Iron Women

Step aside, wimps, and let the really tough customers through.

It's been a banner year for very tough guys. Rulon Gardner, the massive farm-boy grappler from Wyoming, has overcome frostbite in his big toe to wrestle again. Tyler Hamilton managed to finish fourth in the Tour de France -- riding almost the entire race with a broken collarbone.

And then, of course, there's Aron Ralston, Aspen's auto-amputational hiker. With his arm trapped under a boulder and confronted with a slow death of dehydration in the Utah desert, he calmly decided to lop off his own limb instead. Newly be-stumped but free, he rappelled down a rock face and hiked out to find more official medical attention.

Amazing stories of amazing men.

Christopher Smith
Christopher Smith

They're all sissies.

The men may have made the headlines, but this is the year of the extremely tough woman. Two thousand three has seen women compete directly against men in some of the most grueling and terrifying athletic events in the world -- and kick their butts.

You won't read a lot about Pam Reed -- not because the 104-pound mother of five isn't a giant in her field, but because she doesn't take herself all that seriously. "I approach things like they're no big deal," she says. "I downplay them." Besides, the Tucson, Arizona, resident adds, "This is what I do. I'm nothing special."

Um, okay. Except that the thing she does is run a very, very long way through intense heat and biting cold. And she does it faster and more persistently than anyone else, man or woman.

One month ago, Reed won the Badwater Ultramarathon for the second time in a row. The race, which is invitation only, is 135 miles long. Then, because running the same distance as Boulder to Pueblo just isn't unpleasant enough, most of the course winds across Death Valley, where temperatures routinely reach 130 degrees. After that, runners head to the finish line, which is about 8,400 feet up the side of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states. There, temperatures can plummet to near freezing.

With all due respect, it's probably the most ridiculous race in the world.

Last year, Reed didn't just become the first woman to win the Badwater. She ran away with it -- a tough thing to do in a race in which many people are forced to walk more than half the distance. She stopped once, to remove a pebble from her shoe. The second-place finisher came in five hours behind her. Reed, who lost six pounds during the run, beat some of the slower runners by 24 hours.

Many people take weeks to recover from the trauma of running the equivalent of five marathons across a giant wok. The day after she finished the race, Reed woke up early and went for a jog.

Like flying in an airplane or playing arena football, completing the Badwater is possible only after first acknowledging that it makes no sense whatsoever. "This race, if you think about it, forget it," says Reed. "I mean, it's hot out there!"

At any point in the race, runners can wilt like Liz Taylor's face in a downpour. This year, Reed ran behind one guy for 111 miles. With only (only!) 24 miles to go to the finish, she finally passed him. He ended up finishing five hours later. She beat the runner-up by almost half an hour. "It was a lot hotter this year," she says, rationalizing her slower time. For her superhuman effort, she earned a whopping...commemorative belt buckle.

The truly special thing about Reed is that she really isn't so special - which, in the obsessive, narcissistic world of long-distance runners and elite athletes, makes her extremely special. For example, she has a life. "I'm unique in that I have a family -- a big family -- and I have a business," she says. "I've run with all my kids in jogging strollers, and they just loved it."

Oddly, Lance Armstrong hasn't mentioned biking with his kids. Maybe he isn't maternal enough.

Reed, who hated track so much in high school that she used to cheat during practice just so she wouldn't have to run so far, says that when she's running, she doesn't really think about beating men, never mind setting a pace for all womankind. "I'm not a women's-libber at all," she says. "I like it when they open the door for me."

"Men are faster and they're stronger," she adds. Still, she admits that she does have some particular experience with pain -- not a minor advantage when your feet are one giant blister and there's a desert headwind so desiccating it could dry out Robert Downey Jr.

"None of this is done without pain, and I've had pain in my life," she says. "Two days after one of my C-sections, I went running; I did a hundred-mile run ten weeks after the operation."

And we're supposed to be patient with a major-league pitcher recovering from a split fingernail?

The best thing about Reed? For a moment, you can forget about Freddie Abu turning pro before his voice changes and Carmelo Anthony becoming a multimillionaire before he's out of Cap'n Crunch. Reed is old -- and getting off on every minute of it. "I love being in my forties!" she says. "It's so cool being forty!"

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