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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Wall Street Journal, Boston and Women

Registration for the 2011 Boston Marathon opens Monday.  For years, the thing never filled up, but last year it did well ahead of the entry deadline.  This indicates that not only are more people running marathons, but more of them are running them relatively fast. 

Wall Street Journal reporters Kevin Helliker and David Biderman have someone to blame: women.
But there's another possible reason for the surging demand—one that has the potential to kick up a fair amount of controversy. It's the notion that the qualifying standards for women are too soft.
OK, I've heard this before. I did some in-depth research on that a few years back (more on that later). And there's some validity to the argument. But let's see how Helliker and Biderman build their argument.

"Women made up 42% of finishers in the 2010 Boston race—a proportion that is higher than the percentage of all U.S. marathoners who are women."

True.  Oddly enough, they don't tell us what "the percentage of all U.S. marathoners who are women" is.  According to Running USA, for 2009 it's...41%!  So Boston's participation rate in 2010 is a whole one percent higher than the national rate in 2009.  What's the big deal?

Note that for marathoners under 35, women make up 49% of finishers.  Boston is a younger runner's race, as the qualifying times get pretty tough past about 50 or 55.  Female participation at Boston will trend up, as will the nation as a whole.

"The typical gap in major 2009 marathons between the world's elite male and female runners was closer to 20 minutes than 30—and has been shrinking over time."

Well, for Boston's elite runners the gap is actually less than 20 minutes.  But the qualifying cutoffs aren't for elites, they're for the best of the amateurs.  For the US Olympic Trials, which are for athletes somewhere between elite and amateurs, the gap in qualifying times is 28 minutes--2:19 for men, 2:47 for women.  Funnny they didn't mention that.

"Narrowing the gender gap would align Boston more nearly with its counterpart in the world of ultramarathon racing, the Western States 100—a 100-mile race whose slots are highly coveted by men and women alike. Qualifying requirements for the Western States have always been identical for men and women, says a historian of that race, Antonio Rossmann."

This implies that to qualify for Western States, men and women must run the same times.  But Western States doesn't qualify by times.  It has a series of qualifying races.  So the comparison isn't particularly valid.  Funny they didn't mention that.

"Running USA, a research center based in Colorado, has collected raw data from nearly 500 marathons across the country that show a median gender difference of about 28 minutes in finishing times. But similar data also show that while men tend to finish in a long line from fastest to slowest, women divide into two distinct groups—one that's fast and another that's considerably slower.
Running experts say the second grouping, which tends to move as a pack, drags down the median finishing times for all women."

The standard deviation among male and female runners has also been calculated.  It shows that, relative to mean finishing time, there is actually less variation among women than among men.

If you really want to look at this question in depth, it's relatively simple.  Here's what you do.  You take the qualifying time for each age group, male and female, and see what percent of all marathoners achieve it.  If significantly more women do than men, then you're lookig at something unfair. 

Getting that data isn't easy.  I don't have it readily available, and it may have to be compiled., however, has broken things down by overall male and female and into half-hour increments.  So we can see that 3.00% of male marathoners in US marathons in 2009 broke 3:00:00 (10 minutes ahead of the under-35 Boston cutoff), and 3.70% of women broke 3:30 (also 10 minutes under).  16.00% of men broke 3:30, while 19.60% of women broke 4:00:00. 

If anything, all this data suggests that the women's standard may need 5 minutes of tightening, and maybe less.  Certainly no more than that.  And the BAA doesn't change standards willy-nilly.  The risk of changing?  Maybe in a few years, the data will suggest it should be changed again.

The tone and the missing and misleading information suggest a bit of a hatchet job to me.

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