At the Gecko-organized 50-mile Devil Mountain Run several weeks ago (this has been one busy summer of many local races), a woman from Durango beat the entire field to the finish line.
Around the same time, while researching information on the Hard Rock 100, the race results from this year’s run piqued my interest. Diana Finkel, after having led the 100-mile run through 92 miles, finished in second place overall, with a time of 28 hours 32 minutes. Ultra star Ann Trason has won several 150-mile races outright, and Pam Reed beat the men in the Badwater 135-miler two years in a row.
More women are running longer distances than ever before. Are they starting to catch the men?
Gentlemen, should you watch your backs?
The debate began in the late 1960s when it was noticed that the pioneers of women’s marathoning often finished with smiles on their faces while the men were gagging and sagging. But the women were waving to the crowds. Hmmm.
Then in the 1977 U.S. 100-mile Championship, Natalie Cullimore placed second among all finishers. Her time was the fourth fastest ever run by an American of either sex.
And then came the theory that has persisted to this day: Women are better endurance athletes than men. Through debates, controversies and many articles, to the present day we don’t have any conclusive evidence that the theory holds any water. Maybe testosterone-charged men started their marathons too fast, then bonked. This wouldn’t prove anything about women possessing more endurance — although it might indicate that men have fewer brain cells.
There was even a theory in the early 1990s that women would beat men in the marathon by the end of that decade. Since that decade has come and gone, and women have not beaten men in the marathon, a closer and more critical look at the situation appeared to have been lined with the debut in 1989 and the subsequent increase use of drug testing. The breakup of the former Soviet Union also brought an end to the massive sports system that had given performance-enhancing drugs to athletes. Since women benefit more from steroids, men’s performance did not suffer as much from the banning of steroid use by athletes.
Has physiology favored women runners over men runners because women have more body fat than men (which is true) and can utilize that fat as a fuel better than men can (not really)?
According to experts in the field, the current research shows that women burn fat slightly better than men, at least when they haven’t eaten recently; and burn simple sugar (found in abundance in sports drinks and gels) better than men. But, women don’t store glycogen as well as men when carbo-loading. Sounds like a wash, and women still have to lug around that body fat.
Of course, a well-trained woman athlete could utilize other physiological assets to outrun a man. She could have more muscles to move the legs faster or more hemoglobin to better oxygenate the muscles or a more efficient run style. But men have far more muscle-building testosterone and hemoglobin than women. And running economy is a trained skill.
We could go around and around. Let’s stop the debate. The important thing is simply that women can run any and all distances they choose.
Women don’t need to chase men. All we need is the chance to chase our own potential. And be content with running in the context of a life lived fully, if not well.
Personally, I know that even if I’m not doing whatever athletic endeavor I’ve chosen well, it’s better than not doing it at all.