Weaker Sex?

Amy Walts
Ultra Marathon Running
Term Paper

"Psychologically, men are more explosive, inconsistent, not enduring, a nd in pain exertion - especially among high performance athletes - somewhat sniveling. A woman is the opposite: tough, constant, enduring, level and calm under the pain to which her biology exposes her. On the average she is more patient than a man. Armed with these advantages, women are in a position to do endurance feats previously considered by men to be impossible."(Noakes 598)

Not many sports exist in the world today in which women can be competiti ve with men. Although this is not true with many other things in life, it has always seemed that males dominate the sports world, no matter how hard women have tried to break through this. Upon taking this class, I thought I had found such a sport. From quotes such as the one above by Dr. Ernst van Aaken and other findings in the class text books, I developed the thesis that Ultra Marathon Running might be just the sport for women to show their ability to best men in sports arenas that which they had previously been excluded from. As I look deeper into this statement, I realize that there are many different ideas and theories on this topic. Many women say, "Yes, of course women can compete with men", while men tend to laugh at the question and scoff at even the thought. So my question remains unanswered, can women of the ultra species compete with males?

In 1971, American woman, Natalie Cullimore surprised the all male ultra world by running a 16:11 for the one hundred-mile race. Not only was she second in the race, but this was the fourth fastest time for a male or female at this distance. She caught the attention of the males of the sport with her speed and helped many other women to find a place in this field with her determination. As women's ultra running became more popular world wide, people began to take notice. Onlookers realized that the women always seemed to look more fresh at the end of a race, as if it were not as much of a struggle for them as it was for the men. This observation prompted many studies and the theory that women could beat competitive men. The first doctors to make a statement about this theory were Dr. Joan Ulloyt and Dr. Ernst van Aaken. Their idea was that women's bodies were better suited for running great distances than mens because women were better at metabolizing fat after they depleted their glycogen stores. Also, women carried greater fat stores than men. Therefore, they could last longer in a distance race. In laymen's terms, women had a better engine and a bigger fuel tank than men. (Milroy 37)

Then, eight years later, in 1979, David Costill actually showed the fact that the woman's ability to metabolize fat is inferior to a man's, not superior. Studies also showed that the extra fat stores than women have work against them. On the average women are fatter with less total muscle mass than men with equal body mass.(Milroy 37) With these new discoveries, researchers were left to look for other reasons that the women were beating the men. A closer look at the subject matter showed that the women are winning the more extended endurance races such as the twenty-four hour race. These races are not dominated by speed, but by endurance. Even though these women are winning, looking closely at the results such as the world records, shows that men on the average are still nine to 11 percent faster. Therefore Ultrarunningwriter, Andy Milroy, says that the problem must be the substandard performance of males in actual competitions. Basically, women are better competitively. (Milroy 37)

Why would this be? If men have the speed and the ability, why are women beating them in races? Dr. Karl Lennartz noticed that male ultrarunners start out their races too fast. Women run their races with a different strategy. For example, most women either keep a constant pace throughout the race or start slower and end faster. Men on the other hand, burst out at the starting pistol and expend a lot of energy there, trying to get themselves into a good position right at the start. This is because of the testosterone levels in men. These chemicals force a quick starting pace, making for a more aggressive and more competitive runner, therefore not allowing the male to do what is head tells him, which would be to pace himself. A second reason, according to Milroy is that women extra body fat give them better insulation for the longer races. Milroy lastly states that women are better at handling stress and are better able to cope when put to the test. In an ultra, there is much stress to deal with and a lot of coping that needs to be done, therefore women would be better off in this sense.(Milroy 37) These three main differences would give women a competitive edge in these races and explain the winnings of the women.

Another theory, very similar to previous ones I have spoken of, talked about by Kevin Setnes in an Ultrarunning magazine article states, "The longer the running event, the closer a woman is to a man, with regards to potential and performance." (Setnes 16) This is true to some extent but again, when compared, women's times are still much slower than their male counterparts. There are some gaps in the statistics which say men are 9 percent faster, but these holes can be explained by the fact that womens ultrarunning is such a new sport. As more women run and more times are available for comparison, the graphs will return to the customary male domination across the board. This moves us into the different theories that say women are not better at ultrarunning than men and will never be. Women such as Ann Trason do and can beat men, but what w e need to look at is the caliber of men that they are beating. Often the men that Ms. Trason beats are ones to whom she should not even be compared. These are the average male runners and while she is in reality "beating" them, there is no way possible it can be said that Ann is an average runner. Ann Trason is of the elite female ultra class and therefore should be compared with the elite males, to whom she is 13.6 percent slower. (Setnes 17) There are women who are faster than men but they are in the upper crust of the women field while the men they are beating are not comparable within their own field.

There are also special considerations that women must take when running. Not to say that men do not have problems of their own sort, but it seems that the problems' women face are much more persistent in nature and of the everyday sort, for example, sports bras. A sports bra is as essential to running for most women as the right type of sneaker, but it is a lot harder to find the perfect fit. Support is fundamental for a woman but different for each runner. Other special considerations for women are menstruation and pregnancy.

