Run Like a Girl (A Guide to Optimal Pacing at the Comrades Marathon)


I like to run and I like to run the numbers. There is nothing quite like getting a really big dataset in one’s hands and playing around with the numbers. Once a year I allow myself this self-indulgence. Night after night, glass of red wine after glass of red wine, after everyone else in the household has gone to bed, I sit alone and pound away at my keyboard.

The Comrades data is quite predictable, every year the same patterns emerge. Most people start too fast and finish much slower, there is the Christmas tree finisher pattern where more people finish in the last 15 minutes of each medal cut-off than in any of the previous 15 minute segments.

This Christmas tree, pagoda pattern where more runners finish in the last 15 minutes of each medal cut-off occurs predictably every year.

Every year I come up with a few new ideas to add to the list of graphs and analysis I undertake – and if the findings are interesting enough I work this into conversations, corporate training materials and conference talks whenever I get the opportunity. I’ve run a lot of marathons and I’ve run a lot of data. However, this article covers the most surprising statistic I’ve found.

I work running analogies into my day job at every opportunity. This conference presentation is an example thereof.

When I first ran this analysis, I was so surprised by the results that I thought I must have made a calculation error. I am a rank amateur when it comes to statistics and still suffer an amygdala hijack whenever I think back to the mental torture I endured whilst scraping through Stats 101 at varsity. However, I tripled checked my work and the numbers still came out the same way. I thought I was onto something and called in the expert.

In my case the expert is Andrew Collier, data scientist by day and Comrades Green Number 54898 by conversation*.

* All Comrades runners will work the fact that they’ve run the ultimate human race into conversation at every possibility. However, Green Number holders are more restrained. They patiently wait until someone else brings up the topic which then enables them to casually mention their Green Number.

Even amongst the most misogynic, popular wisdom has always been that women pace themselves better at Comrades. This finding proves a long-held perception that women are better Comrades runners than men. Here is the proof – but I think the magnitude thereof will take everyone by surprise.

At Comrades 2022 there were eight published splits, nine seeding batches and six different medals on offer, providing a total of 120 splits where we can compare the male and female performance. Let’s split these into 60 first half splits and 60 second half splits.

If we did a round by round ‘Battle of the Sexes’, comparing the average time over that split (i.e. by seeding batch and medal earned) and awarded a point to the gender that won each split – how many of the 60 first half splits do you think were won by men and how many were won by women? Likewise, what do you think the male / female win rate was for the 60 second half splits?

Before you continue reading, have a look at the table below and make a calculated guess on the first and second half gender split winner ratio.

Dividing the field into seeding batches and medal earned, there were 120 timed splits at Comrades 2022. Considering the average pace for each split, how many do you think were ‘won’ by men and how many by women?

When I’ve posed this question to an audience, most people correctly predict that men dominate the first half. Men do indeed ‘win’ the first half of Comrades in a landslide of 52 to 8 splits. However, it’s where women win that’s interesting. All 8 of the wins come in the fourth and final split of the first half (between Cato Ridge and the halfway mark at Drummond). It’s a case of ‘buy now, pay later’ and the tide already starts to turn at the 30-kilometre mark.

Men are faster in every seeding for the first 30km but the ladies emerge as the dominant gender in the final split of the first half when comparing Comrades runners by seeding batch.
It’s just the final Vic Clapham split that spoils the male medal domination over the first half of Comrades.

In the second half most people guess that women will win but I’ve never had anyone come close to guessing just how much better women perform over the second half of Comrades. It’s women over men by a massive 55 to 5. A clean sweep of female split wins on the second half is only prevented by the gold medal category (the only ‘non time-based’ medal) and the post-halfway silver split.

It’s a full house for the ladies in the second half by seeding batch. Amazingly, the average pace for women is faster than that of the men for every single split by seeding batch in the second half.
It’s just the gold medalists and the first silver split that maintains some dignity for the men in the second half of Comrades.

Us men like to think we are the stronger sex but, when it comes to ultra running and pacing at Comrades, this is the definitive proof that women are in fact far superior beings.

What is especially significant is comparing the seeding batches. Excluding the charity (CC) and Green Number (E) batches, runners in each batch have qualified for Comrades with a similar marathon time and are therefore of similar ability. This enables us to compare like for like, for example the average D batch man should finish in a similar time to a D batch woman.

Having said that, men do have a slight advantage in the speed stakes. A comparison of the average qualifying time shows that men are faster for every seeding group (with the exception of the CC charity batch). However, this qualification prowess does not translate into race day performance. Women win the average finish time battle for every batch except H.

The average qualifying time for men is faster than that of women in the same batch (except for the CC charity batch) but the average female finish time is faster than that of men in almost every seeding category.

The biggest swing is in A batch. The average A batch man qualifies over 5 minutes faster than his female counterparts. This should translate into an average Comrades finish time of roughly 12m30s faster but instead, the ladies finish over 22 minutes ahead of the men. That’s a swing on the predicted time of almost 35 minutes!

If an A batch runner of either gender runs according to their potential, they should finish under 7:30 to earn a coveted silver medal*. The average A-seeded woman does this quite comfortably in 7:23 but the average A-seeded man grossly underachieves in 7:45.

* For women, this is an Isavel Roche-Kelly medal but for all intents and purposes this is the same as a silver medal.

Someone who knows a thing or two about pacing is 2017 Comrades winner Camille Herron. who recently ran 435 kilometres in one go to break the 48-hour world record. I showed her the stats and she provided an insightful response from the front of the field, “I feel like the men pace themselves like it’s a high school cross country race – going out very fast and falling back after halfway. In the early stages there’s a large pack of men around us but by the time we finish we’re all alone. I remember seeing men stopping more often, cramping, walking, and falling back.”

