"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Friday, June 20, 2014

The future of women's marathoning is questionable parenting

After the Minnesota state high school track and field championships, I was involved in some interesting conversations about sophomores who won their races and their futures. I was always saying that the guys were going to go on to great things, but the girls were completely unpredictable; it wasn't meant to be sexist, it's just been my experience that few girls have consistent running careers in their teen years. Checking some records, that seems to be true, not just my imagination.

The most read post on this blog (Aug 1, 2008 - 13000 plus views) was my explanation of the difference between the sexes in running. Girls and boys compete at about the same level until puberty, when boys begin racing faster than girls. What's odd is that girls often get slower!

Local phenom Grace Ping set the world record for 10 year-old girls in the 5K (18:02) this year. http://www.postbulletin.com/sports/localsports/at-age-winona-girl-sets-world-record/article_bcaec806-7e7f-5e3b-ba3d-b9395fb74a9b.html Her family all runs and they do quite well in races and they're far from the only talented running family even in the area. For example, at the state high school meet, Joe Klecker had a shot at winning the 1600m before a fall at the finish; his parents are former world-class runners Barney Klecker and Janis (Horns) Klecker; Janis' parents and brothers are also runners (John won the Superior Sawtooth 100 Mile recently).

But early success means more for men than women. Sebastian Coe ran the world's fastest 800m for 13 year-olds a decade before setting the overall world record, but except for Mary Decker (Slaney), such early success doesn't seem to predict future success. For example, in 1973, 10 year-old Mary Etta Boitano (Blanchard) ran a marathon in 3:01:15, which would've been the world record just three years earlier; that was her lifetime PR as well - she ran well enough in high school to qualify for a Division III college track scholarship, but she quickly faded into obscurity. She said the marathon wasn't her distance, "it wasn't fun," and her family emphasized running as a positive experience, rather than having a win-at-all-costs mentality.

One of the more important factors in marathon running is heat dissipation, and for this reason, marathoners tend to be small (though there are a large number of exceptions), because of an efficient surface area/volume ratio. The epitome of this in women's marathoning was Tegla Loroupe, who was 4'7" and 74 pounds when she was running her best... about the size of a typical 10 year-old. Not only is there a size change in the teen years, but fat deposition also decreases heat dissipation in girls, so there's an advantage to being good at distance running when young.

The current world record holder in the marathon for women (2:15) is held by Paula Radcliffe, who weighed 118 pounds at 5' 8". She ran about 150 miles per week and Brad Hudson in his book states that no woman will run the marathon as fast on much less mileage than that. What he overlooked is that, after Derek Clayton set the world record for men on 150-180 miles per week, Steve Jones later broke it running 90. Talent and great speed can make up for high mileage in some cases.

150 miles per week is not going to happen any time soon for young girls running marathons, but if the same parenting that led to Tiger Woods in golf and Venus and Serena Williams in tennis is applied to young girls gifted at running, 90 miles per week may happen. With the right combination of talent, personality and drive (either internally or externally motivated), the future of women's marathoning may start to look like women's gymnastics: retirement at age 18, after a decade of very severe training.


SteveQ said...

I thought for sure that this would generate comments...

Alene Gone Bad said...

Trying to figure out what I want to say. :-)