Another source stated that because of anatomical and physiological differences, women will never have the same power output as men, therefore, the only way a woman will ever beat a man is by training harder than he and working harder.(Newsholme 162) The main difference between men and women in running is physiological for many different reasons. These all affect athletic performance and are as follows:

  1. The cardiac output is about 10% less in a woman than in a man of the same body size
  2. The woman has about 20% less blood in volume for the same body weight
  3. For the same amount of blood, women have 10% less hemoglobin
  4. Women have a wider pelvis which decreases the mechanical efficiency because it increases the angle of the thigh bone to bring the knees closer together
  5. The average female possesses about 10% more body fat, which increases the load that needs to be carried
  6. The woman has a 10% less vital capacity than a man
  7. The woman has a shorter Achilles tendon than a man and this is responsible for the elastic recoil of running
  8. The menstrual cycle imposes physiological and psychological stresses on a woman's body and mind which may decrease athletic performance in some athletes (Newsholme 162)

Joan Benoit, world class marathoner has her own ideas about this subject . Not only does she have experience with running herself but she participated in a series of tests done by Dr. Jack Daniels in 1983. The study took place at the Nike lab in Exeter, New Hampshire and was a study of thirty elite runners. The first question asked in this study was, "Is bigger better?" The astounding answer was no. Size does not make a very large difference in the difference in running for men and women, hormones are the cause of this. The hormones are the "force" behind the size. Dr. Daniel's simple explanation is testosterone. Men produce large amounts of testosterone, which is a sex hormone that increases the concentration of red blood cells and promotes production of hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the protein that carries oxygen within red blood cells. The sex hormone that women produce, estrogen, does not produce the effects. This enables men to carry oxygen with more ease. Owen Ander son of Runner's World magazine, tries to explain this: "Each liter of a man's blood contains 150 to 160 grams of hemoglobin - 20 grams more hemoglobin and 11 percent more oxygen than the average for women." (Samuelson 9)

Dr. Daniels also makes an opposing point to his own findings. He reminds us that even though men's ability is generally superior to women's, there is a large grey area. The best male runner outperforms the best female runner but there are not very many men who can compete with the best women. There are a lot of women who do compete on a mens level in ultrarunning and beat over half the field. This prompted him to think that factors other than testosterone must be affecting the situation.

The study conducted researched two important factors in running ability: maximal oxygen capacity (VO2 max) and running economy. The first is a measure of the greatest amount of oxygen that can be dispatched to your muscles. It determines how far a person is able to run. The second is a measure of how much work goes into running at a specific speed. The VO2 max was measured by having runners run on a treadmill at increasing degrees of incline until they reached the point of exhaustion. The higher the VO2 max, the better a person was able to distribute the oxygen. Genetics seems to play a large role in the distribution of VO2 max and it is strongly related to the hemoglobin content in the blood. Daniels noted that because of the higher concentration of red blood cells, mens muscles are better able to process oxygen. This causes men to have a higher potential for larger VO2max values. In general, women have ten to 12 percent lower VO2 max levels than men, with a few exceptions.

Running economy was measured by having all of the elite runners run on a level treadmill at six increasing speeds to assess the amount of energy used at each given pace. In the end of this experiment, it was realized that women and men have the same running economy, therefore this was not a cause of difference in running ability for men and women.

The last thing that Dr. Daniels studied turned out to be the most import ant; body fat. Men on the average have a body fat ranging from eight to 20 percent while women on the average have 13 to 25 percent. Men have more muscle and women have more fat. For athletes, these numbers are even greater. A male runner is likely to have only half of the amount of fat his female counterpart has. This difference has a large effect in the middle of a long run. This extra fat makes any physical effort "cost" more. Running is more laborous and the only way to make this more even is for women to lose weight. The problem with this is that the weight that they are losing is not "good" weight to lose. Most female athletes are so trim already that the weight they lose is unhealthy and causes things such as amenorrhea. The only way that a woman can healthily improve herself to the level of the males is by resistance training. By running with a weighted backpack on her back, a woman simulates the extra weight that she carries over a man. Then she becomes used to running with the extra weight and at the time of a race, when the weight is removed, she feels as if she is running with less weight, as a man feels in comparison to a woman at every race.(Samuelson 15)

When I proposed the question of men versus women to the two different listserves, there were many different responses. A lot of middle of the pack runners responded to me by saying that of course women could be competitive with men, they do it every day in races. The men discussed how they run with women all the time and this is true but falls under the category which we have already discussed stressing that these are middle of the pack men and rather good women. An additional suggestion was made by Kathy Hamilton, that women are more adaptive and because speed is less of a factor in ultras, women can compete. Kathy Watkins has four suggestions as to why women can compete with men: 1) Women have a higher pain threshold than men due to childbearing, 2) Women have more fat stored. These reserves are tapped into when energy is low 3) Women know their bodies better than men and can use this to their advantage during a run and lastly, 4) Women have been running for fewer ye ars and therefore in the future there will be even better women runners as the sport grows. On the other side of the coin, George Parrott replied to me saying that women will not be competitive with men using the current times as examples, showing the actual percentage that women ultra runners are behind men in time.

After looking at all the different data and accounts I have studied on this topic, I have come to a sad conclusion for women ultra runners today. I feel that women will never be able to be competitive with a man on an elite level. The evidence in Dr. Daniels study and by Andy Milroy leads me to believe that due to biological differences, women's bodies do not function in the same way as a mans and are held back in ways that men are not. This was not the outcome that I had planned for my paper. My original idea was that I would prove that women could be competitive with men and on some levels, they can. My beliefs matched the quote at the beginning of this paper explicitly but in reality I have decided that the strength of the woman's mind cannot overcome the differences in body composition. Although I agree that men are faster at ultrarunning than women, I do not share this view in other venues of life. My ideas on the subject best match those of Joan Benoit when she says, "I want to emphasize that the differences between men and women stem from their separate strengths. Let's remember, our bodies have many functions, and running is just one of many uplifting experiences of our physical existence." (Samuelson 15)

Works Cited