There’s some discussion going on about equality in collegiate cross country that was sparked by the recent IAAF decision to unify the distance for professionals. On the professional level, where women used to race 8k and men 12k, (and before that, there was a 4k too which I still mourn the loss of, but that’s another story), now we will all race 10k. In reaction to that, some are stoking the argument for similar changes to the collegiate system, and reading this article in Canadian Runner got my claws out. But first the background: in college, women race 6k. Men race 8k until the Championships, where they race 10k. Historically, this discrepancy was based on a belief we now know to be completely false: that women can’t handle the same distances as men. Everyone knows women can run as far as men now. So here is the question: is the fact that NCAA men do 10k enough reason to change the distance women race? Is matching the men the best way to define “equality?”

Here’s the twitter screen shot basics of what we’re talking about here:

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Dr. Vic Jackson is a professor who specializes in sports history, and the history of equality, Title IX, and so on. She iwas also NCAA 10k Champ while at ASU. I’m not assuming she agrees with my position below, but I dig her vibe here.

Just so you know where I’m coming from, I’m not a professional researcher. My opinion is shaped by an aging degree in Human Biology with an area of concentration in “women’s health and athletic performance,” experience as a collegiate athlete and assistant coach at Stanford, 12 years of professional running, coaching professional runners, conversations with my peers, experiences of collegiate athletes I’ve mentored or advised, random research studies and articles that I’ve come across in my pursuit of female athlete wellness, my views as a feminist, and quite frankly, how I feel about the subject. I’m basically obsessed with women’s athletic performance and well being. My objective here is to continue to add more richness and depth to the modern conversation about equality in sports, for which this one particular case is illustrative. I’m always eager to hear more perspectives and evolve mine. So please, chime in.

So back to this:

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First, I want to challenge the assumption that equality means women should move up in distance. The fact that men race 10k should be challenged just as much. It’s an arbitrary distance. What distance best serves the majority of athletes at that stage of physiological development, with consideration for the expectations and demands year-round collegiate competitors face? What distance optimizes the athletes’ health, performance, and experience in the short and long term?

When looked at that way, you may (or may not) not get the same answer for men and women, and that’s ok. I don’t know the answer. But I don’t think we are asking the right questions. It’s not about what is possible. It’s about what makes the most sense. It’s about what the athletes themselves want, when you remove the machismo, outdated assumption that more is better. This is not limited to running. True equality isn’t looking, acting, and walking like men for the sake of it. Equality is bringing who we are and the unique things we know to be important to the arenas in which we play and work, and having those contributions be equally heard, valued and respected.

Another thing to consider is that women have history and meaning in their current events, which keeps getting disrupted and discarded, so changing events is indeed a loss. When cross country was changed from 5k to 6k my freshman year at Stanford, I stopped caring about who the top women were who came before me because I had no method of comparison to draw my attention to the pioneers in my sport. When the women’s 3k was removed from track, the best 3k women in history became relics of an non-relatable time. It’s the sad truth. Considering the relatively short history of women’s sports,  the events we’ve been running (regardless of how they originated) have cross generational currency that connects us to women who came before us, builds tradition, and makes it easier for us to imagine what’s to come (which can help us maintain a long term perspective). As a woman, I value those things way more than mimicking the men.

The Arguments For Moving Up

Let’s analyze the primary arguments I’ve heard for bumping women up to 8k/10k. One is that men get to do it so women are somehow being disrespected if they don’t also do it (even if they haven’t collectively asked for it). Meb isn’t better than Mo Farah just because Meb runs farther. So long as rewards, respect, and coverage is equal, the distance can be different. And I feel the NCAA does a great job in cross country and track and field when it comes to equal coverage, reward, and respect. I’ve never heard one XC NCAA champion say, “If only I ran 10k like the men this would have more importance to me.” Maybe some people feel that way, but out of all the NCAA Champs and All Americans I know, I’ve literally never heard it. Personally, I never felt that the 6k championship trophy I wanted so badly would be less valuable than the men’s 10k trophy. It meant everything. I was glad I wasn’t running 10k.

