OTI Online
Fall 1998

Enduring Women
by Anngel Delaney

It's just after 3:00 a.m., and Lin Gentling is running at an easy clip. It has been perfect summer weather for Minneapolis - cool, dry and clear enough for a million stars to be visible.

"I'm tired," Lin murmurs. Of course she's tired. Lin has been running on this path, a 2.7-mile loop around Lake Harriet, for 19 hours, since 8:00 a.m. the previous day. Having logged over 80 miles so far, the ankle on which she recently had surgery for tendon damage from overuse has begun to protest. At regular intervals we stick new Band-Aids on her multiblistered feet, which so far have undergone four sock changes. To help keep her awake and provide motivational support, I have been running alongside Lin on and off for five hours since the beginning of this 24-hour "ultramarathon" fundraiser event.

The parameters of this particular ultramarathon include a running time of 24 hours; you can rest as long as you like, but the longer you rest the less scholarship money you raise for inner city kids (most pledges are based on miles completed). In addition, runners must check in at one of the two aid stations along the trail every four hours to have their weight and blood pressure monitored; any participant who loses more than seven percent of her body weight must drop out of the race.

Another factor that differentiates this event from your run-of-the-mill marathon is this: At 10:00 p.m. last night a Pizza Hut truck pulled up at one of the aid stations. The runners made neat work of the pies, though Lin has developed a taste for the station's boiled potatoes with salt. In the faster marathons, a runner's blood is diverted from the stomach to the extremities, making digestion a very bilious business.

Lin Gentling is running at an easy clip

We stop at a park bench. "Wake me up in ten minutes," Lin says. Before I can set my timer or try to talk her into resting a few minutes longer, she is fast asleep. I marvel at my 40-year-old friend and at the other 115 male and female ultra runners. What is it that makes them want to run this or any other ultramarathon, which can be a grueling 100mile course or a staggering 48 hours, sometimes considerably longer. As ultramarathons go, this one is relatively easy. The terrain is flat, the tree-lined path around a scenic lake rather pleasant. Many ultramarathon courses are more arduous, like the one in California that winds down Death Valley and up 4,418 meters to Mount Whitney. Lin, a financial administrator at the Mayo Clinic, who has been running marathons most of her adult life, explained that since she recently found she wasn't running faster anymore, she decided to try running longer. While this might sound reasonable, it actually reflects a radical attitude toward sports, which according to Mary Jo Kane, Ph.D., director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, is "the most gendered institution in our culture." After all, it is the male world that has determined that faster, higher, taller, harder is not only better but the apex of athletic achievement. If women were the arbiters of excellence in sport, maybe excellence would reflect different values. Maybe the Indy 500 would be an obstacle course to test drivers' agility rather than a speedway, or perhaps the most prestigious marathon would be determined by who can run the farthest rather than the fastest.

After waking Lin, I resume conversing; it helps keep her awake. We discuss the critical issue - where to eat after the race - and we calculate that she is in fourth place. The leader, another woman, is about four miles ahead of her. The fact that two women are leading the pack at this event is not uncommon, nor is it uncommon for women to win the event outright. Since 1972, when women first participated officially in the Boston Marathon, women's winning time has improved by 22 percent, while the men's time on the same course has improved by only 3.7 percent. These results demonstrate that women are catching up to men, and some predict that the performance of women in endurance events will surpass that of men in the not-so-distant future, if it hasn't already.

For years women were considered frail vessels whose weak bodies would be deformed by strenuous exercise. Concerns about sports damaging women's reproductive abilities and feminine charms were so entrenched that women were not allowed to compete in the Olympic marathon event until 1984. But just as professional women have challenged negative and discrediting attitudes in the corporate world, so too have women athletes challenged male dominance in the sporting world - and been victorious. Sled-dog musher Susan Butcher, braving 1,049 miles of frozen land and 11 days and nights, steered her dogs to a victory four times in the 1980s and in 1990 in the sport's most important race, the Iditarod. And ever since 20-year-old American Gertude Ederle set a world record swimming the English Channel in 1926, women have dominated open water marathon swimming, holding several records and frequently winning major open-water competitions.

Research published in 1996 in South Africa showed that in a group of 10 male and 10 female marathon-level runners, the men were consistently faster over distances of 10km, up to the standard for the marathon of 26.2 miles. But in the prestigious 54-mile Comrades Marathon, the women finished, on average, 53 minutes ahead of the men. The conclusion of the researchers was that women can maintain a higher rate of aerobic activity over a greater length of time. Similar results were found in an analysis of world-record times in running, swimming, and speed skating done by researchers at Northeastern University in Boston. "In all three of these sports," the researchers reported, "the superiority of men's performance diminished with increasing distance."

