In an interview held just prior to her winning the 2010 Ironman World Championships Mirinda Carfrae made the following assertion:
"I think the bottom line is that the Ironman is more suited to women...Physically. Look at endurance runners - the men's and women's times are very similar. When you get to the last couple hours of an Ironman, the guys' muscle mass isn't helping them go any faster. That's when we start to gain. I think women can better withstand that amount of effort for that duration."
What? How could Rinny dare claim that women are better endurance athletes than men? Most would scoff at such an idea - but I think she is on to something.
Granted, one could easily counter her assertion by noting that the men's Ironman World Record is objectively faster than the Women's, and call the case closed there. However, her claim was not simply that women are faster than men in endurance races, but rather that they are more suited for endurance sports.
At the elite level, male and female endurance athletes' physiques can become nearly indistinguishable. At 5ft 7in Ironman World Champ Chrissie Wellington weighs in at a reasonable 132lbs. Compare that to mens World Champ Chris McCormack, who at 5ft 11in barely tips the scales at 150lb.
"So what's the big deal? Endurance guys are skinny," you're thinking. "Anyone who has seen a high school cross country team photo knows that."
The point is that the adaptation of male and female athlete in response to endurance training appears to move the female to a state much closer to her natural body composition; while the male physique is minimized far below what would be considered "normal" size. The female maintains a healthy composition while muscle mass is stripped away from the male as his body seeks a lighter version of itself to carry over the miles. This is perhaps what Mirinda Carfrae was referring to - the idea that the female athlete is a sort of natural economy car and the male is more of a super charged hot-rod. No matter how fast the muscle car can go, in the long run, the economy car has the advantage over it's gas-guzzling, heavier counterpart. What's more, numerous studies have concluded that endurance training decreases testosterone levels in male athletes, further supporting the idea that endurance racing is something that men are less predisposed to.
So what does this mean?
It may mean that endurance sports are one realm of competition in which the ladies truly enjoy a natural advantage over their male opponents. It may mean that triathlon is destined to become a sport dominated in both participation and performance by the "fairer gender." According to a 2010 USAT report, female participants have jumped from comprising 27% to 37% of competitors at all USAT sanctioned events. Based on that rapid increase, male racers could be in the minority within a couple of short years.
All of this is not to say that triathlon is a sport that is definably "his" or "hers." On the contrary, it is perhaps one of the best sports to provide a level playing field for all. Triathletes of both genders bring their own lists of strengths and weakness to each and every race. And on those early mornings both male and female athletes of varied predispositions toe the line to do battle - not as much with each other, as with themselves.
So, ladies - let this assertion by the reigning World Champ be food for thought and motivation for your race morning. And if you see me out there - maybe you should give me a head start?