For generations, men have been faster than women in races of all distances, but over the past two decades we have started to see a change. More and more female names are appearing at the top of the leaderboards in ultra-endurance events, and the number of female participants in running events of all lengths has increased significantly. Some research suggests the gender gap in distance running is narrowing (especially at the more extreme ultra-distances), and we spoke with Quebec-based ultrarunner The North Face. Anne Bouchard to make him aware of the changing landscape of running.
Women in endurance racing: research
In 1992, researchers published an article in which they analyzed the performance of men and women in the short and long distance events and came to surprising conclusions: the performance of women seemed to improve at a much faster rate than that of men and, in depending on their trajectory, they would eventually catch up. Researchers then boldly claimed that the first instance of a woman beating a man in a long-distance race would only occur a few years later, in 1998.
It didn’t happen as soon as expected, but there have been many outright victories for women in recent years, and even a few instances where women have broken men’s course records as well as women’s.
Take, for example, the British runner Jasmine Paris. In 2019 she won the grueling 268 mile Montane Spine Race. Not only did she beat all the women and men, but she broke the women’s record by over 24 hours and the men’s by over 12 hours. Even more impressive, she had just had a baby and was making frequent stops to express her milk throughout the race.
There are many other examples, including American runners Camille Heron and Courtney Dauwalter. In 2018, Herron won the Desert Solstice Track Invitational 100 mile (in 13:25), while breaking both the 24 hour world record (262.192 kilometers) and the USATF 100 mile world record over Track. Dauwalter has won over 10 ultras including the 2020 Big’s Backyard Ultra, the 2018 Continental Divide 50K and the 2017 Moab 240.
Various other races have been won by women in recent years, and several FKTs are currently held by women as well. Last year, a few female FKTs stood out: by Karen Holland on the 900 km Bruce Trail in Ontario, and Quebec athlete North Face Anne Bouchard established the FKT on the GRA1 (International Appalachian Trail), a 650 km course with 24,000 feet (7,315 m) of elevation gain in 11 days, 8 hours, 21 minutes and 41 seconds.
Somehow, Bouchard finds the time to train between raising two kids and working 50 hours a week at his corporate job. She says she has met many ultra-endurance runners over the years and believes women have a unique ability to overcome pain. “IIt’s about having that speed that you can sustain for so many miles and then feeling the pain and moving past it,” she says. “I guess that’s the strength women have for long distances.”
Male vs female pain
Most research comparing the experience of pain in men and women suggests that women are more sensitive to pain and have a lower pain threshold. Interestingly, a 2019 McGill University study found that men remembered past painful experiences more clearly than women, making them more stressed and hypersensitive to later pain when they returned to where they had experienced it.
Some researchers have hypothesized that being less able to remember past pain may be helpful for women during long, multi-day endurance events. (Some have suggested that this forgetfulness, applied to the pain of childbirth, is what allows them to have multiple children.)
Bouchard, for his part, thinks there is something to that. “The women have given birth, and it is something that is programmed – we know there is pain and we have to go through it,” she said. “It has to go like this, it has to come out. You have no choice.” She adds that even women who have never given birth seem to have this ability to endure.
The gender gap in elite long-distance running
Of course, when you compare the fastest men in the world with the fastest women in the world, the men are still significantly faster, but that misses the point. The debate is whether the performance of the average woman is catching up with that of the average man, and that seems to be true.
However, even when you look at the elites, you can see how quickly women have caught up. Since 1970, the men’s marathon record has been lowered by about six minutes. In contrast, during this period, the women’s record dropped by more than 45 minutes. In ultra-endurance events, as we have seen, this gap seems to close even faster.
Will women catch up with men?
Many experts believe women will eventually run as fast as their male counterparts, but it’s impossible to say when that will happen or how long it will take. Women have been in sports, especially running, for far fewer years than men, and it takes time to catch up to such a head start.
“Men have been physical for so long,” says Bouchard. “Maybe at the beginning… but if you add up all these years, of course the men are ahead physically. How many years will it take to get ahead of them? I do not know.”
Of course, the more women get involved in running, the more women’s athletics will continue to improve, and Bouchard encourages all women not to limit themselves. “If you want to improve, do what needs to be done,” she says. “Forget you’re a woman, forget your age, forget you have to work 50 hours, forget whatever you want, do what your dreams show you.”