Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Myths and a Long Trail

This weekend I watched Finding Traction, a film about Nikki Kimball's record-setting run of the Long Trail in Vermont,  Nikki came across as a fantastic person--passionate, competitive, and with plenty of interesting things to say.  She's someone who I would love to meet at a race or out on the trails someday.  The run depicted by the film was very impressive of course, and I'd imagine that Nikki's record will last for quite a while.  Two things about the film, however, bothered me enough to make me want to write something.  More accurately, one thing bothered me enough to want to write something, and while I'm at it, I might as well bring up the other...

First of all, I should explain a bit more about the subject of Finding Traction.  In part, it was a day-by-day account of Nikki's time on the Long Trail.  It was also, however, about Nikki's past experiences and in particular her experiences with sexism in the sports world and what she hoped to change about attitudes towards women in sport. I thought her message was excellent and I agreed completely with everything she said.

So while I came away feeling 90 percent positive about the film, the two issues I had with it were:

Issue 1:  A myth.

Near the middle of the film, at 24:18 in, there's a short clip showing a biologist named David Carrier.  He confidently states the oft-repeated line that as race distances get longer, the gap between men's and women's performance lessens, and that at distances such as 100 miles, the differences between males and females "more or less disappear."

The problem is, there's no factual basis for this claim.  It's a myth born out of just a few anecdotes involving women winning long races outright and some speculation, which turned out to be incorrect, extrapolating future female finish times from past improvements in women's records.  You can see the myth debunked in this paper, or, for a less dense explanation, you can see from an Ian Sharman blog post (making the same points as this paper) exactly how far the best men remain ahead of the best women at all distances.  Spoiler alert:  they remain far ahead.  In fact, as things currently stand, the performance gap actually increases at 100+ miles, though that's likely down to a relative lack of female participation in some of the longer events.  There are several reasons why a woman might win an ultramarathon outright, but, based on all the available facts, there's no reason to think that those reasons include a decrease in the performance gap at longer distances.

Why do I care so much if the film got one bit of factual information wrong?  Because I think this myth is extremely harmful to women's ultrarunning.  (Dredging up the myth in the middle of a film which takes aim at sexism in the ultrarunning world made it even worse.  I couldn't help yelling at the TV when I heard what Carrier was saying.)

Think this through:  if we subscribe to the belief that sex doesn't matter when the distances get up into the 100 mile range, then what happens when, back in the real world, the best women don't actually perform as well as the best men at 100 milers?  If we incorrectly believe that the worse performance had nothing to do with biology, then we're left to conclude that the worse performance had to stem from some other factor--a lack of training, a lack of effort on the day, poor nutrition strategy...i.e., something that the women could have fixed had they simply tried harder or used better tactics.  But in reality, nothing other than a few male hormones is going to lessen that performance gap when comparing the best to the best.  In terms of sporting performance, men are just heavily-doped women.  Acknowledging this is, in my view, the first step towards recognizing that the outcome of the women's portion of a race is just as noteworthy as the men's portion, regardless of whether the finishing times are slower on the women's side, because that acknowledgment allows us to recognize that the amount of talent, training, and effort on display is equal.

Issue 2:  A reminder.

In one scene of the film, Nikki discusses the poor treatment that women get in the ultrarunning press.  She mentions that when she won the UTMB, there was extensive media coverage the next day of the top men, going several places deep into the field, and then, as she puts it, a little blurb saying essentially "oh, and some women ran too."  This will no doubt be a familiar story to anyone who has ever read an issue of an ultrarunning magazine cover to cover; there's generally at least one race report taking the common format of a three-paragraph, blow-by-blow account of the progress of the men's race, followed by a terse sentence or two stating that "X took first for the women in 00:00, with Y coming in second in 00:23."  So I loved that Nikki made that point and that she made it well.

What struck me, though, is that there were two Long Trail speed records at issue in the film:  the men's record and the women's record.  Both record times were mentioned frequently and were an integral part of the drama.  However, while the film gave the name of the holder of the men's record, it never once named the holder of the women's record.  This may sound like a very minor gripe, and in a way it is.  On its own, it's not a particularly big deal.  But when juxtaposed with Nikki's observations about lopsided press coverage, it served as an unfortunate reminder that the attitudes towards women in sport, the attitudes which Nikki is doing an excellent job at trying to change, are maybe even more deeply ingrained than we realize.  There's a long, long way to go.  It's a good thing we're ultrarunners.