Men Vs Women: The Endurance Question
In the past few years, you may have noticed reports of phenomenal feats of human endurance in which women have triumphed over men in unthinkably arduous races.
In 2019 alone there have been three such events; In January the 35-year-old British veterinarian, Jasmin Paris, completed the brutal 268-mile Spine Race across the Pennine Way in 83 hours, beating the next (male) competitor by 15 hours. Jasmin ran most of the race in darkness, stopping en route for a mere 3 hours to sleep, eat and breast feed her 14 month old daughter.
Five months later in May, Katie Wright, a British junior doctor, ran virtually non-stop for 30 hours to beat forty men and six other women in the physically and mentally tortuous elimination race, the Riverhead Backyard ReLaps Ultra-marathon in New Zealand, which doesn’t even have a finish line.
Three months after that in August, Germany’s Fiona Kolbinger became the first woman to win the Transcontinental Race. She cycled 2,485 miles in just 10 days and 3 hours, from Burgas in Bulgaria to Brest in France, coming in 10 hours ahead of the next competitor (a man).
It doesn’t end there. Other recent female ultra-event triumphs include; American cyclist Lael Wilcox, who rode to victory in the Trans America Bike Race in 2016, taking 18 days and 10 minutes to complete the almost incomprehensible 4,269 miles of cycling endurance from Oregon to Virginia, finishing 2 hours before the next competitor (a man).
In 2017 Courtney Dauwalter, an American teacher, won the Moab 240, a 238-mile ultra-marathon through Utah, beating the next finisher (a man) by 10 hours.
In the same year Sarah Thomas’s achieved a record-breaking 104.6 miles open-water swim (without the assistance of currents), almost 39 miles more than the men’s record.
OK, so these are exceptional women competing in niche ultra-events. It’s still true to say that men usually outperform women in shorter distances including marathons because of their greater muscle mass and aerobic capacity. However, in ultra-events competitors don’t perform near to their maximal capacity, where men have the greatest edge and there are physiological differences in women that are advantageous in ultra-endurance events.
For example, women tend to be smaller than men with a higher percentage of body fat. Their lower centre of gravity helps when running over demanding terrain. Women also have a greater distribution of slow twitch muscle fibres, which are more fatigue resistant.
Physiology aside, tremendous mental resilience and the ability to deal with sleep deprivation and pain also play a huge part in completing ultra-endurance events. Some female ultra-runners have said that events such as child-birth have helped them manage the pain and exhaustion of an ultra-race.
To date, reliable scientific data to compare the sexes in ultra-endurance events doesn’t exist as the numbers involved are just too small. But surely it’s reasonable to expect that as more women take part in these events, the number of female winners will increase with them.