The Women’s Marathon: Historical Perspective for Exercise Physiologists Jon K. Linderman, Ph.D., FACSM, EPC
Associate Professor of Health and Sport Science
Director of Basic Sciences, Doctorate of Physical Therapy Program
University of Dayton
Dayton, OH 45469-1210
THE MARATHON commemorates the heroic journey of the Athenian messenger Pheidippides who according to legend ran from the battlefield near Marathon, Greece, to Athens, announcing victory over the Persian army. After shouting “rejoice, we conquer” he died of exhaustion. Each risking the fate of the Pheidippides, early marathon runners came to symbolize heroic figures, lean taught men cheating death as they battled each other over 26.2 grueling miles. For most of the 20th century this was considered no place for women, long thought to be the weaker sex. Historically women have competed in sports modified from men’s games. However, running is universal to many of sports, but in and of itself it is perhaps the most universal playing field for men and women. Of all running events the marathon is one that is steeped in history, but one in which women have competed for less than 40 years. In contrast men have competed in the Olympics over a standardized distance of 26.2 miles since the 1908 Olympics in London.
It is well known that during puberty levels of gender-specific hormones such as testosterone yield taller more muscular males, while estrogen increases fat deposition in hips and breasts of post-pubertal females. Organs such as the heart grow larger in males yielding a cardiovascular system that supplies more blood per minute, as well as a larger blood volume capable of carrying much needed oxygen for endurance events. With such apparent sport-specific physiological inequities, it is not surprising that when Beth Bonner ran the Philadelphia marathon in just over 3 hours in 1971, that the men’s world record held by Australian Derek Clayton was just over 2 hours and 8 minutes. In the next fifteen years the women’s marathon became an Olympic sport, and female runners had pared over thirty minutes off their world record, prompting debate as to whether women might actually be better suited for endurance running than men.
Pamela Reed, beat all-comers male and female, and smashed the course record at the 2003 Badwater 131 mile Ultra marathon. In 2004 Hungarian Edit Berces ran 100 miles in 14:15:08, a world record, on her way to another world record of 153.6 miles in 24 hours. These phenomenal feats are consistent with the opinions of South African Tim Noakes, an avid distance runner and world-renowned exercise physiologist who suggests that women may have greater endurance than men. Elite female runners carry slightly larger body fat reserves than men, which can represent thousands of calories of energy reserves. Similarly, Mark Tarnapolsky , an avid runner, physician and scientist, has concluded from his own research that women are able to use more fat during prolonged endurance events, likely due to the different hormonal milieu in females when compared to men.
In 1992 UCLA scientist Brian Whipp and his colleague Susan Ward  speculated on the rapid improvement in the women’s marathon record (Figure 1). They derived calculations predicting that in 1998 a woman would eclipse the male marathon record in a time of approximately 2:03. Presently, the men’s record held by Haile Gebrselassie (2:04:26) remains shy of Whipp and Ward’s prediction, while the women’s record owned by Paula Radcliffe, remains more than 10 minutes slower at 2:15:25. Why were Whipp and Ward’s calculations wrong, if women can better utilize fat as an energy source compared to men? In this case, science can argue against women as marathon runners as well.
Figure 1. Time course of the change in men’s and women’s world records in the marathon from 1906 to 2003.
According to Noakes , elite female runners carry approximately 5 kilos more body fat, than her male counterpart, yet her lean mass: muscle, bone, heart, , etc is about 3 kilos less. Therefore, a smaller framed female with a disproportionately smaller cardiovascular system, carries a weight penalty of about 10 pounds. Cureton and colleagues [4,5] reported in the 1980s that both the weight penalty of body fat and reduced red cell content accounted for portions of the differences in running performance between male and female runners. Australian Olympian Mark O’Brien and noted Berkeley scientist George Brooks , reported in 1993 that running a marathon at 2:30 or less requires more than 90% carbohydrate for energy. Therefore, increased fat utilization is consistent with hypothesis that women may have a metabolic advantage for ultra marathon running, but appears to be of no advantage during a fast-paced marathon. In contrast evaluating humans as machines and comparing work capacity based upon gender, a look at history may lend insight into the failures of science in regards to the “when” or “if” regarding women eclipsing men in the marathon.
An Alternative Perspective to Chronological Running Performance by Year
Men began running the marathon at its official length of 26.2 mile in 1908 and women in 1971 (Figure 1). In the first thirty years of competition the men’s world record decreased 16.6%, and over the same time span from 1971 to 2001 the women’s record declined a comparable 16.2% (Figure 2). It is reasonable to assume that during these early romance periods the number of athletes participating in the event increased, as well as opportunities for competition, improved training and coaching. It would appear that although absolute numbers are different between men and women over the first thirty years of competition, the rate of improvement in performance was comparable during this initial time frame. Important events in world history as well as global social changes influenced the quantity of athletes participating in the marathon. It is likely that an increased quantity of athletes has also influenced quality of elite level performance.
