Thursday, 9 October 2014

Radio 4: The Philosopher's Arms - Sex Equality

I much prefer arguments that are based on  facts rather than 'urban myths' or extrapolations 50 years into the future. I was listening to the Philosopher's Arms on Radio 4 and heard (12min 55s in to the episode on Sex Equality) the often repeated claim that Women can run faster than Men over long distances. I think it was Beatrix Campbell talking and, in this case, the Daily Mail seems to be more accurate!
The particular claim was that if Paula Radcliffe were to run another 20 km over marathon distance she would beat the Men because Women respond better at the 'fatigue, burn, horror point'. Now, I have several problems with this (and we will leave this 'fatigue, burn horror point' for another post), but before providing a bit of evidence let us consider a proceeding statement she made since it tells us a little about her.

Beatrix is ~67. Her claim was to be able to run a half marathon in the time it takes Paula to run a full one. Now Paula is not currently in peak shape - so let's assume Beatrix knows this - and go with a time of 2:20. This would give Beatrix an age-graded performance of ~70% making her a very decent Club-level runner. She must have done some training to be able to achieve this level. It is roughly the same performance level - if extended to marathon distance - that would get her good for age entry to many marathons (including London).

So, what is the evidence that over longer distance Men are trounced by Women? The 50 km road record for Women is 25 minutes slower than for Men. OK, may be that isn't long enough - not beyond the fatigue, burn, horror point. At 100 km things look like they might be closing with the Women's record only 20 mins slower. But, at 160 km (100 miles) on road Women have dropped back to 2 hours slower than Men and on the track at 160 km Women are almost 3 hours slower. The 24 hour records are similar with Men covering 43 km more than Women.

So, what might explain this? One possibility is that Beatrix is right, and that we are not comparing like-for-like athletes. Because more Men run than Women, the World Records for Men are closer to the limit than for Women - i.e. we still have not had the 'Paula Radcliffe' type of Woman do the race that goes beyond the fatigue, burn, horror point. But, even if that is true the wonderful powers that Women have that Men don't must be a very minor one. Whilst the predictions were that Women would be beating Men by around the year 2060 things have not got off to a good start over the past 10 years. We have seen a gradual improvement in Men's marathon times - whilst the Women's record is stuck at Paula's record in 2003. Indeed, very few Women have even got close to this level of performance. Something will have to radically change for the 2060 prediction to come true.

The simple fact here is that Men's physiological/anatomical make-up is different from Women. The hormonal background and anatomical structures put Women at a disadvantage. There are many differences, but the most obvious two are that training in Women does not induce as much muscle mass (there is a particular steroid to blame) and Women, even athletic Women, have larger breasts than Men. As far as running performance is concerned these represent performance 'barriers'. This is not sexism, it is just a difference.

I think the critical point here is that there are very few male club runners who have not been 'chicked' at some point. In fact most men in my club - including me - are 'chicked' in every race if one of a dozen female's turn-up. They are awesome. Do I care whether they can beat the fastest Man? No. They are beating not only me (and I take things pretty seriously) but also other Men who I aspire to beat one day.

It is time to stop looking at times, and start looking at age/sex graded performance. At 70% Beatrix I am willing to race you. You will finish behind me (I am a younger male) but you might win!

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