The second argument for why women should move up to 8k/10k is that racing 6k’s is robbing them of opportunities to prepare for road racing and marathons after college. Clearly there is a subset of athletes coming out of high school that is best suited to longer distances, and will eventually find their best success at half marathon and marathon distances.  Does this mean that collegiate cross country is supposed to be the vehicle responsible for developing that subset of athletes? Maybe it achieves that by accident, but no, it is not.

Cross country doesn’t even have it’s own scholarships. They are dolled out from the pool of track and field ones depending on how much a track and field program is willing to devote to distance runners. There is a lot of variation between schools as a result of how competitive their track team is, but the fact is, the scholarships are track scholarships. Cross country for the vast majority of NCAA schools is built to complement and prepare athletes for track and field, where only one of the five middle and long distance events is longer than 5k. Even if you go to a school where cross country is as big time as football, athletes are expected to be three sport athletes, racing cross country in the fall, indoor track in the winter, and outdoor track in the spring. Don’t get me wrong, cross country is my true love, but developing marathoners during college is not it’s primary purpose.

Plus, there is nothing stopping the pure endurance high school graduate from going straight into road racing, and doing halfs, fulls and ultras while attending university. There are ample opportunities and venues for that in just about every city. There are NAIA schools where you can compete in the marathon at the NCAA Championships. So what role should the college sport of cross country play to best serve the majority of athletes? What makes more sense to prepare athletes for all three seasons from a development perspective, 6k or 10k? What makes more sense for most athletes overall athletic development through a lifetime? Again, up for debate. And the answer may or may not be the same for men and women.

The Case for 6k

What I can say with confidence is 6k is more inclusive, serving a potential purpose for track events from 800-10k, and keeps a greater number of athletes engaged and in community with their teammates year round. It’s easier to keep track of all your athletes this way. Is this important or not? What do NCAA coaches and athletes think?

If we are absolutely insistent men and women run the same event, then why aren’t we seriously considering 6k for all? I don’t believe men would suffer any damage by decreasing the distance they compete in. I have never seen a physiological argument that athletes who don’t move up in race distance early enough can’t have success at the longer distances. In fact, the opposite is what I see the best coaches in the world putting into practice with their athletes more often. There is a shorter window for the development/maintenance of speed and power than there is for developing endurance, so why wouldn’t you optimize that from age 17-21, even if you may do marathons down the road?

Then there is health. At Stanford, top women were aiming for 50-80 miles a week of training for 6k, and top men 80-100+ miles for 10k. I can’t tell you how many male state champions I watched fizzle out at Stanford trying to hit those numbers before there bodies were ready for it. The stress fractures, chronic fatigue, and risk of other injuries increase with increased training load, especially when combined with a full academic load and social life. I never heard the men’s team saying “I’m so glad we race a longer distance at the championships than we do the rest of the year!” Maybe they saved that for the locker room, but I more often saw anxiety about moving up the distance, and having to up the training load significantly to prepare for it. I think men and women would both benefit from the decreased volume demands of the shorter distance.

And now for sex differences. They exist. And this is where people get uncomfortable. Read this article I wrote for Runner’s World to see what my own denial looked like. Women can certainly race 10k. Amazingly. We know this. Children, teens, collegiates, moms, grandmas. Of course we can. We can kick ass at it. We can podium with men at 100 milers like Ann Trason and set speed records on the Appalachian Trail like Jennifer Pharr Davis. That is not the question anymore. The question is, if we have a choice, what is the best event to choose for women (and men) ages 17-21 who are competing in three seasons per year while facing specific hormonal, physical, and emotional development changes correlated with adolescence (which doesn’t end until 25+ by the way).

