Short changed

In 10 states, girls run shorter cross country races than boys. Is that practice fair?

Updated: May 14, 2012, 3:58 PM ET
By Christopher Parish | ESPNHS.com

Molly SeidelVictah Sailer/PHOTORUN.NETGatorade National Runner of the Year Molly Seidel says Wisconsin's tradition of 4K races for girls and 5Ks for boys is based on "an old-fashioned theory that a girl can't run as long a distance as a boy can."

On a brisk day in late October, Molly Seidel crossed the finish line at the Wisconsin cross country state championships ahead of all other competitors. The senior won the Division 3 state meet handily, just weeks before she'd eventually be crowned as a national champion.

Her time of 13 minutes and 39 seconds was faster than any other winner, boy or girl, at the state meet.

Seidel is a brilliant distance runner, a Notre Dame-bound harrier whose wins at the Foot Locker Midwest Regional and the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships led to a Gatorade National Runner of the Year award. But on that late October afternoon, Seidel's run was among the easier of her major wins.

After all, it was exactly 1,000 meters shorter than those other victories.

"On paper, you wouldn't think it's that big of a jump," Seidel said. "But that extra [distance] is a really big deal."

Wisconsin is one of 10 states in which girls run shorter distances during the cross country regular season. Their four-kilometer (2.5-mile) races differ from the standard five-kilometer (3.1-mile) courses run by the boys. In all other states, girls and boys run the same distance.

Girls also run shorter distances in Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas and Oklahoma. All of these states race at 4 kilometers except for Oklahoma, which races at 3.2 kilometers (or roughly two miles). Texas recently moved its two largest classifications to 5 kilometers while keeping its smaller classes at the 3.2K distance.

That discrepancy doesn't sit well with Seidel.

"I gripe about it quite a bit," she said. "I think it's an old-fashioned theory that a girl can't run as long a distance as a boy can. It seems like they were in the dark ages when they made that rule."

"Some coaches have wondered whether [girls running a shorter distance] is a Title IX issue," said Donn Friedman, the cross country committee chairman of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference. Connecticut's girls ran the 4K distance until 2008, when its coaches voted to move up to the 5K.

"One of the arguments in favor of increasing the distance has been gender equity," Friedman said. "In fact, many of our conferences had made the move to 5K while we were still a 4K state, just because they felt it was appropriate."

State associations set the distances but take their cues from advisory boards, which are made up of coaches from across the state. The advisory board votes on various rules and regulations every season, and any potential changes are brought directly to the athletic or activities department, where they are again reviewed and voted upon.

In some states, that process can take up to two years.

"It's all set by our member schools," said Jon Dolliver, the assistant director for the Nebraska School Activities Association. "I haven't heard of any vote recently. I know [changing the girls' distances] was brought up seven or eight years ago. If our member schools wanted to change the distance, we'd get it approved."

Yet according to Jeremy Haselhorst, who is the president of the Nebraska Cross Country Coaches Association, it's a discussion that comes up every season.

"Every year I've been involved, we talk about the things we'd like to see changed," said Haselhorst, who also coaches the Papillion-La Vista South (Papillion, Neb.) girls' cross country team. "And every year that I've been here, somebody brings up moving girls from 4K to 5K." But every year, Nebraska coaches have voted it down.

ESPNHS reached out to the cross country representatives at each of the 10 state associations in which girls run shorter distances than the boys. Nine associations responded. (Representatives from Iowa did not respond to repeated inquiries.) Every athletic association implied that the state would be open to increasing the distance, provided that the coaches' associations voted to do so.

For coaches, the main deterrent is the perception that it will negatively affect participation numbers. Particularly in smaller classifications, coaches worry that increasing the distance from 4K to 5K will turn away girls who either aren't as serious about the sport, use cross country mostly to train for other sports, or both.

"Nobody has ever said that a girl can't run a 5K," Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association assistant director Marcy Thurwachter said. "The No. 1 issue is what will happen to our smallest teams and their participation numbers."

