The Planet Wave: Why Women Are Better Marathoners Than Men

I don’t know how to break the news to all you guys, but in the never ending battle of the sexes, women are winning.  That is, at least in running women have become better than men.

That’s not to suggest that the fastest women sprinter is going to beat Usain Bolt any time soon. A sub-4 minute mile by a woman isn’t close.  Nor is the best women marathoner in the world going to win Boston or the New York City Marathon in my lifetime.

But, in just about every other category which counts, women are dominating. There are more women running than ever before and in many marathon and half marathons, notably the Rock ‘n’ Roll series, there are way more women than men.

This hasn’t always been the case. Women were virtually non-existent in distance running until 1966 when Roberta Gibb broke the gender barrier at the Boston Marathon. Even after that, women runners were still pretty scarce. Age-group track existed for girls in pockets of the country, but they had few role models as, until 1984, the longest distance for women in the Olympics was 1500 meters.

Since then, the running demographics have completely shifted as the number of women flocking to running and racing has continued to grow to the point that 42 percent of all marathon finishers in 2012 were women. (In 1980, only 11 percent of all finishers were women.)

Even so, men and women runners/racers are vastly different. In general, men are bigger, stronger—and faster at all distances. But, women are smarter and better racers than men.

This isn’t just my opinion, there is now a study that says it is so. (More on that in a minute.)

That women are better marathoners isn’t headline news to me. For years, whenever I didn’t run Boston, I watched the marathon from the same spot in the final mile—under the famed Citgo sign in Kenmore Square—and was intrigued why almost all the guys seemed to be rigged out in the last mile, while most of the women seemed unstressed and in much less discomfort. Most of the men could only grimace as they struggled to the finish, but the Boston women actually appeared to be enjoying the final mile.

Certainly, Boston is the ultimate test for marathoners. It’s our Masters. But, for so many guys, Boston is such an ego trip that they tend to go out way too fast,  run over their heads and so many tend to cave in the final miles. (I’m talking sub-elites.) Women certainly want to run their best and PR at Boston just like the guys, but don’t do stupid things like placing bets on themselves with friends, doing push ups in Wellesley and grab beers along the way. Even more importantly, most Boston women seem to have a much better sense of pace and purpose than the men do.

Another words, Boston women are smarter, better racers than the men. And it wasn’t just Boston where I noticed this. In countless races, the guys put their healthy pride on the line—a derivative from years of playing competitive sports—while the women are better equipped to channel their competitive drive in a more positive, productive way.

So are women really better marathoners than men? The answer, according to the new study I mentioned, is an unequivocal yes. This new study I mentioned shows that men and women run marathons differently—and women run them better.

Two business professors—Patricia Dechow of the University of California at Berkeley and Eric Allen of the University of Southern California—examined 300,000 runners (including me) who ran the Chicago Marathon between 2003 and 2011 and confirmed the supposition that women are superior, smarter runners.

The researchers went into the study assuming that every marathoner tries to run as fast as possible on a particular day.  But, if every Chicago marathoner tried to run as hard as possible, the finish times would be spread out evenly which is precisely the case with the female marathoners in the study.

But, not the guys. The male finishers tended to bunch around certain benchmark times such as three hours, 3 ½ hours or four hours which suggests to the researchers that the primary focus of the male marathoners is to finish under a certain goal time, rather than running their best.

Which is exactly what most women do. They want to run their best, listen to coaching and training advice and then follow it, rather than aiming for superficial time goals.

As most marathoners know, the most effective way to run a marathon is by running negative splits. That is, going out slowly and then running the second half of the marathon faster than the first. Every runner is coached, trained and told to do that, but executing that race plan is difficult. Especially for guys.

According to the study, women were much more likelier to run negative splits than men. By going out at precisely the right pace, they were much more able to run a strong, steady second half and avoid the wall than the men. The study shows that women were “significantly likelier” in the last 2.19 kilometers to even speed up and finish with a kick.

Guys, when was the last time you increased your speed in the last mile of a marathon? As a veteran of many marathons and many Chicago Marathons, I’ll tackle that vexing question for myself: Never.

The next time I speed up in the final mile of a marathon will be the first time. My final miles are so laboriously slow that glaciers move faster than I do. Meanwhile, the women who are passing me, actually seem to be enjoying this final mile and upon finishing, invariably say, “That was fun.”

For them, it probably was. That’s because they ran smart and even the ones who didn’t, were still able to tough it out better than wimps like me.

As one of my training friends, one of the toughest runners I know, is so fond of telling me: “If men had kids, we’d be living on a dead planet.”

She has that right. Chalk up this victory for women marathoners.

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