By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning
In December, a rather provocative e-mail came through my imbox and perked my interest. The kind of e-mail that makes your eyes bulge like saucers, sweat a bit under your collar and feel guilty for having read the contents within. I’m pretty sure my heart rate spiked into the 150’s and the resulting training effect was equivalent to a fast 5k. As I opened the attachment, my jaw dropped. I couldn’t look away from the images before my eyes. It was mesmerizing, seductive and confusing all at the same time.
OK, pull your collective heads out of the gutter. The title of the e-mail I was referring to was ‘Women as Fast as Men in Ultras- An Exclusive Study’ and the salacious content within was chock full of charts, graphs and figures explaining race trends in the ultramarathon world. So, I dove right in analyzed the data for myself, put my coaching hat on and got the research team on the phone for a quick chat.
How we got here
Before I dive into the study itself, a bit of background is in order. The report was produced by RunRepeat, a website that reviews and sells athletic shoes. As part of their marketing efforts, they analyze data and trends, then publish reports on those trends in an effort to drive traffic to their website. Oftentimes, the reports have some eye-grabbing headline such as ‘Aussies have never been slower’ (sorry, mate) or ‘Dog Race Database’ (who doesn’t love puppies?). There are even some, shall we say, more attention grabbing titles that would even cause Dr. Ruth to blush… I can’t blame them. As they say, sex sells and if you are going to drive web traffic with normally boring-as-heck data, you gotta use all the tools you have! In any case, normally I would take a report like this with a big, cheeky grain of salt and file it in the ‘interesting but not reliable’ category. However, all of the intentionally stimulating headlines aside, the ‘state of the sport’ articles produced by RunRepeat in the running and ultrarunning space warrant some attention.
To get to brass tacks, the research team collaborated with the International Ultrarunning Association (IAU) and analyzed 23 years of race data consisting of 5,010,730 results from 15,451 ultra running events. You read that right! That’s a lot of ultramarathon race data to chew through. While the IAU data certainly does not encompass all of the ultrarunning events worldwide, they feel like they captured about 85% of all of the ultrarunning events from the last 23 years. It’s enormous data set, certainly unique in its worldwide comprehensiveness and one worthy of pulling some trends from.
Many of these trends are quite fascinating. But the top-line, men vs. women is the attention grabber and worth some discussion.
With that as a background, let’s dive into the title headline.
Women are faster than men in distances over 195 miles
According to data compiled by Ultrarunning Magazine, every year around 30 ultramarathons in North America will be won outright by women. Those performances are outstanding and tend to be more likely the longer the distance of the event. For example, earlier this year, Maggie Guterl outright won Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra in an astonishing 250-mile performance, a result which in many people’s minds was the singular best female performance of all of 2019. Similarly, in 2017 Courtney Dauwalter outright won the Moab 240, crushing the entire field by an incredible 9 hours. And now comes this statistical analysis indicating that after a certain distance (195 miles to be exact) women as a whole will outperform men.
So, is there a distance where women will start outperforming men? The short answer is no, but that’s a confusing response given the aforementioned examples. Once again, a little history is in order…
Women outperforming men in ultrarunning has been theorized since at least the mid 90’s. In part, the theory has been fueled by studies like this 1997 study co-authored by the esteemed Tim Noakes that compared 56k and 90k race times between similarly matched men and women and found that the women fatigued less as the distance increased. When studies and performances like this come to light, they get picked up by mainstream media and the following run of show ensues:
First, the study is published or performance happens. No one really outside of the small ultrarunning world really hears about it. Shortly thereafter, a lay article is written where they interview some performance expert. That expert opines on how it’s possible that women will eventually outperform men. That argument usually has four themes:
- Women’s hormones are more conducive to ultradistance events
- The fact that women metabolize fat better gives them an advantage
- Women are tougher
- Here are other races that have been won by women outright
All of these have some validity to them, by the way. Finally, everyone jumps on the bandwagon and forgets that very, very few races are won outright by women (the 30 races won by women referenced earlier represent less than 1.5% of the total races in north America. Though, it should be noted that Ultrarunning Magazine only reports this for races with over 50 competitors). The release of the RunRepeat data set will follow a similar run of show (oops, already did).
What the data actually means
What the data actually means is that after 195 miles the average pace of all women competing is better than the average pace of all the men competing. Why is this the case? Math and demographics (not physiology and toughness). In any athletic user group, the early adopters are also higher performers. Take the people who pioneered skateboarding, or adventure racing as an example. Those early adopters were good at the sport they were trying to push the boundaries. As a sport becomes more and more popular, the number of non-elites grows much faster than the number of elites. Therefore, even though the best times and performances improve (by way of a course or world record) the average times get worse. Ultrarunning is no different.
As more and more people enter into ultrarunning, the average times get slower (as the RunRepeat study also points out). As more and more women enter into longer distances, the average pace will get slower and will likely do so in a quick fashion (in the most oxymoronic sentence of this particular post) because the denominator in the equation (the total number of female runners) is small. The research team at RunRepeat asserted this on my call with them. And, the data that they have previously produced in the marathon distance backs this up. When you add runners to the group, the average times get slower.
What this means for the average ultrarunner
As much as I love a hero story, and as excited as I get when women win races outright (they are phenomenal performances), don’t buy into the hype. Ten years from now, we’ll be having this whole conversation all over again at a longer distance. In the 90’s it was 100k where women should outperform men. In the 2000s, we bumped that up to 100 miles. Now it’s 195 miles. Maybe there actually is a distance at which women consistently outperform men, but I doubt it. Until then, women will occasionally win ultramarathons outright. And those are always amazing performances (yeah, I’m repeating myself here make the point). But, before we all jump on the bandwagon, we should take a pause and remember the context.
Commence egg throwing. @jasonkoop is my Twitter handle.