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October 18, 2002

Marathon Gender Equality

Ronald W. Wolf

This past weekend, British runner Paula Radcliffe set a new world record for women in the Chicago Marathon, knocking more than a minute and a half off the old record. In marathon running, women are gaining on the men and may catch up soon.

The reason is that women, according to sports medicine researchers, may have greater resistance to muscle fatigue than men with regard to the endurance needed for long-distance running. Women also have less muscle mass to propel forward, and other physiological factors, such as the way nerves fire to drive muscles apparently are involved too. And women apparently incur less muscle damage than males during long, strenuous exercise, allowing them to run farther, possibly faster. The longer the running event, even longer than the 26-plus miles of a marathon, the better women can compete against men. That's the theory anyway.

Statistics on marathon world records support the idea that women will catch the men.

Compare the speed with which record times of men and women have fallen for the marathon. In 1969, the world record for the marathon for men was 2:08:34, set by Derek Clayton. Khalid Khannouchi holds the current world record for men at 2:05:38. In 33 years, the record has come down only by 2 minutes 56 seconds, about 5 seconds per year.

How fast has the world record for women fallen? In 1980, Greta Waitz set the record with a time of 2:25:42. Radcliffe's effort at 2:17:18 is 7 minutes, 24 seconds faster. The world record for women has dropped by about 23 seconds per year. If runners such as Radcliffe continue to smash records the way she did, the gap between the fastest men's and women's times may be eliminated in less than a decade.

So why isn't marathon running a bigger athletic issue for highly competitive women than soccer or basketball? Radcliffe won a quarter of a million dollars for winning in Chicago, including a bonus for a new world record. The top women athletes in golf, tennis, soccer, and basketball make millions (too much to ignore) with the endorsement contracts. But those sports take years to develop the skills of the game, and if you don't start young, you never catch up.

Marathon training takes years, too; however, the only skill is learning how to compete, and you don't need to start young. And, it turns out, being bigger and quicker and taller matters for most other women's sports, so for women more ordinary in stature, playing basketball or soccer against women may be just like competing against taller, stronger men.

That brings us back to marathon running where being slight of stature is an advantage. With every stride, driving extra pounds forward takes a toll on a runner, so extra muscle is useless weight.

Are we approaching the limits of what male marathoners can do, which is why the record for men falls by only 5 seconds per year? The average time per mile for the fastest male marathoner is about 4 minutes, 47 seconds per mile, more than a minute slower than the world record for the mile run. Running a marathon averaging 4 minutes, 30 seconds per mile would give a time of just over 1 hour, 58 minutes, which would seem to be reachable in time. But maybe not.

It seems likely that women will catch up with men in marathon running, and faster than you think. Additional research into training methods and diet for female endurance athletes are and will lead to faster times. The research appears to provide minimal benefits for men, however.

Even if women do catch up and pass men in the marathon, what does it prove? It doesn't prove anything, except assigning bragging rights.

None of this aims to trivialize how grueling marathon running is. Dante, and this is a fact, actually had a canto on marathon running in The Inferno; however, his editor made him leave it out of because he thought the idea of a marathon race so painful no one would believe it.

If women want to compete against men in sports, it would seem that marathon running is the way to do it. When the now separate races for the men's and women's marathons in the Olympics are combined, when there is only one gold medal for the fastest male or female, when a women is standing on the highest step of the medal platform, men consumed by competitive drive may shake their heads and say, "This is like something out of Dante."

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