The moment of glory came for Bea McIntosh four years ago. She was the first woman to cross the finish line at a local 10-kilometer race, and she hasn't forgotten the thrill.
"It was the most exhilarating feeling," says Ms. McIntosh, 47, of Menlo Park, Calif. "I just felt wonderful. All the people all along the way were cheering."
And although Ms. McIntosh didn't outpace the top men, she was trying to overtake any men within her range.
"Men are, as a rule, faster than women," Ms. McIntosh says. "But I always compete with the men."
All the world is watching as women's running times get faster and faster. Although female Olympic stars have yet to catch up with their male counterparts, they are closing the gap. Some researchers are betting that with time, women may give men a run for the money. Even top local women like Ms. McIntosh are already quite a bit faster than most men.
"Women have made phenomenal strides," says Brian Whipp, physiologist at the University of California Los Angeles. "If they continue with this, they have an exciting future."
Mr. Whipp and Susan Ward are the authors of an article that touched off a flap in the athletic world by suggesting that, if current trends continue, top women may be running as fast as top men by the beginning of the next century. In marathon races, where women's improvement is greatest, they could match men by 1998.
The article, published earlier this year in the scientific journal Nature, amounted to little more than educated speculation, by the authors' own admission. In fact, they are careful to point out that such a scenario "seems improbable."
Yet the data they collected show that between 1955 and 1985, world record-holding female runners improved their average speed twice as fast as men. If that trend continues -- a big if -- top women should theoretically be running shoulder-to-shoulder with the fastest men by the start of the 21st century.
Some are skeptical.
"Women are as close now as they're ever going to get," says Amby Burfoot, editor of Runner's World magazine and former champion of the Boston marathon. Assuming women will continue their recent improvement into the indefinite future is like predicting a 2-year-old's growth rate will continue until adulthood. "They'd end up 12 or 15 feet tall," Mr. Burfoot says.
But Mr. Burfoot was so intrigued with the question that he did an analysis of world-record running times for the past five years. Between 1987 and 1992, he found that world records for women in events ranging from 400-meter sprints to marathons showed little or no improvement, while men's continued a slight improvement.
"Certainly records will continue to be broken, but women will always run about 11 percent slower than men," he says.
Nobody denies that women are still considerably slower than men when it comes to Olympic events as well as small local races. The world record for men's 10-kilometer races is just over 27 minutes, while for women it exceeds 30 minutes.
And Ms. McIntosh's best 10-kilometer time of 40 minutes, 29 seconds is a far cry from both. But she and fellow runner Sylvia Jensen have seen dramatic changes in the local women's running scene over the last 10 years.
Ms. Jensen, 52, started running locally in the mid-1970s. "In the 10Ks, there were very few women," she says. "I had no trouble taking first place in the 10Ks."
Since that time, she says she has seen women get faster, smarter and tougher in their mental attitude and physical workouts. Both Ms. Jensen and Ms. McIntosh do weekly speed-sprinting workouts, called "interval training," as well as a weekly run on a steep-hill course.
That kind of training for endurance and speed has become routine for even the most mildly competitive women on the local scene. At the Olympic level, of course, the training is much more sophisticated and demanding, and women have just begun to catch up with men in terms of professional coaching, training strategies and mental attitude.
Endurance and speed also take strong muscles and big lungs. Some argue that men have innate physiological advantages over women that will always make them better athletes.
Mr. Whipp, the UCLA physiologist, acknowledges that women overall have smaller hearts and lungs than men. That means that on average they are not able to fuel their muscles as efficiently with oxygen.
But there's a big difference between the average build of most women, Mr. Whipp says, and the extraordinary bodies of some top female athletes such as Florence Griffith-Joyner, who won three gold medals for sprinting in the 1988 Olympic Games.
What is unclear, he says, is how much women can use training to modify the mix of hormones, muscles and anatomy they are born with to improve athletic performance. Mr. Whipp says he suspects those physiological factors may be more flexible than people think.
"Anyone who believes that the 1990s version of Homo sapiens is the ultimate expression of human potential, I'm afraid, is deluding themselves," says Mr. Whipp.
The top female runners have already matched the world records set by famous male athletes of the past. He cites the 100-meter Olympic triumph of Harold Abrahams in 1924, made famous in the movie "Chariots of Fire." Other male runners were collapsing during the race, unable to keep up with Mr. Abrahams.
"If you could toy with time, Florence Griffith-Joyner would have beat him," Mr. Whipp says.