© Copyright – 2014 – Athletics Illustrated

Eleven years after England’s Paula Radcliffe broke her own marathon world record with her 2:15:25 performance, during the 2003 London Marathon, there continues to be significant discussion in the running community centred on how the performance is off the proverbial charts.

That performance, at that time, did indeed seem to be comparatively off the charts, when putting it up against men’s performances and the usual difference between the two genders, which is typically 10 – 12%. Today, it appears to be almost back in-line with where the men’s marathon world record currently stands at 2:02:57 as set by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya from his 2014 Berlin Marathon performance. There now exists a 10.2% gap.

If we go back in time to when Radcliffe set the current record in 2003, the men’s record was 2:04:55 set five months later by Kenya’s Paul Tergat, during the Berlin Marathon. This performance represented a difference of 8.4%, when comparing Radcliffe’s and Tergat’s world record times.

Perhaps it took men a while to catch up to Radcliffe’s performance. Meanwhile it appears that it is taking the rest of the women even longer to catch up to Radcliffe of 2003.

In 2001, Catherine N’dereba of Kenya had achieved the world record on the Chicago course with her 2:18:47, breaking  the record that was held by countrywoman Tegla Loroupe  with her 2:20:43, which is currently the 40th fastest time in history. The difference between Tergat’s and N’dereba’s times is right around that 10% mark.

The most recent women’s performance of note that is in the top-10 rankings is from Mary Keitany of Kenya who ran 2:18:37 in 2012. This performance is just over 12.1% slower than the best men’s time from then, which was Patrick Makau’s 2:03:38 on the Berlin course from 2011.

Radcliffe had the opportunity to be paced by men for the entire distance of the race, where the first male (although  are often paced for a certain amount of time), is more likely to spend some time on his own, running into the wind, breaking through the resistance of the air, but this is nearly impossible to monitor accurately.

According to the 1980 study, “Effects of wind assistance and resistance on the forward motion of a runner” by Davies CT, there is a 2% marathon difference when drafting (5 m/s) in a marathon race.

Different distances

A look at the difference between men and women in the half marathon indicates a gap of 11.7%.

In the ultra-marathon distances of 50K and 100 miles for example, it appears that there is approximately a 15.2% and 17.1% gap in performance, respectively. There is much discussion in the running community about the gap closing, the longer the distance is, however, comparing these two road records, female versus male, the gap is actually wider.

In the events that are most closely related to the marathon and are competed regularly and at global events are the 5,000m, 10,000m and half-marathon (21.1K), the differences in performance between men and women are all within the 10 to 11% range, therefore Radcliffe’s 2:15:25 world record being 10.2% slower than the men’s world record of 2:02:57 by Kimetto is no longer an outlier performance.

As a side note, where the gap is closest, it appears, is at the other extreme, Usain Bolt’s 9.58 100m world record versus the 10.49 performance as set by Florence Griffith Joyner from 1988, is just an 9.2% difference. There is considerable debate about her record over whether the wind was legal or at zero as officially recorded in the results.

Comparing other distances:


Men’s world record: 1:40.91
Women’s world record: 1:53.28
Difference:  12.2%


Men’s world record: 3:26.00
Women’s world record: 3:50.46
Difference: 11.7%


Men’s world record:  7:20.67
Women’s world record:  8:06.11
Difference: 10.5%


Men’s world record: 12:37.35
Women’s world record: 14:11.15
Difference: 12.4%


Men’s world record: 26:17.53
Women’s world record: 29:31.78
Difference: 12.2%

Half Marathon – 21.1K

Men’s world record: 58:23
Women’s world record: 65:12
Difference: 11.7%

Marathon – 42.195K

Men’s world record: 2:02:57
Women’s world record: 2:15:25
Difference:  10.2%

50K road

Men’s world record: 2:43:38
Women’s world record: 3:08:39
Difference: 15.2%

100 miles road

Men’s world record: 11:46.37
Women’s world record: 13:47.41
Difference:  17.1%