Toronto Star: Cross-country running on uneven ground
Published on November, 23rd 2015
By Greg Wells
What happens to girls and women when their feet touch grass?
That’s the question increasingly being asked in cross country running circles where old biases about what female athletes are capable of persist.
On the track and on the road, male and female athletes run the same distances, whether it’s the 100-metre sprint or the 42.2-km marathon. When they step on the softer, undulating ground of a cross-country course, that equality vanishes.
In Ontario, when girls turn 14 they start to race shorter distances than the boys. That doesn’t change until they turn 35 and, in terms of elite athletics, are past their best years. There are similar disparities across most of the country.
In Canadian universities, female athletes run just 60 per cent of the distance that their male teammates do. There is no medical reason for this.
“It shouldn’t be happening,” exercise physiologist Greg Wells says. “It’s based on very old perspectives that women couldn’t do as much as men but, really, there is absolutely no reason why they should be running different distances’
Yes, he says, rhyming off some of the commonly raised issues to explain why this discrepancy still exists: women run a little slower, they are at greater risk of knee injuries, and care needs to be taken to ensure they don’t over-train and do eat properly. But none of that means they shouldn’t run the same distances as men, he says.
But in cross country, a largely scholastic sport, distance divergence starts at a young age and persists to the highest levels of competition.
That’s why Leslie Sexton ran six kilometres at the Ontario Cross-Country Championships in Toronto last Sunday while the men ran 10 km.
“I thought it was a little ridiculous,” the 28-year-old runner says.
“I’m running the same distance as the youth boys in my club that I coach. They’re 16- and 17-years-old, I’ve had about 10 years of extra training on them and Athletics Ontario is saying I’m only as prepared to run as long a distance as they are. I take that a little personally.”
Sexton will run at the Canadian championships in Kingston next Saturday, where she is hoping to improve on her third place finish from provincials. The disparity, at least, will be a little less. Senior women will run eight kilometres to the men’s 10.
Sexton has heard plenty of explanations for why women should run shorter races — it encourages participation, they’re less experienced, it’s what they want — but she’s having none of it.
“A lot of these arguments boil down to people saying, in different words, women are weak and they can’t handle it. I think we should give our female distance runners some credit, they’re not getting into the sport because it’s easy,” she says.
“The challenge is for coaches to change their programs so they give these women proper training so they’re prepared to race longer.”
The fight for gender equality is a recurring theme in sport and in the span of just three days it came up in sports as disparate as bobsled, rugby sevens and cross-country running.
A week ago, Queen’s University coach Steve Boyd put forward a two-part motion asking CIS cross-country coaches to “commit to gender equality in racing starting in 2016,” and that the distance be “no less than 8k and no longer than 9k.”
“We had this long discussion about part one, the gender equity, and the level of discussion was deplorable,” Boyd says. “It was like talking to jocks from the 1950s.”
The first part of the motion was defeated: eight votes for, 13 against, and five abstentions.
“We never got to discuss distances,” he says.
But it is the issue of distance that seems to be the biggest stumbling block to change. Do the women’s distances go up, do the men’s come down or is it a combination of both?
That was the issue that brought Gabriela Stafford, the University of Toronto runner who finished second at the CIS championships, into the fray when, as these things inevitably do, the discussion in the coaches’ meeting spilled over into sharp words on social media.
“I was annoyed that people were throwing on labels and calling certain coaches sexist and they weren’t seeing the whole context of the situation,” Stafford says.
“It’s silly that we’re running different distances.”
But she objects to the notion that the men’s distance is somehow better than the women’s one.
“Maybe, we’re being sexist against men by making them run 10.”
As an admittedly self-interested middle-distance specialist she’d like to see university distances equalized at something closer to eight kilometres. She’s not alone in that view, plenty of coaches say there are benefits to shorter distances for long-term development.
The time for that battle may be past.
The global governing body for athletics, the IAAF, has just settled on 10 kilometres for senior women and men at world races, instead of its old eight and 12. That has little immediate application — the next World Cross isn’t until 2017 — but it does become the global elite standard.
No one wants runners who have trained for shorter distances since their early teens to suddenly be thrust into longer races they are unprepared for. That’s why many advocates of change say equalizing distances needs to happen on all levels — high school, university and athletic associations — and may need to be phased in over time.
But instead of that drawing the interested parties together, so far, it has served to maintain status quo.
“Everybody wants to pass the buck to the other jurisdiction. We say we can’t have 10 km because the high school kids are only running X and when they have their discussion they say we can’t have gender equity because universities don’t,” Boyd says.
“It’s just inertia in the system.”
Not everyone has stood still. A few coaches of young athletes have plunged ahead. Pierre Mikhail, a community coach in Huntsville, held a race this past September with equal distances for male and female runners, and Kirk Dillabaugh, a high school coach in Ottawa, convinced all the schools in his district to move to equal distances for a two-year trial.
Ask Dillabaugh why he moved, when provincially and nationally schools, universities and athletics associations have not, and he sounds surprised by the question.
“It’s the right thing to do.”