Natalia Watkins, a 40-year-old Hong Kong-based executive for HSBC Holdings Plc, knows about endurance. Last month she flew to the Arctic, ditched her BlackBerry and raced on foot over frozen snow hauling a gear-piled sled for 67 hours with only six hours of sleep.
With temperatures on the Canadian tundra of minus 40 Celsius (minus 40 Fahrenheit) requiring three pairs of gloves, even a one-minute break necessitated careful planning to avoid frostbite and hypothermia on the 120-mile (193-kilometer) expanse of whiteness in the 6633 Extreme Winter Ultra Marathon, she said.
“A lot of thoughts went through my mind -- that I was going to be found freezing to death and half eaten by a wolf,” said Watkins, a 5-foot-4-inch (1.63-meter) U.K. native who heads the bank’s Asia-Pacific derivatives clearing services.
More and more women like Watkins are signing up for ultra-distance endurance races in extreme environments, testing the grit, determination and focus they’ve used to make inroads into usually male-dominated industries like finance.
Called ultra because these races go beyond the standard marathon length of 26.2 miles, they include competitions such as the Extreme Winter race, named 6633 for the latitude of the Arctic Circle, which the runners cross. Watkins was the only woman among nine people to finish the race that drew 26 entrants, including four women.
Last year, 71 women completed at least one of the three annual 250-kilometer desert races through the Sahara in Egypt, Atacama in Chile and parts of China’s Xinjiang province. There were 65 percent more female finishers than in 2006, the first year the contests took place in the same year, according to Hong Kong-based organizer RacingThePlanet Ltd.
“Interestingly, the number of women living in Asia taking part in our events and ultramarathons overall seems to be growing much faster than in Europe and North America,” said RacingThePlanet founder Mary Gadams, an ultramarathoner and former investment banker herself, citing the availability of child care and domestic help.
Female participation in the 78-kilometer Swiss Alpine Marathon has increased by 6 percentage points since 1998 to 16 percent in 2011, according to academic research published in Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine last July.
“I like doing races when you don’t know that you can finish,” said Watkins, back in the air-conditioned comfort of HSBC’s iconic building in Hong Kong after the race that began March 22. “You have to treat all of these races with great respect.”
Having raced where temperatures hit 45 degrees Celsius, Watkins said she chose the 6633 to experience the other extreme. The race bills itself as “the toughest, coldest, windiest ultra on the planet” and includes an option to continue for an additional 230 miles. It starts from Eagle Plains in the Canadian Yukon and goes to Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Ocean along the crushed-stone Dempster Highway. Most of Watkins’ ultra-running friends considered even the 120-mile short course crazy, she said.
Progress becomes a science in that extreme environment. Participants do the “polar plod,” a steady pace to keep from excessive sweating that could precipitate hypothermia during a break, Watkins said.
Two other Hong Kong-based, financial-industry women who have taken up ultramarathon running are Nora Senn, an insurance broker with Lockton Companies (Hong Kong) Ltd., and Emily Woodland, the only Hong Kong-based female fund manager at UBS O’Connor LLC, the $6 billion hedge-fund unit of Switzerland’s largest bank.
Senn, a 36-year-old Swiss national, was the third-fastest woman in last year’s inaugural Ultra-Trail Mt. Fuji. More than 28 percent of starters failed to complete the 156-kilometer course around Japan’s highest mountain within the 46-hour time limit. With 9,000 meters of cumulative elevation gains, more than twice the altitude difference between Mt. Everest’s base camps and its summit, the event is being held April 26-28. Senn plans to race again, in the 85-kilometer short course.
Senn trains two to three hours a day during the work week plus five to six hours a day on the weekend, fitting sessions into lunch hours and before and after work. At the height of her training for a big race, she runs as many as 75 miles a week.
“I like the word ‘play,’” Senn said. “I go out and relax.”
Senn won the women’s category of the 2012 Vibram Hong Kong 100, a 100-kilometer race across the city. Last month, she emerged as the women’s champion in the 98-kilometer Raidlight Lantau100, held on the mountainous island where Hong Kong International Airport is located. It was her first ultramarathon since taking four months off to recover from an injury.
Woodland, a Lancashire, U.K., native and Watkins’ sometimes weekend training partner, was the fourth-fastest woman and 17th overall finisher last year among 163 men and women who competed in the 250-kilometer Gobi March race, which is held in and around the Gobi desert. The annual event in northwestern China’s Xinjiang province, where the temperature can surge above 40 degrees Celsius, was her debut solo ultramarathon.
“When it comes to ultras, every race can be your best or worst race,” Woodland said. “Within that kind of distance, you get to experience the best highs in the world and the worst lows in the world. With practice, you just know that those moments will pass.”
All three women took up ultra-running after moving to Hong Kong, where on average 6,540 people must share a single square kilometer (0.4 square mile) of land. Their previous exercise routines, including jogging along roadsides or horseback-riding, became less appealing or even inviable, all three women said.
Watkins supplements her 60-miles-a-week running schedule by sometimes waking up at 5:30 a.m. to squeeze in a gym session before work. At the end of her 11-hour work day, she regularly swaps her power suit for compression tights for a 7.5-mile run over Hong Kong’s hills to do more conference calls from home. Her weekly mileage peaked at 93 miles before the 6633 race.
“Like everyone, I rely on my BlackBerry to be contacted at all times, including to make evening conference calls,” she said, adding that the phone came with her to Canada. “However on the race itself I didn’t take it. There was no access to electricity, batteries don’t last at those temperatures, and there’s no reception anyway.”
Woodland said she gets cabin fever sitting in an air-conditioned room staring at four computer screens for as many as 13 hours a day.
“I find it really, really therapeutic to just go out there and escape the world,” said Woodland, who has time for only 10 hours of training per week, including spinning classes, weight training and yoga at the gym. “It helps clear my head of a lot of things.”
On weekends, she runs as many as 60 kilometers, she said. One big draw of ultra-racing has been the people she meets.
“There’s a very different mentality from other competitive sports, and people are a lot more humble,” Woodland said. “Ultra-running is probably the world’s least-glamorous sport. You bond over things like chafing, blisters.”
Watkins remembers being “spoon-fed” by tent mates during her Gobi March race in 2011, in which about 10 competitors of both sexes from various nations shared a tent for a week without showers. Competitors live on instant noodles, freeze-dried food and whatever necessities can fit into a backpack weighing less than 12 kilograms (26.5 pounds). The assistance helped her avoid being forced to withdraw from the event, she said, though she lost 6.5 kilograms. She finished in just over 58 hours, ranking 96th out of 116 finishers and 31 dropouts.
Increasing women’s participation in ultramarathons has taken place against a backdrop of rapidly rising popularity of the sport in general. Finishers in RacingThePlanet’s annual desert races through China, Chile and Egypt jumped 59 percent between 2006 and last year. Women as a percentage of finishers edged up less than 1 percentage point because of the higher number of entrants as a whole.
In last year’s Hong Kong 100, the 1.62-meter Senn defeated 95 percent of the men. None of the women say that either winning or beating men is the main objective. Yet if Senn senses an attitude among male competitors that women can’t do as well as men, she said she’s happy to show them she’s faster.
“If it’s people that have a very strong idea that they don’t want to be chicked by a girl, I will do my part,” Senn said.