By Vanessa Wilkins
“Go the extra mile — it’s never crowded,” so the saying goes. But what about an extra .62 of a mile?
For thousands of girls on high school cross country teams, racing to the finish means running a course 1,000 meters shorter than their male counterparts. In 2012, ESPN reported that ten states — Nebraska, Texas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Kansas, and Mississippi – have a course for females that is 4K (2.48 miles), while male cross country runners cover 5K (3.1 miles)
In the past year, two of those states –Texas and Nebraska — have given distance equity a chance by tacking on another 1,000 meters for female runners.
Why do others keep the girl’s race shorter?
Some worry fewer girls will join cross country teams if the race is longer. Even Olympic marathoner and running celebrity Kara Goucher sympathizes with “the reasons that some people don’t want to see a jump to a full 5K,” and those who “fear the farther distance would discourage girls from running.”
It’s a popular argument, but it simply hasn’t turned out to be the case in states that extended the race distance for girls. In 2008, for example, Connecticut added 1,000 meters to the girl’s course – and participation actually increased, from 2,630 in 2007 to 2,691, according to the National Federation of State High School Association’s participation statistics database.
What’s more, in states where an equal race distance has been in place for five years or more — Ohio, California, and New Jersey, for example — differences in boys’ and girls’ participation rates have remained steady, at about 15-30% more for boys. That, by the way, is the same as in states with shorter race distances for female runners (the exception being Minnesota, where girls’ participation outpaces boys’ by nearly 20%).
What is really at play here: Antiquated notions about women’s athletic capabilities. Goucher doesn’t take a direct stance against an increase in race distance for girls, but her sympathetic “understanding” perpetrates the myth that girls are afraid of extra running, feeding the fire of sexist ideology. Having this voiced by a running role model only spurs girls to question their own capability to compete at the same distance as boys.
Boys’ times do tend to be quicker. But that is not what this is about. The question is whether girls are capable of covering the extra distance (may I remind you that it’s a tad over half a mile?)
When one considers that, historically speaking, female runners have not been allowed or encouraged to train on par with male athletes it begins to look like it’s time to level the playing field – or lengthen the race course.
How else can we expect to develop a new generation of female runners to compete with the best on an international stage? There may be some catching up to do, but I bet the extra 1,000 meters will only make the race course more crowded with ambitious girls.