Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Are The Boston Qualifying Standards Too Easy for Women?

I'd planned to sign up for Boston this year, but didn't see any hurry to do it. The day after registration opened (October 18, 2010), one of my non-runner friends asked me if I were one of the few who had gotten in. I'd completely missed that it had sold out in hours.

Which prompted some interesting discussions with other runners in the following weeks. Boston really shouldn't sell out in hours--on that we all agreed. But, how do you make a correction so that Boston re-emerges as the "People's Olympics" type of event that it once was? While I have some ideas for that (fodder for future posts), the most common theme I heard from other runners was the standards were too easy for women.

It's hard to conclude anything other than, well, I really didn't deserve to qualify because I didn't work that hard for it.
Come to find out, this is a fairly widely held belief: "But there's another possible reason for the surging demand—one that has the potential to kick up a fair amount of controversy. It's the notion that the qualifying standards for women are too soft…. Some running experts say that one way to reduce excess demand for Boston slots would be to stop treating women like the gentler sex." (WSJ, It's Time for Women to Run Faster: Boston's Crowded Marathon Prompts a Gender War; Why Females Get an Extra 30 Minutes)

I'd like to debunk the myth that Boston's qualifying standards are disproportionately too easy on women, and that lowering the women's standards on their own won't solve the Boston entry problem.

More men than women qualify for and run Boston.

In Boston 2010 (the year I ran it), forty-two percent of the finishers were women.

In 2009, the total number of finishers of U.S. marathons and other road races were just about evenly split, men versus women.

If you assume that the same percentage of those who qualified actually run and complete the race, you can draw the simple conclusion, that about twenty percent more men than women qualified for Boston in 2010. Based on the national average of marathon completers versus Boston qualifiers, it actually appears that women may have it harder--even with the 30 minutes of additional time to qualify.

Yes, a 50-54 man has to run 5 minutes faster than an under-39 woman to qualify, but the average winning time of the 50-54M age group is 7:21 faster than the average winning time of the under-39F age group.

Too many women qualifying for Boston simply isn't the problem. Reading through some angry online forums that mostly bash on t
he "easy standards for women," I think IsleRoyaleRunner said it best: "The reason why it's [Boston 2011] anticipated to sell out in a matter of days has little to do with lowering the standard for women. There aren't 10,000 women running between 3:35 and 3:40. All the standards need to be lowered significantly if you want the race to be open past the 1st of the year."

Study after study has shown that the Marathon distance performance gap between men and women is between 11 to 12 percent:

"This is a fascinating result. Women actually do better, relatively speaking, in the shorter events, and the marathon is one of their worst distances compared to men." (Men vs. Women in Sports)

In their examination of performance in sports, women versus men, Astrand and Rodahl state "…In the marathon, women are 12% slower." They elaborate, "The women's running economy was poorer; that is, their oxygen uptake during running at a standard submaximal speed was higher. The heart rate, respiratory exchange ratio, and blood lactate concentration also confirmed that a given running speed resulting in higher physiological strain for the women." (Textbook of work physiology: physiological bases of exercise by Per-Olof Astrand, Kare Rodahl)

Due to key differences between men and women, women are at a distinct disadvantage for running the marathon:

"The marathon is simply not long enough to nullify the physiological advantages that men have in testosterone level, maximal oxygen consumption, and hemoglobin level. Given that over 99% of the energy used in the marathon is produced aerobically, women’s lower hemoglobin level (which mean women can transport less oxygen per unit of blood) is a distinct disadvantage." (Will Women Marathoners Catch the Men? Pfitzinger Lab Reports)

Women's blood carries 11% less oxygen for the same blood volume.

"It's obvious that males frequently achieve better performance times than similarly trained females. Part of the reason for this is that males routinely engage in a perfectly legal, natural form of 'blood doping.' The key male sex hormone - testosterone - promotes the production of haemoglobin, an oxygen-carrying protein found inside red blood cells, and testosterone also increases the concentration of red cells in the blood. The key female hormone - oestrogen - has no such effect. As a result, each litre of male blood contains about 150-160 grams of haemoglobin, compared to only 130-140 grams for females. The bottom line is that each 'male' litre of blood can carry about 11 per cent more oxygen than a similar quantity of female blood.

"Note how closely this 'oxygen gap' parallels the performance gap observed by Seiler and Sailer, who found a male-female performance difference of exactly 11 per cent in the 1980s - and 12 per cent today. Is this just a coincidence, or does the 11-per cent enhancement of blood oxygen in males produce the 11-per cent improvement in running speeds? Since oxygen is needed to furnish most of the energy required for endurance exercise, some scientists have suspected that the 11-per cent oxygen difference is the key factor behind male-female performance variation.

