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Will Women Ever Outrun Men in a Marathon?

What is the greatest individual achievement in the history of sport? How about Barry Bonds hitting 73 home runs in a season? Wilt Chamberlain once scored 100 points in a single basketball game. Golf fans will never forget Tiger winning the 1997 U.S. Masters by a remarkable 12-strokes.

Very few Americans will mention Paula Radcliffe or her performance at the 2004 London Marathon, a feat that some are calling the greatest achievement in the history of running.

Forget running. What Paula did should rank with the greatest achievements in the history of ANY sport, especially by a woman. At age 29, 5 feet 8 inches and 119 pounds, Paula surprised nearly everyone except herself by smashing her own world record, finishing 26.2 miles in a spectacular time of 2 hr 15 minutes 25 seconds. That is an astounding average of 5:09 per mile.

To put it in perspective, in 2003 only 9 British and 13 American men ran faster. She finished 16th overall in London, a major international marathon. Could this unprecedented breakthrough be a sign that woman are catching the men?

Closing the gender gap maybe, but most experts still doubt that the top woman marathoner in the world will ever beat the top man. As impressive as this performance was, remember that 128 men from Kenya broke 2 hr 15 min in 2002, including 37 who broke 2 hr 10 min.

If anything, Paulas performance might have been the wake-up call that American and British male distance runners needed. Getting beat by a Kenyan has been no big deal for Americans in recent years, but its another story when you consider yourself a world-class endurance athlete and cannot beat a woman. U.S. men had to either get used to it or figure out a way to run faster.

While not on par with Kenya, marathoning in the U.S. has improved since 2002, with a handful of Americans now capable of placing in any major international race.

Paula Ratcliffe has talent, a tremendous work ethic, and the tenacity of a champion. She was diagnosed with asthma at 14. Running up to 130 miles per week in preparation for London she was hit by a cyclist near the end of a long run. She went down hard, dislocating her jaw in the process. Two days later she was back on the roads.

As a successful professional runner, Paula enjoys luxuries most other runners cannot afford. Its been reported that she gets a 2-hour nap every day on top of 9-10 hours every night. She has a nutritionist tell her what to eat, an osteopath to keep her aligned, a physiotherapist to relieve aches and pains, a coach to tell her how to train, and a physiologist to evaluate her fitness.

Her training program includes weight training, flexibility, plyometrics, and an array of specifically designed drills and exercises. Put it all together with a fast course and perfect weather and you get one of the most spectacular performances in the history of sport.

As great as she is, on any given day a handful of men will always beat Paula. Time will tell if the best woman marathoner with everything going for her will ever outrun all of the best men in a major international marathon. Close maybe, but not likely.

Dave Elger is a well respected authority within the running community having written hundreds of articles on the topics of running and wellness. You can contact him at He also supports the Okinawa Running Club.