That was a concern in Connecticut leading up to the state's distance change. Friedman said some schools were having trouble getting girls to turn out for cross country at all, and schools with smaller numbers were afraid of forcing their girls to run an extra 1,000 meters every race. The longer distance means more time spent racing, more training and, simply, more work.

But following the move to the longer distance, Friedman said the participation numbers barely wavered.

"It doesn't appear to be the case at all," he said.

Participation numbers aren't the only reason for skepticism. Coaches have also voiced concern over the amount of time it takes girls to finish a race. The average girls' runners complete a four-kilometer race in approximately the same amount of time the average boys finish a five-kilometer course.

That thinking doesn't sit well with some of the nation's elite harriers.

"It's dumb that it's not equal," said Maria Hauger of Shakopee (Minn.). The junior won a Class AA state championship this past fall before finishing 21st at the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships.

"Knowing how I run," she said, "the longer the race is, the stronger I get."

Hauger's point touches on a larger argument. The four-kilometer race changes the strategy for some top athletes. In states where the distance is shorter, the race is substantially different. Six-tenths of a mile can adequately separate runners who are better conditioned or, as in Hauger's case, those who get stronger as the race gets longer.

"It should be equal," she said. "People say girls can't run as far as the guys, but most of our girls can beat the guys on our boys' team."

Runners who compete at shorter distances are also at a disadvantage when it comes to recruiting. Colleges looking for the best and the brightest have a hard time comparing girls who run the five-kilometer distances with those who do not.

Maria Hauger
John Nepolitan Maria Hauger won a Minnesota state championship in the 4K but was forced to change her strategy for longer postseason events like the Foot Locker Championships.

"I coach a pretty large team," Haselhorst said. "We have a lot of girls who want to run in college, and it's hard for those coaches to compare [runners] state to state when we're running 4K and another state is running 5K.

"In track, we don't run any different distances than the boys do," he said. "At our state level, the boys run 3,200 [meters] and the girls run 3,200. The boys run 1,600 [meters] and the girls run 1,600. But for whatever reason, the game changes during cross country season."

None of the coaches' associations surveyed had seen any data indicating that an increase in distance would hurt the sport. But all of the states surveyed signaled that several of their coaches have openly wondered about the negative fallout of an increased distance.

"Nobody's looked at any data," Haselhorst said. "Especially at these smaller schools, [coaches] don't necessarily come from a distance-running background. They get thrown into coaching, and they do it to the best of their ability, but they have this perception, for whatever reason, that to ask these girls to run another 1,000 meters is going to hurt the sport. I don't think they ever actually take the time to ask their kids."

Then there's Oklahoma, which is the only state where girls run 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) in all of its classifications.

"There has been a push here lately to change the distance," said Ron Etheridge, who oversees the sport for the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association. "It was brought up in an advisory meeting. Once we get a feel for what the total population [of the coaches] wants, we'll take it to our fall meetings to administrators.

"If it's not broke, don't fix it. That's the kind of philosophy we have. Until we get some real vibes from our coaches that, 'Hey, we want to change this,' we're not going to do anything."

Etheridge, however, acknowledged the perception that Oklahoma was behind the rest of the country when it came to the matter.

"I promise you, it'll be looked at," he said. "In 2013, I would venture to say that at least some of our girls will be running 5K."

Oklahoma said it will look into bumping up the distance for larger classifications. In other states, it's not that simple. Nebraska, for example, enforces a rule that would prevent large-school classifications from changing their rules without the smaller classifications following suit. That prevents coaches like Haselhorst from finding an acceptable strategy for all parties -- allowing the bigger programs to move to 5K while placating the smaller schools that are concerned about participation numbers.

That process is under review and may change shortly. But for coaches like Haselhorst, it can't change soon enough.

"Nebraska girls are a little bit behind," he said. "I don't think it's purely because of the 4K-versus-5K difference, but racing 4K all season long and then having to make the change to 5K means they're not used to the pace that's necessary. I think it holds some of our girls back."

Seidel, for one, agrees.

"I think changing to 5Ks would move us forward 30 years," she said. "Maybe some girls would gripe about it, but I think would help cross country a lot."