Two astounding accomplishments—Diana Nyad’s record-breaking swim of the 110 miles from Cuba to Florida and Rory Bosio’s top-ten finish in the 104.3 mile Ultra-Trail Du Mont-Blanc ultra marathon—have some wondering whether women might overtake men at endurance sports. Meaghen Brown at Outside Magazine explains that while the top women are almost as fast as men, most women are not:
Like many endurance sports, women only represent about 27 percent of the field, and at many big races like UTMB that number is closer to eight or ten percent. “The top women at most races are very fast, but then there’s a precipitous drop,” says longtime North Face runner, Nikki Kimball. The same can’t be said for men’s fields, where even the top 10 are typically within an hour of one another.
In shorter races, women aren’t likely to beat men any time soon. Women have lower hemoglobin levels, lower oxygen supply to their limbs, a smaller stroke volume in their hearts, and generally less power in their muscles. But even if it’s unlikely that a woman will break into the mens’ world record circle for the 100-meter-dash, at mile 100, they are catching up.
Why? The theory that women could one day surpass men in endurance events isn’t exactly new. In 1985, when women had just begun to join marathon races and were improving rapidly. Nature published an oft-criticized paper suggesting that women would beat men in long-distance running events by 2000. Obviously that hasn’t happened, and the explanation is simple: The Nature paper extrapolated linearly from a few points of early data. (Its conclusions are mocked in many entry-level statistics courses.)
But some still believe that women are better at longer distances—because women are mentally tougher than men and long races are mentally tougher than short ones, women are more competitive contenders in endurance events. There’s a famous story of ultra marathoner Emily Baer finishing 8th overall in a 100-mile race even while stopping and nursing her baby along the way. Women are more likely to pace themselves, says Brown, rather than trying to push the pack. And when it comes to extreme distances, physiological raw power isn’t nearly as important as will.
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