Exercise scientists Stephen Seiler and writer Steven Sailer mention in the May-June edition of the internet publication Sportscience News "two other key female 'deficiencies' - less muscle mass and smaller hearts than men, even after correction for smaller body size." (The Gender Gap 1: Women are getting slower; men are getting faster?)

Conclusion: The qualifying standard differences between men and women are probably about right.
"Running USA, a research center based in Colorado, has collected raw data from nearly 500 marathons across the country that show a median gender difference of about 28 minutes in finishing times."

Personally, I'd vote for lowering the standards across the board--for everyone. Allowing fewer women clearly doesn't solve the problem.

Note: I have added the distribution of male / female finishers for Boston 2010 in the image immediately to the left, for purposes of discussion. If anyone has the full data records of all 22K+ Finishers they'd be willing to share, please DM me in twitter.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Marathon Pace Session on LBTT

When my alarm went off, I nearly couldn't find it to turn it off I was sleeping so deeply. What is it with morning long runs, anyway? How about a nice Saturday Afternoon long run? My will forced my body into action every step of the way, until I realized I was not only really, really tired, but I was also slightly nauseated. By the time I actually pulled into the parking lot, I had to remind myself that how I felt at the beginning of a run historically played no part in how the run was going to go. I've pulled into that very lot feeling like the energizer bunny, and had my worst long run; and I've felt horrible and ended up pulling it off. Let's just see what I had before setting myself up for a predictable self-fulfilling prophecy.

My long-suffering running buddy, Travis, was of course early and waiting. At 34F, he hops out in a T-shirt and shorts looking fresh and comfortable, while I'm in head-to-toe under-armor and have hot hands tucked in my gloves and worried how long it might take to die of hypothermia. I hope it's quick.

The goal: two mile warm-up and eleven at 8:24. The first two miles come with effort. I push the pedal down the instant we hit the third mile, and by the first quarter, we are still averaging above 8:24. This isn't looking good. I press harder, and think to myself, how on earth can I hold this for eleven miles, much less one? But, as we approach the last stretch before we turn around at two-and-a-half, Travis says, "Hey, what's the goal here, 8:00s?" I look at my watch and we've dropped the average for the mile to around 8:16 (making it up a bit), but apparently we're running at 8:00 for the moment. He watches the instant pace; I only watch the overall average for the mile. This is going to work out all right.

Eventually, we find it and I feel really good. We decide after the single break after five miles that we'll go out four and back, no other stops. We think we've planned this four out into the wind and four back with the wind at our backs. At around mile seven, we pass a group of solid runners, and one extends his white-gloved hand out. I'm pumped with how great I feel and decide we're going to high-five. I realize I'm delirious. But I know by now I'm going to kill this run. The high-five seemed appropriate.

Somehow, the wind shifted or we got it wrong and the turn back was into the wind. But, I've locked in the pace and we hold it steady anyway. We surge a bit for the last mile, which ended up being the fastest. Just a bit of extra credit there. At more than fifty miles for the week; and not a thing hurting--things are looking really good for Houston, ten weeks from tomorrow.

Marathon Pace on LBTT Garmin Connect - Details

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Marathon Pace Session at Watkins Mill

When my alarm went off before 5 AM and I'd heard the wind buffet my bedroom windows like a tympanic membrane all night long, I seriously considered canceling. This was going to be a difficult enough run under pristine conditions. My pillow pulled me back and I gave in very briefly. One good thing about having a running buddy counting on you; no one wants to be the first to cancel. Guilt shoved me out of bed against my body's protests.

Seriously, didn't think I was going to have it and told my buddy Travis that at least five times before we got past the warm up miles. If you'd polled me at 2.5 miles into this run, I'd have told you there was no way it was going to happen as designed. It was cold, hilly and extremely gusty / windy. But not thinking I was going to have it wasn't going to stop me from trying. Despite my reservations, we ran better than my goals: 3 mi easy, 3 miles goal 8:24 (actual 8:15, 8:20, 8:14) 1 mi goal pace 7:50 (actual 7:42), 3 miles 8:24 (actual 8:09, 8:24, 8:07).

I'm still in shock I (we, although I had no doubts about Travis' ability) pulled it off; let alone in the conditions! Great run, I'm thrilled!

Watkins Mill Garmin Connect - Details