Iron Women

Christopher Smith

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.

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!"

Forty-five-year-old Lynne Cox is also really cool. Actually, she's cooler than anyone has ever been.

This past February, Cox swam a little over a mile in the ocean. No big deal -- except that the ocean was just off Antarctica and the water temperature was about as balmy as a fresh martini.

For Cox, swimming among ice floes was the culmination of a lifetime of chillin' in the water. When she was fifteen years old, she swam across the English Channel faster than any man or woman ever had.

Then, in 1987, she paddled five miles in just over two hours, across the Bering Strait, from Alaska to the Soviet Union. Talk about a Cold War: The water was barely forty degrees. Still, Cox thawed relations between the two countries: Soon after her brisk bilateral crawl, then-Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev mentioned her in a speech.

So how is it that Cox could swim with the penguins for a half-hour when Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps would perish in the same water inside of five minutes? It's because of her training. Over the years, she says, she has taught her body to get accustomed to colder and colder water.

But it's also specifically because she's a woman. Scientists have discovered that Cox boasts an extremely even and efficient layer of insulating fat across her entire body.

Girls -- ignore Kate Moss and all those other coat-hanger-shaped models staring out of your Seventeen magazine like adolescent hunger-strikers. It turns out that real women have curves.

They also have lungs.

One month ago, Tanya Streeter shattered a world free-diving record, plunging 400 feet into the ocean off the Turks and Caicos Islands and then stroking back to the surface -- all while holding her breath. Memo to all of the professional football players who travel to Denver and complain about the thin air: Streeter had to do without air for three minutes and 38 seconds to make the dive.

Streeter says if she's just lying around in a shallow pool of water, she can actually go without a second gulp of air for a little over six minutes. Last year she dove 160 meters, becoming the first human being ever to sink to such depths without air.

The United States Apnea Association (possible sister organizations: The North American Society for Controlled Bleeding and the League of Recreational Vomiters) shows that Streeter has broken eight world records. That's for men and women. She currently holds four free-diving titles.

And it's not just bobbing for apples, either. Free diving, which subjects the body to intense pressure and stress, can be an extremely dangerous sport. Last fall, Audrey Mestre, a renowned diver, died trying to break a world record.

"It never really occurred to me that men should necessarily be better than women," Streeter says. "I don't really see myself as competing against anybody. And I don't care about the world records. I get empowerment by setting goals and then passing them."

"If I'm drawn with her...I won't play," Vijay Singh huffed when Annika Sorenstam was invited to join the men at the PGA's Bank of America Colonial golf tournament this past May. "She doesn't belong here." After all, Singh pointed out, Sorenstam was a woman, so it wasn't right that she play on the men's golf tour.

By comparison, Streeter, like Reed, sees no difference between the sexes in her sport; she allows herself to be inspired by all athletic achievement. "I'm amazed by what the men can do," she says from her home in Austin. "The way I look at it, if somebody else has done it, then I should try it, too."

Gosh. You mean women competing against men isn't supposed to be threatening?

"I guess I have an aptitude for this," adds Streeter, who grew up swimming in the water off the Cayman Islands. "But no more than you or anyone else does. It could be that I'm braver than some other people. Or that I'm willing to push myself further in a public forum and risk failure."

So that's it. You know how easily men get performance anxiety.

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