the roof of Europe, encompasses 31,500 feet of climbing and crosses 10 high-elevation passes as it weaves along the desolate Alpine terrain of France, Italy and Switzerland. Sure, the gut-busting climbs are brutal, but so are the steep, craggy descents that require more agility and balance than endurance.
Despite the physical and mental challenges that underpin these extreme events, Bosio speculates that the lack of women participating in ultra racing is more a reflection of the time it takes to train for 100-mile races.
"Many don't get into the sport until their 30s, when they have all these other responsibilities," Bosio said. "Going out for an eight-hour run isn't probably going to be a high priority if you have kids."
While Bosio doesn't have children, she does manage to fit in training amid 12-hour shifts as a pediatric intensive care nurse.
The time issue is likely why women are entering 50-kilometer and 50-mile races, but are still largely absent from the century runs.
"Generally, the longer the distance," Bosio said, "the fewer the women."
Running USA reports that women made up 56 percent of race fields in the U.S. in 2012 and more than 8.6 million women finished a race nationwide. While those numbers include everything from 1-mile races and up, some hope that the shorter events will eventually serve as feeder programs for ultra races.
Bosio thinks women are uniquely suited for ultra running.
"Just look at childbirth and think about being in labor for 12 hours. Women have endured that forever," Bosio said. "I think there is something in our biology and mindset; endurance comes naturally to women."
A welcoming environment
While Bosio hopes her success and the success of other women will bring more women into the world of ultra running, she admits that being one of the few women at these events has its perks.
"Whenever anyone sees a woman, even if they aren't in the top 10, the people at the aid stations go nuts," she said. "It's a total dude-fest, so they really look forward to cheering us women on."
Although some women may be intimidated by the overrun of men in the sport, Bosio insists they are nothing but welcoming -- most of the time.
"When you are somewhere between 20th and 50th place passing some of the men, they are really encouraging and amped for you, but the further up I got, the less excited they were to see this American girl in a skirt go by them," she said.
Fittingly, it was the Eat My Dust skirt she wore from her sponsor, The North Face.
Runners like Bosio are considered relatively young in the sport. Women such as Kami Semick, Diana Finkel and Pam Smith, in their 30s and 40s, are often among the top finishers at these events, showing age can be an asset.
"These women are an inspiration to a lot of us because they are doing better than they've ever done before," Bosio said. "I hope women see other women competing and decide to give it a try. That's how I got into it."
On Dec. 7, Bosio will toe the line in San Francisco at The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships presented by Gore-Tex in hopes of backing up her performance in Europe. In 2012, a 26-year old Swede, Emelie Forsberg, handily won the women's race, finishing 28th overall in an event that included 105 women and 287 men. Running with a target on her back after her big win at UTMB, Bosio will be vying for the women's title in her pursuit to best Forsberg's placement among the men.
And while she contends that it is the beauty of the places she competes that keeps her up and running, from the hills of California to the mountaintops of France, she admits she get a high from another source as well.
"It's always fun to 'chick' a guy," she said. "No woman is going to tell you that's not a good feeling."