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Gaining on the men

Women's marathon speeds are improving at a record pace. Citing physical advantages, some predict they may soon beat men on their own terms, without a head start.

March 15, 2004|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Marathon's 20-minute head start for elite female runners helped a woman cross the finish line first this year, possibly setting a precedent for other major races to follow suit.

But eventually, some experts say, the practice may become unnecessary. Women may start winning the 26.2-mile races outright.

Their marathon times have grown shorter and shorter over the years as a flood of participants has deepened the talent pool. And quite simply, when it comes to their biological makeup, women may be better suited for long distances than men.

"If all else is equal, the longer the race, the more it favors the woman," said Dr. Robert Girandola, an associate professor of kinesiology at USC who has studied the performance of elite track athletes.

The real question, however, is whether the marathon is a long enough race for a woman's biological advantages to trump a man's. The short answer is exercise physiologists don't know, but they see strong points on both sides.

As Girandola points out, "These runners are hitting 5-minute miles, so even in a marathon you still need power and speed, and that favors a man."

Only a couple of generations ago, top race organizers widely believed that women didn't have the physiological wherewithal to complete a marathon. That belief delayed the women's marathon from becoming an Olympic event until 1984.

Over the last couple of decades, men have shaved seconds off their finish times; women have chopped minutes. Meanwhile, the gender gap in marathon times used to be a half-hour, but now that margin has routinely been narrowed to 20 minutes, sometimes less. (Race organizers in Los Angeles created the head start for women by averaging the finish times over the marathon's 19-year history.)

A strength for women runners is that they seem to be able to process heat better than men do, said Greg Crowther, a research associate at the University of Washington. He has studied male-female differences in long-distance running and says this ability would make it less likely for a woman to be overcome by heat.

"Take an elephant and a mouse," said Crowther, a chemical engineer whose doctoral work was in human physiology. "The elephant has a huge internal reserve of heat, but the mouse loses it very quickly. Heat just flies off the mouse."

Also, women metabolize more fat and fewer carbohydrates than men, said Tracy Horton, an assistant professor of nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center who has studied the way athletes process food. This is a critical benefit over longer distances because the fuel supplied by carbohydrates is usually exhausted. Thus, a woman can convert fat reserves to energy more efficiently than a man, Horton said.

Larger fat reserves, however, also can hold a woman back in shorter distances, because extra weight slows the runner down. Again, at what point the fat reserves become an asset is unclear, experts say.

Women, too, may bear pain better than men. Although they have been shown to experience pain more quickly than men, women are less likely to become disabled by it, according to researchers at a 1998 gender and pain conference at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. A combination of physiological and psychological tools -- the same methods used in childbirth -- helps women overcome pain more effectively than men, the researchers said.

No one would deny that Pam Reed of Tucson, Ariz., can overcome pain. She's the two-time champion of the extreme endurance event known as the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile run from Death Valley halfway up Mt. Whitney. Her closest competitor in last year's race, a man, finished 24 minutes behind her.

Still, the men have much on their side to maintain their dominance of the marathon, say exercise physiologists. They have a higher oxygen-carrying capacity, and so can supply muscles with explosive power and speed. Also, testosterone means less fat and more muscle.

"In general, I'm pessimistic about women overtaking the men in the marathon anyway," said Crowther. "I think it may still be too short a distance to take away the natural advantages men have."

But sometime in the not-too-distant future, Los Angeles Marathon organizers are confident they will see a woman crowned champion with no head start. "At some point, a woman is going to win a marathon on her own merits," said Dr. William Burke, president of the Los Angeles Marathon. "It's a matter of time."

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