Venus, Mars, and Catalina

Previously, we’ve looked at some general stats on Catalina Channel finishing times, and the growth in participation since George Young’s pioneering swim in 1927. What about gender differences? (Taking a page from Katie’s playbook…)

From 1927-2004, there were 90 successful swims by men and 44 successful swims by women (a ratio of 2.05 to 1). From 2005-2011, there were 80 successful swims by men and 49 successful swims by women (a ratio of 1.63 to 1). So, the gap is narrowing…a bit.

Here, again, it would interesting to see the data on failed swims. Is the ratio of men to women the same for failed swims as for successful swims?

Side note: I decided to split the data-set at 2005 because it offered similarly-sized groupings, and because this was the year when there was a surge in popularity of Catalina Channel swimming (possibly due to the advent of the “triple crown”).

And here are the average & median finish times for each group (C-M one-way crossings only):

Average Median
Men 1927-2004 13:14 12:14
Women 1927-2004 12:17 11:03
Men 2005-2011 11:23 10:51
Women 2005-2011 11:00 10:39

In both eras, women are faster – despite lower levels of participation. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, given that women have the overall records in both directions – Karen Burton from Catalina (7:43) and Penny Lee Dean from the mainland (7:15). Interestingly, in my analysis of MIMS times I also found women were almost uniformly faster.

This raises an obvious question without an obvious answer: Why? (See the comments section for a couple theories.)

The third in a series of posts taking a statistical look at the history of Catalina Channel swimming (see parts 1 and 2). These analyses have not been validated or endorsed by the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation and should be considered “unofficial.” 2011 swims are included, but are unofficial until the ratification banquet on November 5.

CCSF’s official list of successful swims is available here. Penny Lee Dean’s authoritative history is here.

5 thoughts on “Venus, Mars, and Catalina”

  1. The most obvious explanation for this is that even though numbers are increasing now, until very recently, the Catalina Channel has been a far from mainstream marathon swim, with relatively few people having swum it (compared, say, to the English Channel). One consequence of this is that it has been (predominantly) faster, more accomplished swimmers who have attempted it because it has not yet been normalised / mainstreamed in the way that the English Channel has. Given the lower rates of women attempting marathon swims more generally, this effect has probably been amplified – hence the faster swims by women. As more and more people swim Catalina, I would expect the average swim times across the board to become longer as a wider range of swimmers attempt it.

    I, however, with a time of 14 hours and 11 minutes, am happy to stand up for slow plodders everywhere…

  2. Wow, this is amazing. I really like it that you broke out the data by era.

    You inspired me to post another graph–straight gender comparisons for US Marathon finishers, Ironman Swim-Bike-Run, US Masters 1-Hour Postal Swim, and US Masters 1-Hour Records. Men have a definite advantage in all of those events.

    Based on the data you posted, women have a 7% advantage in pre-2005 Catalina crossings. That’s about the reverse of what I’m seeing in the events I mentioned above.

    What do you think is the difference? Pain tolerance? I doubt the extra fat reserves would be a factor since both men and women usually increase their body fat before attempting a crossing.

    It would be very interesting to see the failure data. I think they should collect the data anonymously. In other words, if people don’t want their names published for the “failed” attempt, that’s fine. But their stats should be included in the public record.

    1. Here’s what I think (and let this serve as reply to both Karen & Katie…) —

      I agree with Karen that the effect is probably illusory. It’s not that women are faster ultra-distance swimmers than men (though the gap is much smaller than in, say, sprinting). It’s that the women who do marathon swims tend, on average, to be better swimmers than the men who attempt such swims.

      You can look at it from the perspective of both the fast swimmers and the slow swimmers. On the “slow” end of the spectrum, perhaps men are more likely to attempt a marathon swim without being qualified. Call it the “hubris effect.” The urge to climb tall dangerous mountains also seems to be primarily male – so, a Channel Swim is just another tall dangerous mountain to climb. The result is, the average female marathon swimmer tends to be better qualified – and therefore faster.

      On the “fast” end of the spectrum, consider Karen Burton and Penny Dean. They were world class swimmers in their day. Were there also world class male marathon swimmers attempting Catalina? Paul Asmuth, for instance, did not (as far as I know). Could Penny or Karen beat Paul Asmuth in a head-to-head race? I would guess probably not… just as I don’t think Eva Fabian could beat Alex Meyer in a head-to-head race.

      The current male record holder for Catalina, Todd Robinson, is a Masters swimmer (albeit a very good one). If my friend Mark Warkentin (or other world class male marathon swimmer) were inclined to swim the Catalina Channel (and he’s not), I think there’s a good chance he would challenge the 7 hour barrier under the right conditions. In the English Channel the overall record is held by Petar Stoychev (a world class swimmer) at 6:57 – 43 minutes faster than Penny Dean’s women’s record.

      With only a couple exceptions (such as Stoychev) world-class marathon swimmers are busy competing on the pro circuits, where they can actually make money. Channel swimming, on the other hand, costs money (a lot of it).

      At marathon distance, women are close enough in speed that these “selection effects” can make it seem like they’re actually faster.

      1. Don’t women generally have higher body fat composition and different centers of gravity. That may be less important for sprinting, but probably adds up over hours of swimming (esp cold swimming). Or is that a myth?

        1. Both of those things are true, and it’s possible that both help women maintain more efficient body position in the water after hours of swimming, compared to men.

          On the other hand, men are stronger than women. Swimming is mostly about drag reduction, but strength helps too, even at long distances. I think it’s debatable which effect would prevail.

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