Can Women Match Men In Endurance Sport?
Evidence suggests that women are slowly but surely bridging the performance divide
History has shown that by combining the two ingredients of (1) gender differences, and (2) sport, international headlines will inevitably follow. It has happened many times over recent decades with issues ranging from equal/unequal prize money, to TV rights, to sponsorships and more. Recently, there has been a furore over the number of professional men and women permitted to start the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. Traditionally, 50 professional men and only 30 professional women started the race, but outcries of unfair, age-old practices have set the gender equality ball rolling at arguably the most iconic one-day endurance sporting event of all.
Yet another captivating story pertaining to gender and sport is the relatively recent success of elite women competing against elite men in endurance sports. There is mounting evidence to suggest that women are – slowly but surely - bridging the performance divide (and in some cases, even surpassing their male counterparts).
Case in point: On home soil in early August of this year at the Canadian Death Race, Edmonton’s Alissa St. Laurent muscled out a 125-kilometre run, beating every other solo runner, including elite male athletes. The Canadian Death Race is a punishing footrace through the Rocky Mountains held every year in Grande Cache, Alta. Over its course, runners climb more than 5,000 metres, reach three summits and cross several rivers. It was the first time a female had claimed the overall first prize. “Being the first woman is great,” said St.Laurent after the race. "It was something I wanted, something I wanted to see happen," St Laurent told CBC News.
On the same weekend, at the Ultra520 event held in Penticton, BC, a punishing 3-day multisport event held over 520 kilometres, another female prevailed. 25 invited athletes compete over 10k of open-water swimming, 425k of road biking, and 84.4k of running on some of the same roads as the old Ironman Canada course. The overall winner, smashing numerous records along the way, was Australian female professional Ironman triathlete, Kate Bevilaqua. She dominated both the men’s and women’s fields to claim the top podium spot.
It raised the inevitable question. Asked whether women, despite the physiological differences, can race on par with men over long distances (tri's, ultra runs, ultra swims...) in coming years, Bevilaqua responded with, “I honestly believe the longer the distances are, the better the chances that women can race on a par or even better than men. Granted, men weigh more and have a greater muscle mass than women, but when it comes to ultra-distance events - on a hilly course in particular - women are smaller. They are mentally tough and compete with patience and determination rather than thinking harder, faster.”
Bevilaqua mentioned that, after some personal research, “I was not surprised to find in reality, this is already happening. In 2002, Pam Reed won the 146 Mile Badwater Ultra marathon outright. Beating everyone! She then went and did this again in 2003, proving it was no fluke!”
Rewind to 2013, and 64 year-old Diana Nyad, in her fifth attempt, became the first person confirmed to swim from Cuba to Florida without the aid of a shark cage. It is, as far as I can tell, a record that still holds, despite numerous attempts to beat her record by both male and female enduro swimmers.
Mega athletes such as triathlete Chrissie Wellington and marathoner Paula Radcliffe – both world record holders – left their respective sports at or near the top of their games. According to hearsay, the prospect of being ‘chicked’ by these super performers sent chills through the ranks of top male athletes who lined up alongside them in events. Many pro men felt the wrath of Wellington’s and Radcliffe’s speed and utter determination on course.
Despite not eclipsing the men’s world records, nor winning any major event outright, both women were pivotal in bridging the gender divide in terms of male/female performance in endurance sports.
Similar to answering the tricky sub 2-hour marathon question, can women match it with men in endurance sport? Time will tell, but the writing may well already be penciled on the proverbial wall.
By: Kerry Hale