Women and men are different. So why not recognise that in ultra running?


Today we welcome to the pages of Ultra168, Ali Pottinger, one half of the excellent Squadrun team with Kerry Suter. Ali contacted me yesterday to say that following an article I wrote about equality and equity last year, it had led to some broader discussions with race directors about treating men and women differently in races with a view of encouraging more women into our sport while also recognising that women are not ‘little men’ so to speak. There’s a clear difference and if we recognise women in terms of their own race and their own podiums, why do we hold women to the same time standards and goals?

Sure there are some women that test themselves against men, and I applaud your talents in that respect, but this is not about the 1%ers who are in a position to do that. This is about consideration for the thousands of women who have yet to enter our sport. They haven’t entered because of the barriers that exist. We’re still a very heavy male dominated sport and the growth is going to come from women – The sooner people realise that, in particular race directors, because this is where your pay day is coming from in the future, the better our sport will be. What’s resulted from Ali’s discussions and drive has been genuine social change with a race over in New Zealand, and I hope many other race directors follow suit. For now though, have a read of Ali’s thoughts below and the genuine change that’s taken place at one race.

Guys and girls, we are different right?! We all recognise that and it’s acknowledged in many different ways, yet in ultra running we continue to treat men and women in the same manner. In August last year, Ultra168 wrote an article which talked about equality and equity in trail running and it really got people talking.

The main premise of the article was that in order to achieve equality (the outcome), we need to equity (the medium to help us get there). Currently, there is a severe imbalance and in order to encourage more women into our sport and let them know that they matter, we need to level the playing field and create the right conditions for women to ensure greater participation.

So why is it that when it comes to time goals for trail races, they are the same for men and women? Are there not two different races happening on the same course, on the same day? Should we all strive for the same standard? That’s not equity.

Sadly, gender discrimination is still alive and kicking. In one race that awards time prizes the top 28% of men received the reward and only the top 9% of females did. We can argue all sorts of things about this but the reality is that they are vastly different percentages. In the Distance Running NZ Facebook group this week, there was great debate about a race which is offering $4,000 prize money for the first man and $300 for the first woman. The prize pool for each sex was split: $9650 for men vs $525 for women.

Women are not just ‘small men’

I’ve been to a few Stacy Sims seminars where her message is ‘Women are not just small men’. She speaks about how, as women we need to train and fuel differently to match our physiology. So how are we different? To be honest we could be here all day describing the differences. I’m going to bullet point a few key differences for you.

  • Women have a smaller heart, and smaller heart volume.
  • Women get periods. Hormone levels change throughout the month and impact us in a number of weird and (not so) wonderful ways.Women have smaller lungs, and a lower VO2 max (due to a lower oxygen carrying capacity).
  • Our VO2 Max is normally 15-25% lower than men.
  • Women have wider hips which can make us prone to knee injuries due to knees not tracking properly.

Research shows that across a range of running distances, there’s a performance difference of roughly 12.4% between the sexes. My partner Kerry and I have often talked about the differences between male and female physiology, and find it a really fascinating area to both research and debate. We’ve also had this discussion (about merit prizes) with the runners we coach (at Squadrun) and realise it is a controversial topic. We know that the sexes are different and (generally) perform differently. At Parkrun they acknowledge the differences between men and women. They have merit boards for men who run a sub 17 minute 5km and one for women who run a sub 20 minute 5km.

Creating social change: How do we create equity to gain equality and recognise achievements within the context they require?

A while ago we met with Jason from the Ring of Fire – Volcanic Ultra, 50km and Relay, Ruapehu, New Zealand. We spoke about the ‘merit’ ribbons and about the differences in physiology between men and women. We all agreed, we are very similar but different creatures. We questioned what that would look like on the Ring of Fire course and it’s awesome to see this being acknowledged in the timings for the 72km gold ribbon. To achieve gold, men must run sub 11 hours (averaging 9min 10sec per km around the mountain), and women 12.5 hours (averaging 10min 25sec per km around the mountain).

It’s an interesting debate but personally, I’m a fan of seeing the achievements of women and men being recognised in a similar but different footing, after all, that’s what we are on already.

If this race can do it, why can’t others? Wouldn’t it be great if others followed their example and we create a wave of social change in ultra running.

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I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

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