In 2015, Helene Whitaker told the gathering at the start of the Dragon’s Back Race “If you’re female, you’re three times more likely to finish this race.”
Now you may ask who is Helene Whitaker?
Or what did she base her
statement on, perhaps even that it is a bold statement... well let’s deal with the first question, she is the joint overall winner of the 1992 race and women’s winner of the second version in 2012, so in my book she has earned the right to say anything she wants. Furthermore, if you have raced over an ultra a few times in the last few years you will have noticed that women are quietly starting to win and if not win then place top 3.
Take Chrissie Wellingtons first foray into the world of ultras, which was a last-minute decision, with no real specific traditional ‘Ultra’ training. She finished second overall, first woman and in a mind boggling 8:35:35 as well. If you’ve done an ultra then you know that’s quite something for a first-time race. Not only that, back in April she ran the London marathon for ‘fun’ and clocked 2:49:01 to win her 40-44 age group.
The truth is when you remove the male ego and or the seemingly macho distances involved in Ultra running then what we all know is this; women are better at running ultramarathons.
Not convinced? Sitting uncomfortably in your chair reading this if you are a man? Consider this; Review the results of almost any ultra and when compared to men starting versus women starting, a greater percentage of women finish than men! It can’t be a fluke! Look at one of the most iconic Ultras there is on the calendar, the Leadville 100, nearly all the women who start finish, less than half the men do! How come?
Need more examples? Ok what about the 2013 edition of the UTMB? Considered by many as the world finals of the Ultra running calendar. A little-known lady in her pink shoes and blue skort set off without high expectations never having won an event before, 6 hours into the gruelling 106-mile course that winds its way through all of the Alps, climbs more than 33,000 feet with weather that can be savaging to say the least with heavy rain, frigid nights, hot and humid days and Rory Bosio wasn’t near the front, quite a way behind the leaders.
However, they slowed, their pace dropping and the American kept solid on her pace, crossing the finish line in 22 hours 37 minutes, Bosio destroyed the women’s record by two and a half hours, took seventh place overall, becoming the first woman to crack the top ten at the event and beating dozens of elite pro men.
Pam Reed who has won consecutive Badwater Ultras, a 135 mile run through the hottest place on earth, maybe consider obstacle racer Amelia Boone who took second overall at the World’s Toughest Mudder, a 24-hour championship race during which she covered 90 miles. She finished a full ten miles ahead of the third-place finisher, also a woman. So the podium at the world championships of Obstacle Course racing had 2 women on it.
Maybe consider Lael Wilcox who became the first woman to win the Trans Am, a 4,300-mile unsupported cycling sufferfest from Oregon to Virginia. She completed the route in just over 18 days! Who famously passed Steffen Streich in the middle of the night who suggested that they should ride together to the finish to which she responded, “No way, it’s a race”
In December 2016, in a single weekend, women took 5 outright victories at Ultra’s across America with new course records being set too.
Several times over the past century, for example, a young woman or teenage girl has held the record for fastest English Channel swim. In 1926, 20-year-old Gertrude Erdele, the first woman to cross the Channel beat the then-record by two hours; open-water champion swimmer Lynne Cox has held the record two separate times, when she was 15 and 16.
A study of more than 1.8 million marathon results from all over the world spanning five years, concluded women are better at men at maintaining a consistent pace. They slow down 18.61% less than men in the second half of a marathon. The cause, reported Danish statistician and former competitive runner Jens Jakob Andersen, is that men tend to believe “a bit too much” in their abilities and therefore start out too fast.
As Debbie Martin-Consani, a GB international Ultra runner has said, “DNF excuses such as cramping, injury, nutrition and dehydration are often down to poor pace judgement,” Ultramarathons are the sport where the tortoise usually beats the hare. Women, and tortoises, are simply more sensible. Which makes them more successful.
So why and how are women better at endurance sports
When it comes to endurance, women have several inherent advantages over men. “Women generally have a larger surface area to mass ratio, which enables heat to dissipate more easily,” says running coach and movement specialist Shane Benzie from Running Reborn.
“This means women are generally better at coping with heat,” explains ultrarunner, registered dietician and sports nutritionist, and Training Food author Renee McGregor. “A smaller athlete tends to have lower fluid losses due to smaller surface area.” So they’re less likely to become dehydrated.
A lighter runner is carrying less weight and therefore stressing the body less.
A shorter runner also benefits. “Shorter legs are often seen as an advantage,” says Benzie, “as they are more suited to a quicker turnover, and a faster cadence will ensure efficient use of the elastic energy created during our running stride.”
Some also believe that in long races with more descent, a smaller physique incurs less muscle damage on downhills – quads are the place most ultrarunners feel soreness first. That means (in theory) a shorter runner will move more comfortably later in a race. Diminutive Lizzy Hawker, five-time women’s winner of UTMB is a prime example of this.
The Gap Is Narrowing
Performance improvements have been dramatic. Paula Radcliffe’s world-record marathon time of 2:15:25, set at the 2003 London Marathon, is 30 minutes faster than the women’s record from the mid-1970s. (The men’s time dropped by only five minutes over the same period.)
Women triathletes cut two and a half hours from the fastest female time in 1980, while men have shortened theirs by an hour and a half. In professional tennis, the top-ranked women now routinely hit faster serves during matches than some of the men do. The top three women golfers on the LPGA tour outdrive lower-ranked pro men.
Researchers suggest that women are going to continue to improve at a much faster rate than men. According to Sandra Hunter, a professor of exercise science at Milwaukee’s Marquette University who has spent the past 20 years studying female physiology with an emphasis on athletes, the difference in current participation rates accounts for roughly 34 percent of the gap between men’s and women’s race times.
Female athletes are well aware of this “Women’s fields are growing fast, and records are falling,” says Rebecca Rusch, 43, a seven-time world-champion mountain biker who has competed against men in endurance events for 25 years. “Which just means we haven’t got anywhere close to maxing out our genetic capabilities yet.
The longer the distance, it seems, the less sheer power matters. In endurance things like strategy, planning, fueling, and, yes, even grit or as we like to call it ‘SISU’ matter more than pure strength. This is where Women have the advantage..