See How They Run

With considerable interest I read of the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association’s decision to change the distance of the high school girls state cross-country race from four kilometers to five, matching that of the boys race. As a cross-country coach at Gibraltar High School, I attended conferences sponsored by the Wisconsin Cross Country Coaches Association and remember a discussion during a general meeting held during the mid ’90s as to whether the Association would vote to endorse such a change.

One of the coaches shouted, “If girls have to run 5K, it will be the death of my program! Girls won’t go out for cross country!” Other coaches nodded in solemn agreement that girls would balk at the extra distance.

After I listened for a time, thinking about the fact that women were once forbidden to enter marathons for fear that distance would cause permanent damage to their reproductive organs, I raised my hand and commented, “A few years from now we will all look back at this discussion and smile at the quaintness of it.”

My observation was met with exclamations of “What the hell?” and “What’s this all about?” A majority of coaches present (nearly all of them male) voted against the proposal.

Some cynics have wondered if the actual motive for the distance discrepancy was a subconscious desire to protect fragile male egos from the threat of being bested by girls in the same race.

When I began coaching at Gibraltar I inherited a successful program, and I had the good fortune to recruit as assistant coaches both a man and a woman who were competitive distance runners themselves. Working together, we continued to coach competitive teams. Runners were grouped according to fitness and talent, not gender or age. Each coach worked out with a group. Sweat at the end of practice was a badge of honor, both for guys and girls. And during the off-season, girls as well as guys ran in local 5K races.

The two distances were problematic for schools hosting meets as the races required separate courses, often a complicated maze of trails with some turns followed during the boys race, and others, during the girls. And the two distances were sometimes problematic for runners as well, as more than one lead runner found too late that the course worker had sent him or her in the wrong direction, and subsequently rather than winning the race, the athlete fell behind those who followed and made the correct turn.

The WIAA decision was fueled by the threat of lawsuits for sexual discrimination rather than forward thinking. The 4K race in high school was the only one of that distance that girls ever faced if they continued their running careers in college or professionally. Most states have already equalized the distances of the high school boys and girls races; Wisconsin was one of a handful that continued that disparity, and the decision by WIAA to lengthen the distance of the girls state course does not legally require a 5K distance for future girls’ cross-country races in Wisconsin.

But I smile, realizing that the day has come when most people recognize the quaintness of that debate that both amused and irritated me 20 years ago.