When will Chrissie beat the male Ironman-distance World Record?

Gary Fagan asked the following question for the IM Talk podcast “end of year” show:

Based on current improvements, when will the women become faster than the men?

Let’s get a few things out of the way first: I find the wording question of world record vs. world best not very interesting – these are just word games. Also I don’t care whether the time was set in an “official” Ironman (organized  by WTC) or not (such as Challenge Roth). One reason is that most of the records were set in Roth – and I can’t see why a 1997 race (when it was an official WTC event) would count, but a 2012 (when it was run by Challenge) on pretty much the same course should not. When discussing these fast times, the issue that always comes up is that these courses are short. Unless triathlon organizations come up with a protocol for measuring  courses (which I think would be a very good idea), we won’t really know. Then again, as most records were set in Roth and that course has basically been unchanged, the old records from the 90s are comparable to the times from this year – at least the impact of the course changes do not play a major factor in the improved times.

World best times

Before discussing the question asked by Gary, let’s have a look at the data first.

Male world records

Here is how the male world record developed over the last years:

Date Athlete Course Time
July 1997 Luc van Lierde Roth 7:50:27
July 3rd 2011 Marino Vanhoenacker Austria 7:45:58
July 10th 2011 Andreas Raelert Roth 7:41:33

Not very exciting – Luc van Lierde’s record stood for quite a while – 14 years. From what I heard, it must have been a great race with quite a few people pushing the pace for the whole distance. Compared to that, Marino and Andreas were pretty much racing on their own to break the record.

Female world records

There was a bit more movement on the women’ side:

Date Athlete Course Time
July 1994 Paula Newby-Fraser Roth 8:50:53
July 13th 2008 Sandra Wallenhorst Austria 8:47:26
July 13th 2008 Yvonne van Vlercken Roth 8:45:48
July 12th 2009 Chrissie Wellington Roth 8:31:59
July 18th 2010 Chrissie Wellington Roth 8:19:13
July 10th 2011 Chrissie Wellington Roth 8:18:13

It took the females 14 years to break the old record as well, when Sandra Wallenhorst and Yvonne van Vlercken broke the record on the same day but on two different courses. (In fact, even with the slower time, Sandra completed her race before Yvonne as Sandra’s Austria start time was before Yvonne started in Roth – but Sandra had the record for less than an hour.) Since Chrissie took the record there has been a lot of improvement – it’s interesting to speculate if we are going to see some more records on the men’s side now that the old record has been broken.

Looking forward

If we want to extrapolate from these few data points, we can work with an average improvement for the women of 115 seconds per year on the women’s side (22:40 minutes in 17 years). (A little side note: The best linear approximation would give a progress of “only” 98 seconds, so the number I’ll be using is probably a best-case scenario.) If this average rate of improvement continues, it will take the women  about 19 years to catch up to current men’s record. But then the men’s record may improved as well – their improvement was at a rate of 38 seconds per year, so the women are catching up at a  rate of 77 seconds per year. Based on that, it’ll take more than 28 years to catch up to the men’s record.

Looking at these results (even putting aside all the objections one should raise when mechanically projecting progress forward), it does not look as if the women will be catching up to the men in the foreseeable future. Maybe a more interesting speculation may be when the women will be able to break 8 hours: If the rate of improvement continues, it seems feasible to go sub-8 within the next ten years. (A similar question for the men: When will they break 7:30? This is “just” another 11 1/2 minutes – but as their progress has been slower, that would take about 18 years.) This might be a good “discussion of the week” for a future IMTalk podcast

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