Figure 2. Changes in world record marathon performances by men and women as function of their initial participation in the event.
Globalization, Modernization, and War
Running in the early years for men was largely available to men who were not part of the manual work force, rather a sport for educated men of at least some means. During World War I and II, men who might have participated in athletics were called to war across the globe. Sandwiched between these global conflicts was the Great Depression that limited athletic opportunities for American men. Between 1913 and 1935 the men’s marathon record was lowered approximately 9 minutes (Figure 3). In 1952, soon after World War II James Peters cut nearly 5 minutes from the world record (2:20:42), eventually setting the marathon record three more times by 1954. In the 1950’s the USSR became a world super power, flexing its athletic muscle as an extension of its political power. Perhaps, not coincidentally, the USSR’s Sergey Popov lowered the men’s record to 2:15:17 in 1958. Therefore, during 13 years of post-war super power expansion, the men’s world record decreased considerably more than during thirty years prior to the end of World War II.
Figure 3. The influence of historical events such as World Wars, the Depression, and cultural changes that brought an influx of athletes from non-Western countries.
It was not a mighty political super power, but the son of an Ethiopian shepherd who changed the face of marathon running for men, his bare feet paving a path for athletes from African nations. Abebe Bikila, running shoeless through the streets of Rome, past the Axum Obelisk plundered from his native Ethiopia, became the first black African to win an Olympic medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics. Bikila set the world marathon record in 1960 (2:15:16) and again in 1964 (2:12:11). The African influence upon men’s distance running is still prevalent today with numerous distance records by African runners the past twenty years and Kenyan Paul Tergat the current men’s marathon record holder at 2:04:55 (Figure 3).
Cultural changes first in Western countries, and later in non-Western nations arguably had a profound impact upon the women’s marathon as well. A social climate accepting of women running marathon did not exist prior to the 1970s. The few women who ran marathons were nearly an hour slower than men. In 1972 the climate for women’s athletics changed with the passage of Title IX. The feminist movement in Western cultures began to improve opportunities for women in all aspects of life. In the 5 years following Title IX, the women’s marathon record would drop to ~ 2 hours 35 minutes. There was an initial influx of athletes to the sport, many of whom came from other sports or shorter events to try marathon running. Norwegian Grete Waitz emerged as the first superstar of the women’s marathon, setting four world records from 1978 to 1983. In the years leading up to the first women’s Olympic marathon at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, Waitz would lop nearly 10 minutes from the record before American Joan Benoit emerged as Waitz’s chief rival. Benoit staked claim to the record at 2:22:43 prior to her victory in 1984 Olympic marathon. At the time Benoit’s record was approximately 11% slower than that of men.
Cultural changes moved even slower for women in non-Westernized countries in the later decades of the 20th century. Prior to 1960 the face of the men’s marathon was dominated by Western and European athletes. Similarly, prior to the mid-1990s the face of the women’s marathon was dominated by athletes from Westernized countries. But, in 1994 Tegla Loroupe became the first African woman to win the New York City Marathon. Loroupe is one of twenty five children born to a Kenyan farmer and his four wives. Although running had a proud heritage among African countries, beginning with Bikila, African women of child bearing age were more likely to be entered into polygamist marriages than athletic events. Since 1994, Kenyan women have won the New York marathon 5 times, the Boston Marathon 4 of the last 5 years, and the Chicago Marathon 4 of the past 7 years. Ethiopian Fatuma Roba claimed the gold medal in the 1996 Olympic Marathon in Atlanta, Georgia.
In 1998 Laroupe claimed the women’s record that had been held for 13 years by Ingrid Kristiansen of Norway, and a year later she lowered the mark again to 2:20:43. Loroupe’s countrywoman Catherine N’dereba slashed the world record to 2:18:47 at the 2001 Chicago Marathon. Therefore, it is argued that the influx of athletes from African nations has had a very profound impact upon the marathon running beginning in 1960 for men (Figure 4) and the 1990s for women (Figure 4).
Figure 4. The influence of athletes from African nations upon men’s and women’s world record marathon times, beginning wit the first record set by an African runner in 1960 and 1998, for men and women, respectively.
At present it is clear that predictions regarding women surpassing men in the marathon were at least incorrect in their timing, however, physiological differences due to gender in elite marathon runners appear less pronounced than in the general population, and in the first decade of the 21st century performance differs by just over 8%. It was once inconceivable that humans could run a single mile in under 4 minutes, and yet today Haile Gebrselassie’s record is an average pace of approximately 4:45/mile, while Paula Radcliffe’s record run is less than 30 seconds per mile slower. A gap in performance remains but there remains a gap in equity in athletics between men and women as well. It is only when equity can be achieved that questions of parity can be answered. It is also important for the sport scientist and physical educator to consider how history has impacted our understanding of physiological differences affecting performance between men and women.
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