The Western States Thought Experiment
Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.
The Western States Endurance Run is a well-known 100-mile (161.3 km) running race in California. The 2021 race saw 10 women place in the first 21 runners with 3 women in the top 10 finishers.
The race occurred with air temperatures over 101°F (38°C), the women’s performance was the best overall throughout the history of the race that started in 1977.
Incredibly high temperatures, rough and inaccessible terrain, and large differences in elevation [see above] are all factors that made the 2021 race extraordinarily difficult – conditions that may have led to the historic placing of so many women in the most famous endurance race in America.
“I was trying to think of comparable conditions in the open water where 10 of the top 21 swimmers would be female, if an elite, world-class mixed gender race were held,” reflected Steven Munatones. “In this thought experiment, the conditions would probably be reversed. That is, instead of high temperatures on land in order to level the playing field among swimmers, you would probably want lower temperatures in the water. In other words, the colder and longer the course was, the more women would place higher, I think.
To extend this thought experiment further, how long and how cold would a marathon swim have to be so 10 of the top 21 marathon swimmers in the world would be women?
If we look at the professional marathon swimming circuits over the decades, even the longest races never have so many women among the top swimmers. So 25 km certainly would not be far enough and 20°C would certainly not be cold enough. 40 km would also be too short, perhaps 50 km would be more suitable – and the water temperature would probably have to dip below 15°C before the top women started to pick off the world’s top men.
If we look at the old 64 km double crossings of lac St Jean (i.e., Traversée internationale du lac St-Jean) in Québec, Canada, now we are starting to talk about conditions where enough elite women start to become competitive with the crème de la crème of the male marathon swimmers. But the distance probably needs to be over 70 km with the water temperature around or under 15°C before at least half the field would be women. I could be wrong, but that is my rough, off-the-cuff guess.”
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