Heels over head: The gender race

2014-01-09 15:01

Somewhere over the sound system a man was counting down the final seconds of 2013, but that didn’t register much with me.

Instead, I was furiously chasing a tall, handsome guy who was running quite a bit faster than I had expected.

Really it was a race of egos, and his was clearly the bigger. We had 67km behind us, and with about three minutes to go to the midnight cut-off, I challenged him to add another lap of 500m to bring our running tally for the past 12 hours to 135 laps.

In my defence, his race finished after 12 hours. Mine was a 24-hour race, which meant that midnight for me was only about the halfway mark.

He also earlier confessed to having done his last 4km in the 2013 Comrades Marathon in 20 minutes – that is five minutes a kilometre, an enviable running speed even for a 10km race.

This guy was clearly the type who had a lot of willpower, and the type who kept his best effort for last.

He nearly sprinted to finish his last lap with seconds to go, and I was trailing him by a few seconds with a sprint version of my own. You wouldn’t say the same runner was limping a bit and complaining mildly as he walked around the track just hours before – and as I tut-tutted him the few times I jogged past.

It proves that, as much as tiredness and aches are real, part of the cure for these is in the mind.

I ended up doing 125km between noon on the last day of 2013, and noon on January 1 2014.

It was 25km more than I intended to do, but by the time I finished 100km – shortly after daybreak – myself and my friend Erika were two of the top three women, so I decided to keep going.

It was more fun than I thought 250 laps around a sports field would be, stopping for meals and rests in between (we only ended up sleeping for 15 minutes), scoffing pizza and chocolates free of guilt, and meeting other crazies who also chose the sweat over the champagne. Some even ran for six days in a row.

Running in the cool dark was magical, but the Pretoria daytime temperature of 30°C plus was the greatest challenge.

Four out of the top six distances completed in the 24-hour race were done by women, something that delighted me.

It’s partly this levelling of the genders that pushed me to experiment with very long distance running in the first place: the common belief is that the longer the distance, the better women do.

You only have to run the Comrades on a hot day to see the male carnage on the road, especially in the last 10 or 20 kilometres.

Some ultra distance races have even been won outright by women, although scientific studies of averages still suggest that men are faster.

But, unlike pull-ups, which women apparently have more difficulty with because of a smaller upper body mass, long distances are more of an equaliser because it is less about sheer muscle mass and more about the mind.

I’m no scientist, but I sometimes wonder whether the belief that women are physically weaker than men isn’t more of a self-fulfilling prophecy rather than a fact. If we brought up girls to believe that there are no limits to what they can do, could they one day compete in sport with men as equals?

For example, Russian runner Svetlana Masterkova’s 1996 record for the mile (4:12.56) is similar to the men’s world record (4:12.6) set by US runner Norman Taber in 1915.

Is it possible that 80 years worth of physical evolution caused women to run faster, or did women’s liberation in the course of the 20th century play a bigger role?

Slightly unconventional but respected running guru Tim Noakes wrote in his book, Challenging Beliefs, about the psychological barrier the sub-four-minute mile used to be for men. It was eventually broken in 1954.

It seemed like an impossibility before it was achieved, but once the lead was set, many more men ran a mile in less than four minutes (the world record of 3:43.13 was set by Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj in 1999).

This suggests that psychology is as important as physiology in sport.

Perhaps in ultra-distances, much of the equalising comes about because the men and women who do these races tend to be types with a lot of mental determination in the first place. Or maybe we’re just stubborn and proud.

Meanwhile, my new running friend and I will be using the fragile ego method of training for this year’s Comrades.

Who knows, if I inflate my ego enough, he could be the one chasing me to the finish line next time.

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