So walk like a man, my son

I have a marathon time goal for 2014. I’m usually a bit quiet about my goals, but I’m being a bit bolder this time*. Not because I’m confident, quite the opposite, I’m terrified to even try and I have that queasy feeling in my stomach that I’m setting myself up for a big old failure. I’m cliche-ing myself with nuggets like “it’s better to have tried and failed then to have never tried at all”, but Homer Simpson keeps getting in the way.

I want to qualify for Boston, as a man my age.

I’m not sure why I’m so stuck on this somewhat arbitrary goal time. Perhaps I’m a bit defensive as men constantly seem to be moaning about how much easier it is for women to qualify. Perhaps I think I have something to prove.

It drives me crazy when a guy goes, oh the difference between the fastest man and woman of all time is only about 12 minutes, so the difference between BQ times should only be 12 minutes. (Equally as irritating is the “classic” I know how I can qualify for Boston, I’ll get a sex change, haha, get it, because it’s soooo super-duper easy for women). Grrr. So manys grrrs.

If you look at the fastest men and women of all time (I used Marathon Guide’s list, which does include record illegal courses like Boston), the fastest female time – at 2:15:25 – is an anomaly. A decade old anomaly. Indeed the top three times are all run by the same woman, most recently in 2005. We shouldn’t all be held to high the standard one woman set a decade ago. To use that single time as a benchmark is absurd. It’s still a remarkable accomplishment for a woman to break 2:20 (a barrier broken by women only 23 times), never mind run 2.15.

Even if you look at the top 50 times, the range for men is a mere two minutes twenty-one seconds (2.03:02 to 2:05:23), but for women the range is nearly six minutes (2:15:25 to 2:21:19). To get that same six minute-ish spread for men you are approaching 2:09, a relatively pedestrian ‘elite’ time by today’s standards. Moreover, the men’s top 50 times are almost all within the last 5 years, whereas the women’s top 50 times are spread across decades, dating back to 1985!  All of the women’s top 50 times are quite rare, whereas a handful of men can run within a minute or two of a top 50 time in any given year. Comparing recent and (comparably) frequent men’s times to old and rare women’s times to determine the ideal BQ spread just doesn’t make sense.

Warning: basic but possibly faulty math ahead.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s look at the differences between the all-time fastest men and women. The more you drift away from the top few, the bigger the separation:

Men Women Absolute Difference Relative (%) Difference
top 1 2:03:03 2:15:25 12.38 10.07
top 5 2:03:22 2:17:28 14.10 11.43
top 10 2:03:47 2:18:15 14.48 11.69
top 25 2:04:21 2:19:09 14.81 11.91
top 50 2:04:43 2:20:01 15.30 12.27

(fyi: that absolute difference column is not min:sec but is minutes with a decimal – 11.43 minutes not 11 min 43 seconds, so if the subtraction look off that’s likely why… or I messed up the formulas).

For the reasons noted and more, I don’t think the top 50 men versus women are an ideal comparison, but I’m going with it because I’m too lazy to make a new spreadsheet with something better. Men people often look at the differences and say, well the difference between the top 50 is about 15 minutes so that should be the BQ spread. Those people do not understand math.

A 15 minute difference at 2 hours is not the same as a 15 minute difference at 4 hours. At the very least we need to look at relative difference, which is just over 12%. If we apply the “top 50’s” absolute and relative differences across the BQ age group divisions (which we also shouldn’t do, because the top 50 are virtually all in the open or 35-39 groups and the same differential may not apply across the age groups, but for the sake of simplicity I will do it anyway) we get some intriguing results:

Age Group BQ Men BQ Women Estimated BQ Women Based on Absolute Difference Estimated BQ Women Based on Relative Difference
18-34 3:05:00 3:35:00 3:20:18 3:27:42
35-39 3:10:00 3:40:00 3:25:18 3:33:19
40-44 3:15:00 3:45:00 3:30:18 3:38:55
45-49 3:25:00 3:55:00 3:40:18 3:50:09
50-54 3:30:00 4:00:00 3:45:18 3:55:46
55-59 3:40:00 4:10:00 3:55:18 4:06:59
60-64 3:55:00 4:25:00 4:10:18 4:23:50
65-69 4:10:00 4:40:00 4:25:18 4:40:40
70-74 4:25:00 4:55:00 4:40:18 4:57:31
75-79 4:40:00 5:10:00 4:55:18 5:14:21
80 and over 4:55:00 5:25:00 5:10:18 5:31:11

I used the men’s BQ times as the starting point and estimated equivalent women’s times. Estimates based on an a fixed difference of 15-ish minutes yield times that are much tougher than the current women’s BQ times, but estimated times based on a relative difference of 12% more closely aligned with the current BQ times.

Based on these latter figures, you could certainly argue that another 5 minutes could/should be subtracted from the women’s times for those up to age 55 or so, but for the older women the BQ times might actually be too tough! Even if the younger women’s standards are a bit soft, 5 minutes or so off is a far cry from the demands that the difference be reduced to 10 or 15 minutes across the board. (Side note: I’m such a smartypants I think I said way back when Boston hadn’t yet unveiled the new times that I thought they’d keep the men’s times the same and toughen the women’s times by 5 minutes (sadly, I’m too lazy to look for that post and link back to myself, verifying my smartypants claim)).

I also can’t stress this enough – this is an incredibly superficial and potentially flawed look at the numbers and there are much better (read: less lazy) ways to figure out an optimal time difference across the age groups. My intention was simply to see if the current gap gives women a big qualifying advantage. Preliminary findings indicate the advantage is not as generous as non-qualifying men like to believe. The results warrant further research.

All that to say, even though I don’t think the women’s BQ times are wildly off I still want to meet the men’s standard… just because.

Title: The Fours Seasons – Walk Like a Man. 1963.

*I don’t like the judgement associated with public goals. The armchair speculations – too hard, too easy, too crazy. I don’t like that some people seem to take a sick glee in wishing for others to fail and that there will be some who are driven by schadenfreude and are probably hoping for some a crash and burn (but I try not to think about those people, because those people are assholes).


12 responses to “So walk like a man, my son

  1. You are totally capable and I know you can do it. I ran my first marathon almost two weeks ago…and I BQ’d with a 3:28:28. I was shocked…happy…and amazed. Boston 2015 can be yours too.

  2. Never think about the assholes. I’m rooting for you. But your math made me sleepy! 😦

  3. OK, sister, I’m taking up the challenge with you. Like you, I don’t usually share time goals but here goes. If I leave the cookies in the grocery store and spend a bit more time working with weights in addition to my running, I can likely do this. Give me a year.

  4. The math didn’t make me sleepy, but impressed. Glad you’re back to blogging.

  5. Pingback: When it got cold, ohhh, we bundled up | My Running Shorts

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