Will Women Ever Beat Men in 24-Hour Races?

Highlighted by the first Olympic Marathon for women in 1984, the early 1980s proved a remarkable period for women marathoners. Grete Waitz, Joan Benoit, Ingrid Kristiansen and others captured headlines with their fast-improving performances. Indeed, by 1992 the highly regarded science magazine Nature felt bold enough to publish a “Correspondence” predicting that the best women marathoners would beat the best men by 1996.

That didn’t happen. In fact, the gap between the top women and top men has remained relatively stable for the past 30 years at roughly 10%.

But the argument moved onward and upward. Several respected scientists hypothesised that women might some day beat men in ultramarathons. Why? Because they carry more fat on the body than men, and fat is a great fuel source at slow speeds.

Thus far, this theory has also failed, with one notable exception. (See the end of this story). A new study of 24-hour race performances from 1977 to 2012 concludes, “It seems unlikely that women will be able to outrun men in 24-hour ultramarathons in the near future.”

While the gender gap in 24-hour races has closed over the years to about 12%, men still hold the lead. Their biological differences – more muscle, less fat, higher haemoglobin and haematocrit and higher VO2 max – appear to give men a clear performance advantage.

The new paper looked at 36,251 finish times in 24-hour races. The first male finished the distance (alone) in 1977. The first women, three of them, appeared in 1982. Since then, participation by women has mushroomed to 45 (1992), 163 (2002) and 985 (2012).

Of course, overall participation has also increased. In 2012, there were 3383 finishers, worldwide, in 24-hour races; 29% of them were women.

One of the paper’s co-authors, Switzerland’s Beat Knechtle, M.D., told Runner’s World that he was surprised by the average age of 24-hour runners. “The best were about 40 to 45,” he said. “This is considerably older than we have found at shorter distances such as 100 miles [160km].” A world-class 24-hour runner might cover from 140 to 180 miles [225 to 290km].

Knechtle knows a few things about ultra performances. Last year he became the first person to win two Deca Ironman triathlons in one year. That’s right, 10 times the standard Ironman distances of swimming 3.86km, cycling 180.25km and running a marathon. His best time is 128 hours.

If you’re a woman who wants to win ultra races outright, Knechtle has some advice for you: Look for long ocean swims in frigid waters. He’s working on a paper that indicates women have an advantage in cold water, no doubt due to their body fat.

Several interesting footnotes emerged from Knechtle’s analysis of 24-hour races: In New Zealand, women 24-hour racers outnumber the men. East African women don’t like the event; none have ever finished the distance. The only African women to have run 24-hour races come from distance-mad South Africa.

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