Not only do women win a clean sweep of splits per seeding batch in the second half of Comrades, they also have a faster average finish time than the men in all but the H batch at the back of the field. There are a number of possible reason for this, the most likely being that H batch women who start Comrades have a far higher likelihood of finishing Comrades than H batch men (72% for female versus 65% for men) and, by definition, average finish time calculations exclude non-finishers.

Another interesting trend is that the female domination trend slowly but steadily diminishes as one works through the seeding batches but the opposite is true of the medal comparison. As you can see below, men finish faster for every category except Vic Clapham. This is probably a result of men missing the medal they were aiming for and therefore finish early in a slower consolation medal time bracket, whereas women are more likely to achieve their target medal and finish late in the medal time bracket. Supporting this theory is the fact that the average qualifier time is much faster for men than for women in every medal category.

Although the average finish time of men is faster than that of women by medal earned this is probably due to men having to downgrade their planned medals because of poor pacing.

Andrew Collier, who is not bound by my limited statistical skills and the Excel toolbox, took this data analysis to the next level to further illustrate the superiority of women at Comrades.

The first graph he produced is below. This shows positive and negative splits* for the entire field with men in blue and women in red. The dotted line on zero (x-axis) indicates an exact even pace before and after the halfway timing mat at Drummond. Above this dotted line are people who ran the second half slower and below the dotted line are negative splits.

* A positive split means that the athlete ran the second half of Comrades slower than the first half, a negative split means that the athlete sped up and ran the second half faster than the first.

A scattergram showing that women run the second half of Comrades much more consistently than the men regardless of finish time.

The graph provides some fascinating insights like

  • just how rare a negative split is at Comrades (there were just 83 in 2022),
  • potential cheats (anyone who runs a big negative split comes under scrutiny; several of the runners well below the dotted line feature in my Comrades Cheats article),
  • the amazing straight regression line for men that finish under 6-hours and
  • the runner who hit the wall the hardest (he ran the second half almost five hours slower than the first).

These might be hard to spot so I’ve indicated them on the graphic but you don’t need any help appreciating that the female clustering is much closer to an even split and that a disproportionate number of female runners achieve negative splits.

The next graph is the most powerful illustration of just how much better the fairer sex fares over Comrades. This plots all 2022 Comrades finishers with the x-axis representing the split ratio, which is the ratio of time for the second half compared to the first half (those left of the dotted line ran a negative split, those on the right were slower over the second half).

A graph highlighting that women pace themselves much more evenly than men at the Comrades Marathon.

If you were wondering whether 2022 was a once off, the same trend was present at the previous Down run in 2018. The graph below shows that 2018’s trends were almost perfectly replicated in 2022 for every seeding batch. The long tail of the men’s plot in each seeding category paints a sad picture for those saddled with a Y chromosome.

A comparison of the last two Comrades down runs showing that women consistently outperform men regardless of seeding batch.

The final graph provides an interesting split by split storyboard as to how Comrades raceday panned out in each seeding batch. Men are invariably out of the starting blocks and haring towards Durban at a much faster pace than women but they are already starting to slow down and get caught by the 30-kilometre mark at Cato Ridge. After that, it’s no longer a competition. The mares rein in the stallions, outperforming them all the way to the finish line in Durban.

A fascinating story board showing how men start faster but are caught and overtaken by women for every seeding batch. Note the triangles at the bottom of each grid line – this indicates who is faster and by how much at each split.

Female readers can stop here, the last paragraph is purely advice for the weaker sex.

There is always plenty of chatter about pacing in the build-up to Comrades. However, on the basis of this data, you should throw away your pacing charts. If you can’t run like a girl, run with a lady friend.  Ego will get you to enter Comrades and testosterone will get you to the start line – and they’ll both get you to the 30-kilometre mark faster than your wife, girlfriend or sister. But, when it comes to running ultra marathons, testosterone is toxic for your masculinity. Ego will leave you limping over the line. And for those that are fortunate enough to run with your wife, remember that you’re not pacing her – she’s pacing you.

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3 Replies to “Run Like a Girl (A Guide to Optimal Pacing at the Comrades Marathon)”

  1. Thank you for an informative article. I am a 76 year old male who couldn’t participate in Comrades for the 4th year. I was recently diagnosed with a heart condition – Prinzmetal angina, non obstructive angina that comes as heart spasms constricting the blood vessels while at rest after the exercise. I am coming anyway to visit Comrades and cheer the runners. I have also started training again and hopefully finish Comrades in 2024. I will appreciate if you would share with me any data regarding the finishers older than 75 and with heart condition. Thank you. – Nal Lokeshwar

    1. Hi Nal, in 2022 there was only one starter / finisher over 75 – 80-year-old Maros Mosehla from Polokwane who I know is running again in 2023 (if he finishes he;ll break Wally Hawyward’s record as the oldest finisher). The next oldest was 74 which had two starters and one finisher in 2022. Enjoy supporting and hopefully you’ll be at the start line in 2024!

  2. Good read, and very good advice for the weaker sex that I am a part of. I once ran a negative split BR in the last up run, and somehow the last split from Polly Shorts to the finish was by far my fastest split. You almost feel like an elite passing many people towards the end. I wonder why there are not many female bus drivers at Comrades. Maybe it is time the stronger sex start taking the baton and showing their strength.

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