Should Men and Women Race the Same Distance?
Several British stars, including Paula Radcliffe, recently spoke out against an initiative to equalize cross-country distances for male and female athletes. The debate is more complicated than it seems.
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Two years ago, I wrote a column for Outside suggesting that cross-country competitions like the NCAA or USATF National Club Championships should feature the same race distances for men and women. (At those events, women currently run 6K and men run 10K.) It was not a particularly radical or original proposition; pro runner Kara Goucher, for one, has been vocal about men and women racing the same distances and Lauren Fleshman wrote about the topic back in 2015. However, and as Fleshman notes in her piece, it’s an issue of some contention whether equalizing race distances is really the sort of equality we should be striving for.
For the British grassroots initiative RunEqual, the answer to that question is an emphatic “yes.” The initiative, whose viral success prompted my 2018 article, is pushing to equalize race distances at national level cross-country meets. As it states on its website, RunEqual believes that having different distances sends a subtle message to women that they “aren’t as capable,” that their “races aren’t as important,” and that they “aren’t being welcomed on equal terms.”
Last week, several luminaries of the British distance running scene begged to differ. A statement signed by former cross-country world champion Paula Radcliffe, along with 22 other elite women athletes, pushed back against the assertion that having shorter races for women was a tacit insult to their ability.
“This has never been part of our lived experience,” the statement read. “We are saddened by the suggestion that our past performances are viewed as somehow lacking, simply because we raced shorter distances than men.”
The rebuke came in the context of a recent announcement by UK Athletics, the sport’s national governing body, that it was sending out a survey to local clubs and athletes soliciting feedback on the prospect of equalizing race distances. As of last week, 7,500 people had responded to the survey, according to Athletics Weekly. The publication also reported that some regional athletic organizations were concerned that UK Athletics seemed to be treating the equalizing of race distances as a fait accompli. (According to UK Athletics CEO Joanna Coates, nothing has been decided.)
Beyond the fact that they didn’t view having shorter races as an affront, Radcliffe and her fellow signees, including Olympians like Mara Yamauchi and Laura Muir, suggested that equalizing distances could perhaps negatively impact the elite side of the sport. They expressed concern that pushing younger athletes to run longer distances would affect athlete retention and development as female runners moved up from junior to senior ranks. Perhaps most contentiously, they suggested that, due to biological differences between men and women, it made sense to have different event specifications for competitive cross-country.
Twitter had some thoughts. The sports science pundit Ross Tucker felt that Radcliffe and co. might need to elaborate on their claim that young female runners were less physiologically well-suited to handle the same race distances as their male counterparts. Meanwhile, RunEqual pointed out that Scottish Athletics had decided to equalize race distances back in 2015 with no apparent detriment to athlete retention rates. RunEqual also took issue with the idea that equalization was automatically being interpreted as making the women’s race longer. (Since its inception in late 2017, the initiative has been consistent on the point that its goals would also be met if men’s races were made shorter.)
However, the elite runners’ statement did make the convincing point that any changes with regard to race distances should ultimately be made by the athletes themselves.
As the statement reads:
In cross-country, women and girls should race a distance which is: a) what they want; b) what is appropriate for their age and ability level; and c) what is best for their wider competition goals and race calendar. The criterion “what the men or boys run” should be well down the list in deciding.
Radcliffe has said that shorter cross-country races might actually be preferable from a competition standpoint since such an arrangement would better accommodate both middle- and long-distance runners. In an interview with LetsRun at the 2018 NCAA Cross Country Championships, the multiple-time All-American Allie Ostrander made the same point (“right now I feel like 1500 runners, 5k runners, 10k runners can all be successful”) even as she confessed that her personal preference was for race distances to be equalized.
As Ostrander told LetsRun at the time: “Personally, I would like to see the distance go up. It would be awesome for us to be racing the same distance as the men…It would make sense for us to prepare to race at the world standard distance.”
It’s hard to gauge how many athletes might share Ostrander’s view, at least without doing an NCAA-wide poll among female cross-country runners. (As far as I’m aware, this has never happened.)
When I reached out to Diljeet Taylor, the head coach of Brigham Young University’s powerhouse women’s cross-country team, she told me that, by and large, her runners hadn’t expressed any desire to equalize cross-country distances. As far as Taylor knew, this also wasn’t currently a major point of discussion in U.S. collegiate running. (And even if it were, she says that she would personally not be in favor of her athletes racing longer distances, as a higher training volume might increase their risk of injury, as well as their susceptibility to RED-S related issues like chronic fatigue and missed periods.)
Dena Evans, who coached the Stanford women’s cross-country team to a 2003 NCAA title, told me that her athletes were always “pragmatic.” Since college running careers are short and 6K was the prescribed distance, that was what her runners were focused on—not what they could be running. Evans also echoed the point that the equalization debate need not always be focused on what the women were doing. “Sometimes we have all these debates about the women’s distance and it’s probably worth checking in every once in a while to decide what we think is the best idea for the men,” she says. “The men often have to run multiple 10K cross country races in a short span of time. Is that really in their best interest?”
Of course, the NCAA, with its athletic scholarships and weirdly professional approach to amateurism, is a somewhat singular athletic ecosystem. The current debate in British cross-country might therefore be more pertinent to USATF competitions than the U.S. college running scene.
That, anyway, is the assessment of Thom Hunt, who is the chair of USATF’s Cross Country Council and the women’s cross-country coach at Cuyamaca College, a community college in San Diego. Hunt told me that NCAA programs were ultimately not incentivized to develop athletes beyond their limited years of eligibility and that a number of smaller schools seemed to treat their cross-country season as de facto fall training for their middle- and long-distance track athletes. He stressed that this was not meant as a judgment, so much as his outsider’s assessment of how the system seemed to operate. (Cuyamaca College is not an NCAA school.) He also pointed out that there are more women’s NCAA cross-country teams than men’s, and that keeping cross-country courses short was generally more favorable to schools that don’t have nationally competitive “true distance” programs.
USATF, on the other hand, is less constrained by considerations of athlete versatility. There are two major senior-level USATF cross country championships in the United States—the USA Championships and the Club Championships. The former is used to select teams for international competitions like the biennial World Athletics Cross Country Championships and its race distances are determined accordingly. When World Athletics made 10K the standard distance for the men’s and women’s senior level race starting at the 2017 World Championships (before that, the men ran 12K and the women ran 8K), USATF followed suit.
At the Club Championships, however, senior level races are still 6K and 10K. Hunt told me that around the time that the IAAF equalized the world championships distances, USATF started soliciting feedback from female club runners about whether they also wanted to run the same distance as the men.
“We asked the women which way they want to go and the winning opinion was to keep it at 6K. It was definitely not unanimous, but the preference to keep distances the same was a clear winner,” Hunt told me. (He conceded that USATF hadn’t yet done an exhaustive poll of every female runner at Club Champs, but that a “sizeable percentage” of competitors had been asked their opinion.)
As for the discussion currently happening in the UK, he also thinks that athletes should be able to decide for themselves.
“Ultimately, I agree with what the British women have said,” Hunt says, referring to the statement signed by Radcliffe and others. “The decision should be made primarily by the athletes who are competing. As an argument, I think that’s kind of a trump card.”