Syracuse Online

Marathon Records

Gender Gap Narrows

Published May 19, 2003 in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

A year ago, I wrote about Deena Drossin's world record at the Carlsbad 5K road race, and her second place finish to Britain's Paula Radcliffe in the World Winter Cross Country Championship. The two women met again last month at the London Marathon, and rewrote running history on both sides of the Atlantic. Radcliffe set a world record and Drossin broke Joan Benoit Samuelson's American Record.

In the fastest women.s marathon in history, Radcliffe ran 2:15:25 to improve on the 2:17:18 world record that she set in October at the Chicago Marathon. Kenyan Catherine Ndereba finished second in 2:19:54 followed by Drossin in third place in 2:21:16. Benoit Samuelson's record had stood since 1985, when she ran Chicago in 2:21:21 a year after her Los Angeles Olympic Marathon victory.

The results of the London Marathon were numerically significant, and they ushered a new era in women's running. Both American and world records in the marathon had stood since 1985. The world record was eventually broken in the late nineties, and was lowered six times in the past five years. Now the American record is catching up.

A parallel development characterized the longstanding men's world record of 2:06:50 set in 1986 by Ethiopian Belayneh Densimo. That record stood for twelve years until Brazil's Ronaldo Da Costa ran 2:06:05 at the 1998 Berlin Marathon. Then came Khalid Khannouchi's twin records of 2:05:42 at Chicago in 1999 as a Moroccan, and 2:05:38 at London in 2002 as an American citizen.

The comparison between men's and women's marathon records goes beyond the feast of the eighties and famine in the nineties to the dramatic reduction in the gender gap in this decade. That gap between the men's world record and the women's world record shrunk from 50 minutes in 1970, to 20 minutes in 1980, 15 minutes in 1990, and down to 10 minutes in 2003.

The gap is likely to remain around ten minutes for a long time. A gap of about ten percent is common between men's and women's performances at all running distances, from the 100-meter sprint to the 100-mile ultramarathon.

Statistically, few women train and compete at the intensity of men's training. While Drossin boasts of 100 miles per week, former American record holder Jerry Lawson used to run 1,000 miles in one month. Such a discrepancy in training and in performance has anatomical and physiological bases. Anatomically, women have wider hips than men, accentuating the angle of the leg to the ground during motion. Physiologically, the periodic changes in blood chemistry impact energy conversion. For better for worse, men and women run and race differently.

© 2003 The Post-Standard.

Kamal Jabbour runs and writes on the hills of Pompey, New York. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. Dr.J. created, webcasting live Every Lap of Every Race. He receives email at