What's the Women's Equivalent of a Sub-2:00 Marathon?
Some say Paula Radcliffe has already run it.
By Amby Burfoot
Published December 23, 2014
Paula Radcliffe's world marathon record of 2:15:25 has stood since 2003.
With all the recent talk about a sub-2:00 marathon for men, it was inevitable that someone would ask: What’s the equivalent for women? That question has now been answered, at least in part, in the Journal of Applied Physiology.
You couldn’t find a more qualified group of researchers to tackle the question. Sandra Hunter has long been investigating gender differences in performance, Michael Joyner wrote the first sub-2:00 paper way back in 1991, and Andrew Jones performed a famous longitudinal study of Paula Radcliffe’s running economy over many years.
All of which leads them to conclude that Radcliffe has already been there, done that. Her world record of 2:15:25, set in 2003, “is at least equivalent to a sub-2:00 marathon for men,” the authors write. Indeed, the Mercier Calculator, referenced in their paper, gives Radcliffe a time equivalent to 1:59:55 for a man.
The researchers also note that Radcliffe owns the three fastest times ever, and that her best is an astonishing 2.2 percent faster than the next female, Liliya Shobukhova (2:18:20), currently serving a two-year doping ban. By contrast, with the world record he set at this year's Berlin Marathon, Dennis Kimetto (2:02:57) leads Emmanuel Mutai (2:03:13) by .2 percent.
Radcliffe's mark looks more feasible now than a decade ago, thanks to the dramatic improvements on the men's side of the ledger. In 2003, when the men’s record was 2:04:55, her 2:15:25 was only 8.4 percent slower than the men's mark. Women’s world records such as Florence Griffith Joyner’s 10.49 seconds for 100 meters and Wang Junxia’s 29:31.78 for 10,000 meters are regarded with suspicion because they are only 8 to 9 percent slower than the men's marks; most women's world records are 10-12 percent slower than the men's. Now that the men's marathon mark stands at 2:02:57, Radcliffe trails by 10.3 percent.
During her peak running years, Radcliffe was frequently tested in Jones' physiology lab, so she has left behind an impressive and unusual exercise footprint. Most top marathoners excel in either their VO2 max or their running economy, but rarely both. Radcliffe, however, produced top laboratory scores for VO2 max, critical velocity/lactate threshold, and running economy. At her best, she seemed to represent the perfect storm of marathon runners. Note the researchers: “Radcliffe’s superior economy and critical velocity allowed her to run at high absolute speeds for extended periods.”
Runner's World Newswire asked Joyner which he expects to see fall first–sub-2:00 for men or an improvement on 2:15:25 by a woman?
"I can go either way," he responded by email. "Historically, women still lag behind the men, so they could improve faster as they catch up in depth.
"On the other hand, men could get there pretty quickly with cool temps, a fast, loop course, organized drafting, and a big prize money scheme that would reward everyone who hits certain splits en route. We should all remember how Roger Bannister broke 4:00. His race was totally set up to reach the sub-4 goal. That's what it will take, more than improved training or insights from sports science, to get to a sub-2:00 marathon."