The Obscure Ultra-Endurance Sport Women Are Quietly Dominating

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There’s something special about ultra-swimming, it seems. In 2014, for example, Knechtle published a paper looking at 30 years of finishing times for the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, a 28.5-mile loop around the perimeter of Manhattan. On average, the best women were 12 to 14 percent faster than the best men. Another study, published in 2015, looked at 87 years of finishing times for the 20.1-mile Catalina Channel Swim, and found that when “the swimming times of the annual fastest women and the annual fastest men competing between 1927 and 2014 were compared, women were 52.9 minutes faster than men,” Knechtle and his colleagues write.

That’s notable in itself. But it’s not the whole story. Where it gets really interesting is at the amateur level, said Steven Munatones, considered one of the foremost experts on open-water swimming. A few years ago — purely to satisfy his own curiosity — Munatones analyzed the finishing times of men and women who participated in the biggest ultra-distance swims around the world. He did this for three years, keeping track of “12 or 13” races — he can’t remember exactly. He never intended to publish these results anywhere; again, this was for his own curiosity, as a coach and as an open-water swimming fan. Here’s what he found. “If you’re looking at the average times — the average woman is faster than the average man,” said Munatones, who is the founder of the World Open Water Swimming Association. “Which, frankly, I was surprised to see.”

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