Exercise physiologists have for decades explained the performance gap between men and women in such sports as track and field, tennis and basketball, by cataloguing the advantages of the male physique: more muscle mass, 5 to 7 percent less body fat, greater lung capacity, and more efficient biomechanics. Women's athleticism, however, is mostly uncharted territory. That our physiology is being studied at all in this regard is in large part a response to the recent phenomenal finishes of top female endurance athletes. Their success clearly indicates that women, too, have physiological traits which are advantageous for sporting events, especially those based on endurance, and that these attributes are not simply lesser versions of the attributes of males.

One of the most widely held theories explaining women's prowess in endurance events is based on the results of a study by David Costill, Ph.D., former director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University in Indiana. Dr. Costill's study found that women in general were more efficient than men at metabolizing their much-maligned fat stores for energy, which would give them an advantage in events requiring great amounts of energy over a long period of time. In effect, this capacity delays exhaustion by staving off the depletion of the carbohydrates that fuel the body's activity - by keeping the "gas tank" from hitting empty.

It is probable that women's higher estrogen levels are a key factor in their greater stamina. For example, studies have shown that elevated estrogen levels have an antioxidizing effect on muscles, reducing the risk of degeneration from various diseases. In addition, research cited by Charlotte Tate, Ph.D., president of the lndianapolis-based American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), shows that "as a result of higher levels of estrogen, females have more of compound 2,3-diphosphoglycerate, which helps provide oxygen to working muscles." The more oxygen, the less fatigue. A report in the June 1997 Chronicle of Higher Education finds that women "appear to have more efficient mitochondria, the cellular structures that are the power plants of the muscles." The Chronicle also reports on a study conducted by Pedro Pujol, M.D., a physician at the Olympic Sports Medicine Center in Barcelona, which found that among male and female Olympic marathon runners, only the women "had no increases in free radicals - tissue-damaging compounds produced by oxygen metabolism - after completing a race." Dr. Pujol also notes that the neurotransmitter serotonin increases with the presence of estrogen, and studies have indicated that serotonin delays fatigue among endurance athletes.

The significance of the confluence of these physiologic factors cannot be overestimated. Yet what truly makes the female endurance competitor distinctive among the athletically elite is the way she trains her mind to override the pain that is almost always an accessory to ultramarathoning. It's not mind over matter, nor is it as simple as visualizing oneself crossing the finish line. Rather, the ability to vanquish physical distress - in other words, to simply get over it - seems to be a particularly female quality, whether innate or a psychosocial construct. While anecdotal evidence suggests that women naturally have a higher tolerance for pain than men (attributed to their being physiologically equipped to withstand the demands of childbirth), a recent study undertaken by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) seems to contradict that idea. In the NIH findings, women reported 40 percent more pain than men. However, the women studied coped better with their pain, and they did so by distracting themselves, venting their emotions, or seeking support. Men used fewer such coping skills; they were also found to suffer greater ill effects from a negative mood.

Still, while many see women as front-runners, not everyone thinks they are doing as well as the data indicate they should be doing. As Dr. Barbara Drinkwater, research physiologist at Pacific Medical Center and an authority on women's sports, says, "So far, predictions about women catching up with men have been off. Those predictions were made when women were just getting involved in sports, and the learning curve for them was much higher than for men who have been involved in sports all along."

Some insist that comparing men and women at all is problematic. Dr. Lion Cadwell, sports medicine physician for the U.S. National Ultradistance Team, based in Indianapolis, points out that comparing men and women as distinct categories can be misleading. As he says, "There are more similarities among elite athletes regardless of gender than there are similarities among ah1 men or among all women."

While it is essential that women be able to construct their own ideas of success and celebrate their achievements apart from men's performances, it may actually be men who are being protected by an unwillingness to make comparisons. Dr. Kane notes: "There is too much at stake not to think that men are superior athletes. Seeing women compete and sometimes beat men is too threatening to a patriarchal view of the world." Dr. Kane also points out that, while women are in the top one percent of finishers at nearly every marathon, this fact is rarely, if ever, highlighted. Instead, the marathon is portrayed by the media as two separate races - a men's event and a women's event - and the idea of male athletic dominance is left unchallenged. She adds: "If performance were simply, or even primarily, about physical difference in, for example, size and strength, then smaller, weaker competitors would never outperform bigger, stronger athletes. This is obviously not the case."

Many who have studied women endurance athletes for years look beyond the contrasts between men and women. "It is foolish to make these comparisons because they set up women in ways that are unneeded and unfair," says Dr. Drinkwater. "Women and men are simply different. Whether or not women beat men is unimportant. What is important is that women are doing things that were thought impossible."

At the 24-hour mark, Lin has run 105.6 miles. The top finisher clocks in at 112 miles. That competitor is, you guessed it, a woman.

Anngel Delaney makes her home in New York City and writes about sports when not participating in them. She is a recreational long-distance runner and cyclist.

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