Hindustan Times (Lucknow)
Women better in the long run
Gender gap decreases as distance increases in extreme endurance races, finds new study
NEW DELHI: In 2004, the journal Nature published a short paper called “Momentous sprint at the 2156 Olympics?” The headline was followed by a one-line explainer: “Women sprinters are closing the gap on men and may one day overtake them”.
The authors had plotted the winning times of the men’s and women’s Olympic finals in the 100m sprint over the past 100 years against the dates, and then, using a process called linear regression, projected that forward in time. The result? In 2156, the women record a better time than the men.
The authors base this on one simple fact—that over the years for which they had data, the women’s timings consistently edged closer to the men’s timings.
The reason why the paper was not taken seriously by many is because it ignored completely, among other things, the fact that the human body—both men and women—have their limitations.
That there is a performance gap between men and women on every athletic parameter at most levels is a hard fact.
It is explained by a range of common biological differences between the sexes—things like testosterone (the subject of so much controversy since it is used globally to determine whether someone is eligible to compete in a sport as a woman or not), the production of haemoglobin, more muscle fibre, or even how the heart changes in size in response to exercise (many studies show that the male heart responds more rapidly by growing larger).
Yet, there is a well-documented exception. In extreme endurance races, this gender gap is nearly negligible, or sometimes even reversed.
A new study “The state of ultra-running 2020” (https://runrepeat.com/state-of-ultra-running) looked at the results of 5,010,730 million finishers from over 15000 races from 1996 to 2018, and found that female ultrarunners are actually faster than their male counterparts in races that were over 195 miles (around 314km) (these are run over multiple days).
The study, authored by climber and runner Paul Ronto and Vania Nikolova, a mathematical analyst in collaboration with the International Association of Ultrarunners, found that the gender pace gap reduces with distance.
In 5K runs, for example, men run 17.9% faster than women (this analysis excludes professional athletes), whereas in marathons the difference comes down to 11.1%. In 100-mile (160.9km) races, that difference shrinks further, to 0.25%. Go above 195 miles, and “women are actually 0.6% faster than men”, the report says.
In case you are wondering about 314km-plus races, here are some you can look up: La Ultra in Leh (333km), Tor Des Giants in Italy (330km) and the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra (692km).
Average pace slower
The study finds that the average pace of running has gone down since 1996, for both men and women, and the two timings are almost the same now. The female pace has slowed from 12:25 minutes per mile to 13:23 minutes per mile, while the male pace has gone from 11:24 to 13:21.
The reason has mostly to do with the enormous increase in popularity of ultrarunning as a recreational sport—participation increased by 1676% in the last 23 years from 34,401 to 611,098 yearly entries in events according to the report.
“As more people participate in a sport the average time will inevitably go down,” said Ronto in an email interview. “New participants are not seasoned pros, they are not die-hard fanatics, they are experiential runners, marathoners looking for their next challenge or Instagramworthy accomplishment… So the overall average will always get pulled down as the funnel is much bigger at the bottom level for participants than the toplevel ones.”
The larger number of male runners—even though female participation in the sport has never been higher—is part of the reason, Rondo said, that the time gap has narrowed.
“There are fewer female runners, and those running those extreme distances are really all pros,” Ronto said. “We are not saying individual women are faster than individual men, but we have seen a few races lately with women overall winners and that’s really exciting news. Courtney Dauwalter is a good example, she’s won around 10-11 ultras beating the whole field.”
Dauwalter, an American ultrarunner, first beat the entire field when she won the Moab 240, a 383km race along the Colorado river in the US, in 2017. She finished the race in less than 58 hours, 10 hours less than the next best runner, a man. The next year, she won 9 of the 12 races she ran and in two of them, she was the best finisher irrespective of gender.
In 2002, another American ultrarunner, Pam Reed, recorded the best finish, men or women, and set the then course record for Badwater Ultramarathon, a 235km race through California’s Death Valley, infamous for being one of the most gruelling endurance races on the planet. Reed repeated the feat in 2003.
Rajat Chauhan, a New Delhi based doctor specialising in sports medicine and the director of La Ultra—The High, a set of endurance races held in Ladakh, said that in 2011, during the second edition of the event, there were six women in the starting line-up for the 222km race.
“None of us thought, because we are sexist, that a woman would be able to win the race,” Chauhan said. “And one of those women was asthmatic. We were sure that the winner would be this former boxer from the US called Ray Sanchez, who had become an accomplished ultrarunner.” The asthmatic runner, Sharon Gayter from UK, eventually beat Sanchez by more than an hour.
“Our study did not look at the why, we just present the data that shows what is happening, what follows are my opinions. First off, women are built better for long endurance sports. They carry a higher percentage of body fat which is used in ultra-races more efficiently than men. Also, women have been proven to have a higher tolerance for pain, which can lead them to perform better over the long haul like in ultras. Lastly, women tend to have less ego in these types of events. Ego drives men to over-extend themselves early on in a race whereas women tend to pace better. We’ve seen data that shows men tend to start too fast and slow down much more over a long race, whereas women tend to stay more steady throughout, even if it means a slower starting pace,” said Ronto. And in distance running, pacing is everything.
More than one study has also shown that glycogen—the primary form in which glucose is stored for energy in the human body—depletes faster for men than for women during endurance training.
The closing gender gap in endurance does not apply to running alone—last year, when a group of researchers examined a large dataset of results from ultra-cycling events (more than 12,000 races ranging between 160km to 800km), they found results very similar to what the State of Ultrarunning report found.
“Men were faster than women in 100 and 200 mile races, but no sex differences were identified for the 400 and 500 mile races,” the report said.