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Women ultrarunners out in front?

Science says physical differences prevent the fastest woman ever beating the fastest man over 42 kilometres. But how about over longer distances?

By Rachel Jacqueline and Catharine Nicol

Kami Semick leading the pack in Lijiang, China

Photo: Action Asia Events

The phrase ‘getting chicked’ is commonly heard in the world of ultrarunning. That’s because women consistently place among the top finishers overall. And sometimes, they finish out in front.

Take Hong Kong-based American ultrarunner Kami Semick (shown right), for example. At the 2010 Vermont 100-mile Endurance Run, Semick won the women’s race and placed an impressive third overall, finishing just 41 minutes behind the male winner.

Eight years earlier, fellow American Pam Reed did even better, making the running world sit up and take note when she won the 2002 Badwater Ultramarathon outright, beating 77 competitors to the finish in 27 hours and 56 minutes. She did it again the following year.

Closer to home, Claire Price became the first woman to crack the 12-hour barrier in the 2013 Vibram HK100, coming 13th in 11:58:04 out of a field of over 800 runners. Had she set the same time in the inaugural edition of the race two years earlier, she would have placed third and finished a mere four minutes behind elite male runner, Jeremy Ritcey.

Over shorter distances women’s relative lack of muscular strength and smaller aerobic capacity prevent them closing the gap on men, but science suggests that women’s bodies may be better equipped for the long haul than those of their male counterparts.

“Women store more fat than men, and their bodies are well adapted for burning it for energy,” explains Dr Duncan MacFarlane, Sports Physiologist at the Institute of Human Performance at Hong Kong University.

Women carry on average 20-25% body fat, compared to 10-15% for men, and during lower intensity efforts, studies have shown they utilise those stores more efficiently.

In a 1990 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers found that in a 90-minute run at 65% of VO2 max that females had significantly lower respiratory exchange ratios (RER, the ratio between the amount of carbon dioxide produced and oxygen consumed in one breath) compared to males. The result was that women used 428.4 calories from fat in the energy they expended on average, while men used only 242.1 calories. A subsequent muscle biopsy showed greater muscle glycogen depletion in male subjects when compared to female subjects.

Another study published eight years later in the same journal reported similar gender-based differences in fat metabolism during exercise – an average of 43.7% of the total calories burnt for the men in the sample and 50.9% for the women.

Physiologists have also argued that as women are typically smaller and lighter, gruelling trail running events take less of a toll on their body. In a race like the HK100, with over 4,500 metres of elevation gain and similar quad-burning descents, the toll on Price’s frame for instance was arguably less than that on the taller and heavier men left in her wake. The harder the course, the more this advantage would mount up.

While the physical differences are still being probed, sports performance counsellor and endurance athlete, Laura Walsh, believes there are definite differences in the mind of male and female athletes.

“Women tend to be more calculating when it comes to endurance,” she explains. “They tend to be more patient and aren’t swallowed by testosterone.”

It’s a sentiment shared by ultrarunner Semick. “I think in endurance running testosterone is not your friend,” she says. “My observation is that men tend to push too hard in the first half and blow up in the second half . . . I pass most of the men’s field in the second half of a race.”

Russian Olya Korzh, another of Hong Kong's bevy of talented female trail runners

Photo: Lloyd Belcher

Another Hong Kong-based trail runner, Claire Price, says the same: “The one big difference I see between men and women in distance running is pacing – men tend often to go off too fast, getting caught up in the excitement of the start of the race, chasing/trying to stay ahead of their competition, whereas I think women are often a bit more strategic and pace themselves better, finishing strong, rather than blowing up during the race.”

Walsh also believes women’s ability to express their emotions allows them to ride out the ups and downs of endurance challenges. “Women are allowed culturally to show more emotions and to cry, and thus they tend not to get drained by anger. Women also ask for help better than men.”

Another popular argument runs that women have an innate ability to tolerate pain, being engineered for the trials of childbirth.

“Women are bred to endure the physical pain and the labour of childbirth, so it’s in our DNA that we are able to push ourselves in endurance sports. I do not think we are physically stronger, but if we apply the right mental ability then perhaps we are able to handle the pain of an endurance feat a little better than men,” says mountaineer Annabelle Bond, the fastest women to climb the Seven Summits.

Semick disagrees though: “I have seen plenty of men suffer, truly suffer, and stick with it,” she says. “I remember watching Topher Gaylord in the last 25 miles of Ultra-Trail Mont Blanc and wondering how he was going to finish. He was pale, vomiting, and generally looking like it was best to call it quits or at least slow down. But he didn’t and he finished top 10.”

“My thought is that men push the red line from the get go. But women don’t even approach the red line until the final miles of the race. You can see it in the pictures of races. The woman winner usually looks calm and relaxed through the first 80-90%. Then she will start to dig when she smells the barn. The male winners usually look serious, as if they are working hard, from mile one.” AA


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