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WILL WOMEN MARATHONERS CATCH THE MEN?

In the months since Paula Radcliffe broke the world best time for the womenís marathon, many comparisons have been made between the menís and womenís marathon records. As in 1983, when Joan Benoit Samuelson slashed the womenís best by running 2:22:43 at Boston, there is talk of the best women eventually beating the best men. The case is based on analysis of trends in the record books and physiological differences between the sexes. Letís see if the argument stacks up.

In 1985, the womenís marathon world best was Ingrid Kristiansenís 2:21:06, and the menís mark was Carlos Lopesí 2:07:12. Today, the womenís record is 2:15:25, and the menís mark is 2:04:55. The difference between the menís and womenís world best times, therefore, was 13 minutes and 54 seconds in 1985 and is 10 minutes and 30 seconds today. This change in the gap between the men and women is an indication of the relative maturity of the event for each gender. Given the relative newness and increasing depth of womenís marathoning, one might have expected the gap to narrow more over the past 18 years than it has. Of course, although no woman is likely to run a 2:04 marathon, the best women runners already beat the hell out of all but the very best men marathoners.

Another favorite pastime of the historians among us is comparing the menís and womenís World Records at various distances, with the assertion that the gender gap decreases on a percentage basis as the distance gets longer. In actuality, the remarkable thing about the percentage difference between menís and womenís best performances from 100 meters through the marathon is the consistency of the gap, which is roughly 9 to 10% across the range of distances. Fair comparisons may be confounded by the likelihood that some of the World Records were set with the aid of performance enhancing drugs. There is, however, no evident trend in the percent gap between menís and womenís best performances over the range of Olympic running distances.

An additional argument that has re-emerged in the aftermath of several women running sub 2:20, is that womenís higher essential fat stores and/or higher ability to use fat as fuel may provide an advantage in long distance events. Well, higher fat stores may be an advantage for buoyancy and heat retention in swimming the English Channel, but if it was an advantage in the marathon then Paula, Naoko and Catherine should put on some weight. For a runner, higher fat stores would only be an advantage in an event in which she or he is at risk of running out of fat. Considering that a pound of fat provides 3,500 kilocalories of energy and that roughly 100 kilocalories of energy are burned per mile of running, no one is going to run out of fat during a marathon. Quite simply, womenís higher essential fat stores are a disadvantage for marathon running because the extra weight must be carried for 26.2 miles.

Recent studies have provided evidence that women can utilize slightly more fat for fuel during endurance exercise than men, which may be related to womenís higher estrogen levels. The ability to use fat is an advantage for the marathon because the body can only store about 2,000 to 2,500 kilocalories of glycogen (carbohydrate), so a contribution from fat is required in covering 26.2 miles. Fortunately, one of the major adaptations of marathon training for both sexes is an increased ability to utilize fat during exercise. Any highly trained marathoner who does a reasonable job of carbohydrate loading prior to the marathon is not likely to run out of glycogen when running 26.2 miles. Taking a carbohydrate drink during the marathon provides a further cushion against glycogen depletion, so higher fat utilization is not necessary for an elite marathoner (although it may be useful for the less well-trained).

The marathon is simply not long enough to nullify the physiological advantages that men have in testosterone level, maximal oxygen consumption, and hemoglobin level. Given that over 99% of the energy used in the marathon is produced aerobically, womenís lower hemoglobin level (which mean women can transport less oxygen per unit of blood) is a distinct disadvantage.

Back in 1983, I remember watching Joan Benoit Samuelson with admiration as the first woman runner I had ever seen train as hard as the men. Ingrid Kristiansen was the only woman in the world at that time with similar talent and a similar willingness to absorb hard work. Today, perhaps 15 women have reached that level of training, and a few are attempting to take training a further step. For example, Naoko Takahashi trains over 130 miles per week during her marathon build-ups, often at high altitude, and has had the occasional training day of over 40 miles.

Will the gap between men and womenís marathon world best times get smaller? Perhaps, but not by much. Even with the best 10,000 meter runners such as Paul Tergat and Haile Gebrselassie now turning to the marathon, the record is unlikely to drop by more than another minute in the next decade. While less than a handful of women have been under 2:20 to date, with the increasing depth of womenís distance running worldwide, particularly from the strong African nations, we will likely see the womenís mark fall by another minute or so in the next 10 years.

(This column originally appeared in Running Times Magazine.)