Do marathoners run 26.2 miles as fast as possible?
Most finishers would probably say yes. But in a test of that hypothesis, business professors Patricia Dechow and Eric Allen examined about 300,000 Chicago Marathon performances from 2003 to 2011, and they conclude that the answer depends on gender: Sorry, guys.
In a field where everyone tried their hardest, finish times would be spread out evenly, say Dechow and Allen, respectively of the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Southern California. And that was the case with the female marathoners they studied. Male finishers, however, tended to bunch around whole-number times such as four hours. This suggests that their primary focus is finishing under a particular time, rather than running their all-out best.
Women also were likelier than men to achieve negative splits, wherein the second half of the race is run faster than the first, the authors found. By running the first half conservatively, a marathoner can avoid “bonking” or hitting a pace-slowing wall in the second half. In the last 2.19 kilometers of the race, women were significantly likelier to speed up and finish strong.
Of course, the authors noted, their strong finishes may indicate that women ran too conservatively, for fear of failing to finish.