"The goal is to become the unique, awesome, never to be repeated human being that we were called to be." -Patricia Deegan

Friday, April 27, 2018

Women Are Not Small Men - Even in FKTs

When I attempted the Bibbulmun Track 1000km Fastest Known Time (FKT) in November 2011, I chose to go supported. In FKT world, there are 3 categories: (1) supported (all varying levels of assistance), (2) self-supported (must be alone, no dedicated help, but you can use shops and the like that everyone else has access to), and (3) unsupported (must haul all gear start to finish - pretty much impossible for a 1000km track like the Bibbulmun).

November 1st - about 5am.
The records at that time:
Supported - Men: Paul Madden - 16d 8h 15m (Nov 2010)
Supported - Women: none
Self-Supported - Men: Andy Fawcet had made a claim on self-supported, with incomplete evidence provided and a woman reported she was with him nearly all the way (making his attempt really a supported one). In November 2012, Andy Hewat removed any ambiguity from this category by running 17d 9h 39m, which was faster than Fawcet's claimed time.
Self-Supported - Women: Nicki Rehn - 19.5d (Apr 2009)

My original plan had been to go self-supported and attempt to better Nicki's 19.5day. Once convinced to go supported, I was left needing a target time. Since there was no supported women's record, I chose Paul Madden's time of 16d 8h as a benchmark. He had been walking, so I thought I might be able to go faster than that running, despite having the physical disadvantage of being in a female body.
South of Balingup, from memory. The Bibb foot saga begins!

The attempt was almost a comedy of errors, with my suffering over 50 tick bites, having food repulsion, forgetting a spare headlamp battery one night and being in the dark on Mt Vincent, having our support vehicle breaking down (and bogging down at one point).... The list goes on and on!

I developed compartment syndrome in my left leg, which came on within 5 days, and eventually had me spend a day off the trail in Denmark and Albany hospitals for scans. My pace became a hobble. Despite it all, I managed to finish in 15d 9h 48m. My partner and I had nightmares for two weeks.

For the next few years, whenever I heard about an FKT attempt, I stressed over it. My effort had been so hard fought that I was overly attached to it. I felt that if someone "smashed" my time, it wouldn't then reflect the pain, determination, strength, and resilience of my 2011 run.

Such stress has gone down with each passing year and with each new attempt I've heard about. I stopped having to wrestle with the mixed feelings of wanting them to go well, but also not break "my" record.

The curious thing, though? That every single attempt since November 2011 has been by a male. Including this month's - April 2018. Shane Johnstone and James Roberts of Perth set off on a supported FKT attempt from south to north. About the time they started, I was asked my opinion on their publicised 12 day attempt. I finally realised that I should simply do the maths. I'm very science-based and science has always guided my running. It takes the emotion and guesswork out of so much.

We know from the data that men generally outperform women in running by about 11%.

One of the things that can go wrong.
Given my 370hr finish, a man should be able to run the Bibbulmun in at least 335hr (13d 23h). Given I spent a day off the track in hospitals, perhaps my time could have been more like 346hr. That gives a male finish time of 312hr (13d 0h). Given my compartment syndrome and the fact that I was forced to rest multiple times each afternoon when the pain made it impossible for me to weight bear (the worst time was 5km in 3hrs), there was likely even more room for a man (and a woman) to do better, if they had a more "perfect run." But of course there's so much that can go wrong, from injuries to getting lost to vehicle breakdowns.

Doing the maths reminded me that I must never compare my performances to men's. Over that many days, 11% ends up looking pretty huge, too. It's days, not minutes, like in a 5k track race. Women are not small men. Our testosterone levels are lower. Our muscles are smaller. We have less haemoglobin. Our VO2max is lower. We carry more fat.

Look, no women!
I've become quite vocal in the past couple years about our tendency to compare men's and women's performances and to note things like when a woman wins an event "outright" or gets "third overall" or similar. According to the IAAF and IAU, women and men run in separate events held concurrently. This is done for simplicity, really. On the track, men and women still run separate races.

I don't want to be compared to men in my running. If I win an event "outright", it just means that men underperformed or the calibre wasn't there at that particular event. That's all. Physiologically, women do not outrun men. And, no, not even at the longer distances, as some have tried to suggest. The exception continues to be the exception. Not the rule.
Look, no men!

There is no "outright" win in a running race, other than "outright" men's winner and "outright" women's winner. They are two separate events held concurrently. Have I mentioned that?

When the Boston marathon winner of the men's event finishes, I just can't imagine he says, "I totally smashed Paula Radcliffe's time."

So, how did the boys from Perth go? James had to pull out with a leg injury/bacterial infection, but Shane powered on to finish in an amazing 11d 7h 8m. That's one stout men's supported FKT.

Shane (centre) at the finish, with crew man Kyle (left) and James (right) - photo by Rob Donkersloot