While men ages 17-21 typically get stronger and stronger with a steady hormonal aid of testosterone, women face a shit storm of hormones designed to optimize us for fertility. Even if you’re not thinking about having babies, your body is. Like it or not, this is science. This is why so many women gain weight, and experience the late teens and early 20’s puffiness that many of us first learn to hate our bodies for. Needing to be lean for performance at this time of life is working against biology, and it often has consequences. This body change, and how we learn to deal with it, affects our injury risk, our relationship with food, our relationship with our bodies, our competitive experiences, and our overall experience with sport. We know that sports with an emphasis on thinness and low body fat are correlated with the highest rates of eating disorders. Women’s distance running has enough of these challenges as it is, and we need to significantly improve how we prevent and treat eating disorders before adding more risk factors, like a distance that favors thinness even more. Especially when there is not a compelling enough reason to increase it. 

Of course it is inaccurate to paint a picture that all women are on the brink of an eating disorder, but it is also irresponsible to keep pretending they don’t exist. In our sport, we do not take eating disorders seriously enough. They have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. For women aged 15-24 who develop anorexia, the mortality rate associated with the illness is twelve times higher than the death rate of all other causes of death. If you aren’t aquatinted with NEDA, those facts and more can be found on their website.

So back to changing bodies…we can hate the puff, we can deny the puff exists, or we can work with it. At least in 5k-6k races, you can still kick ass with some early 20’s hormones. I did. Many of my peers did. I gained quite a bit and while I felt like shit, and plateaued temporarily (a plateau is lucky; many slow down), I was still able to be in the mix. Just about every rock star woman pro on the circuit that I know had a puffy phase. And you know what? It ran it’s course, and their bodies started leaning out naturally. They are succeeding and breaking records at 10k, 15k, half marathons, marathons, and ultras, and were not harmed one bit by racing 4k-6k in college. Most women, after a fleeting youth superhero phase, can look forward to a second bloom in endurance sports in their mid to late 20’s and beyond, if their high school or college experience doesn’t leave them too discouraged. 

Looking Forward

Out of fear of acknowledging the unique challenges facing female athletes at different stages of development, we do them a huge disservice and often cause more damage when problems arise. We know women’s bodies go through changes in that age group, we know distance running is a high risk sport for developing body dysmorphia, and yet we put our heads in the sand. New research is showing that women’s physiology responds differently to training, and should be tailored differently, and yet just reading that makes many people uncomfortable. So does talking about weight, food, and eating disorders. It should come as no surprise that coaches are often grossly unprepared, and inadvertently see the illness spread through their team with long lasting consequences. We need to figure out how to honor and respect women’s unique differences and challenges without them being seen as weaknesses. We need to do this even though not all women have these challenges. Lives are depending on it, but also thousands of women could be getting even more out of their experience with sport if we stop pretending everyone is a dude.

So back to “equality.”

So much of the feminist movement has been about “Give us what the men have!” And rightfully so. We spent most of history being blocked from having things we wanted, things that gave advantages to men by way of restricting access. But the next wave of feminism involves thinking about what we want, what serves us, and having the courage to create those things/systems/roles that set us up for short term and long term success and satisfaction. We don’t need to look at a man’s paper for the answers. Most of what we’ve been fighting for equal access to was created randomly, or based on outdated ideals of masculinity that don’t even really work for men anymore, or by freaking accident! Why copy that for “equality?”

Let’s consider the research, our health, and the three-sport-athlete collective collegiate experience, and go from there. If the result of that is 10k cross country, and that’s what college women themselves want, then by all means, give it to them. But for the love of Pete, saying “but the men do it!” is just blind mimicry disguised as feminism.

Things I’d like to see change:

  • That running step for step with men is presented as our assumed ultimate destination.
  • That “different” = worse without giving ourselves a chance to own and claim that difference.
  • That our discomfort with difference limits our understanding of ourselves, and makes it harder to reach out for other women.
  • Men feeling uncomfortable saying they want to run the shorter distance, or have more paternal leave, or something else that women have, because it would imply weakness.
  • That sometimes it feels like men are trapped in a box, and women are fighting to get inside it.

Thanks for reading,