Who’s Faster – He’s or She’s?

A recent article* about the possibility of someone, someday, breaking two hours in the marathon, contained what seems a contradiction.  Despite citing several reasons women’s physiology might be better suited to endurance running (smaller bodies for better heat rejection, longer legs in proportion to total height and mass, slender calves that take less energy to swing, less upper-body muscle-mass to carry around, etc.), nearly all the discussion about breaking the record was focused on men.  Which scratched-up an old pet peeve: the tendency of casual conversation to assume that, because the men’s record in a distance is faster than the women’s, it means that “men are faster than women.”

Actually, all it really demonstrates, is that the very fastest men are faster than the very fastest women; but those are the exceptional individuals, and ‘exceptional’ means just that – the ones for whom the rules do not apply.  For ordinary folks like us MPRs, the rules do apply, and in this case the operative rule is: the range of variation among either group (men, women) is greater than the difference between their extremes.  Or, put the way humans really speak, “some women are faster than damned near every man.  (How many men could equal Paula Radcliffe’s world record marathon time of 2:15:25?  Or Tirunesh Dibaba’s 14:11:15 in the 5K?)

If you’re a male MPR, you can count on plenty of female runners disappearing into the distance ahead of you.  Just as, if you’re a female MPR, you can reliably anticipate finishing ahead of some men.

For this dog, in fact, that’s one of the joys of the sport.  None of your old ‘boys on this side, girls on that side,’ gym class segregation; we’re all in the run together.  Androgen-fueled-aggressiveness has nothing on estrogen-paced-persistence, and vice-a-the-verse-a.  Lining up for a start in the Middle of the Pack, the gender of the runner off your shoulder tells nothing about where they will be by the end.  Any more than it tells who will be the one shouting ‘way to go,’ as they get passed, or ‘you’re kickin’ it’ when another runner seems to be flagging.

(Speaking of gender neutrality benefits: ain’t it grand that running is one of the few public activities where men wear Lycra and women sweat profusely – and sometimes even spit – and hardly anyone takes note!)

A runner struggled to the top of a Himalayan peak (on a rest-day, of course), to ask the fabled hermit a burning question.  “Who’s faster, oh Wise and All seeing One, men, or women?”

After many hours of meditation (during which the runner kept busy with gentle stretches and mental calculations of how much faster the run down might be than the hike up) the ancient gray-hair replied.

“Yes,” was all she answered.

What Will It Take To Run A 2-Hour Marathon?, Alex Hutchinson, Runner’s World, November 2014

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