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“I came by the 6K mark and thought, ‘F—, it’s going to be a long day,’” Cooper Teare says of this year’s 10,000-meter NCAA men’s cross-country championships. At the 6K mark, he was still with the leaders, but in the late stages of the race he collapsed from exhaustion, got back up, fell down again, and crawled across the finish line. The fastest collegiate miler of all time finished fourth to last. “The 10K is a different beast,” he says.
For the women, though, the race ends at 6K, where Teare wished it would’ve ended while his competitors surged forward. The fastest miler in the women’s race, Whittni Orton, was ultimately crowned the champion. Two different race distances, frankly, make men’s and women’s cross-country two different sports.
On January 5, Run Equal submitted their first proposal to the NCAA, in which their main demand was that men and women race the same distance in cross-country, across all three divisions, by 2023. In accordance with their petition, which had been circulating online for months, they proposed that everybody race 8,000 meters all season. Equalize the distances, they say. Run equal.
“Requiring women to race shorter distances is gender bias and sends an unmistakable message, intended or not, that women are not as capable as men,” the proposal says.
Molly Peters, the head cross-country coach for men and women at St. Michael’s College, started Run Equal by herself but always knew she wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything substantial alone. “The NCAA isn’t going to take ‘little me’ at my little college seriously,” Peters says.
To gain credibility, Peters assembled a team of pioneers in women’s running who share her view that the distances should be equal. Joan Benoit won the first ever women’s Olympic marathon. Lynn Jennings was a three-time cross-country world champion. Kathrine Switzer was the first woman to ever run the Boston Marathon.
The hope is that when prominent athletes sign and share the petition, it’s like a snowball. “When you get these big names on board, the NCAA will eventually have to answer to them,” Peters says.
Another one of the big names is Molly Huddle, a 10-time NCAA All-American and former American record holder in the 5,000 meters. “I always thought it was kind of weird we didn’t run the same distance, and here we are 20 years later still doing the same thing,” Huddle says. “I think it’s been stuck this way for so long just because we haven’t all really talked about it out in the open all at once.”
From 1928 to 1960, women were prohibited from competing in any event longer than 200 meters at the Olympics because it was thought that the strenuous aerobic activity would harm her ability to bear children. Now it’s commonly understood that the old rationale was wrong; to relegate women to a shorter distance event seems like a blind faith preservation of a tradition based on a misconception, a simple deferment to the status quo that favors an antiquated model.
Kara Goucher, the three-time NCAA champion and double Olympian, concurs. “You don’t see women running 3,000 meters on the track while the men run 5,000,” she says. “Women run the marathon too. They run hundred-milers. They can handle a few extra kilometers in cross-country.”
Goucher says her college coach at the University of Colorado, Mark Wetmore, used to joke, “The men get to enjoy their time for 30 minutes, and you girls only get to enjoy 16 or 17 minutes. They get to be in the spotlight for much longer. That’s not fair.” There’s a truth at the joke’s center: The men’s race is presented as a more serious affair, the main event of the day.
When Goucher won her NCAA cross-country title in 2000, it was the first year the women had ever raced 6K. It had previously been standard for women to race 5K. When the increase in distance first took effect, Goucher says, everybody thought participation among women would drop dramatically, that they wouldn’t be able to field full teams. That didn’t happen. The number of women participating in Division I cross-country steadily increased for the next five years.
While there may be popular support for increasing the women’s race distance, there’s no consensus around what the race distance should be. The proposal submitted to the NCAA calls for 8K for all because Peters and many of her allies see that distance as “a great compromise.” But others disagree.
“I like the 10K at the national championships. It makes it harder,” Goucher says. “But what’s most important is that they’re equal.” Goucher believes there should be a meaningful differentiation between track and cross-country. She says, “They’re different sports, and they should require different types of athletes.”
Huddle offers a different perspective. “Back when I was running I wanted to run 8K, what the guys do all season,” she says.“I’m not so sure about 10K. That’s a daunting distance to jump up to as a freshman—for the men too.”
Peters understands the challenges of organizing an initiative like this and isn’t necessarily worried about the contention. She also spearheaded the movement to equalize the NCAA’s race distances in nordic skiing, which has some similarities with cross-country: both sports are endurance races, and they both traditionally have required women to race a shorter distance than men. Her initiative, which was fittingly called Ski Equal, was mostly successful.
After pressure from Peters and some of the sport’s top athletes, the NCAA Ski Committee opted for an incremental transition to hosting equal distance races between genders. This year, seven of the eight races on the formal circuit were equal in distance. Last year only two were. A few years before that none of them were.
As a sport, cross-country hasn’t yet seen the changes that nordic skiing has, even though the conversation about equalizing race distances isn’t new. There still isn’t a single opportunity for women to race longer than 6K during the NCAA season. But maybe now the time is finally right.
While the USATF cross-country championships have been 10K for both men and women since 2015, other governing bodies are now beginning to make changes to reckon with the implicit messaging behind the history of unequal race distances. European Athletics recently announced that for the first time in 2023 they will lengthen the women’s race distance to match the men’s. Soon the unequal race distances will be unique to the NCAA.
“There’s pressure right now for the NCAA to push for gender equality,” says Peters, referencing the recent Kaplan Reports, which aim to provide a thorough review of gender equality issues in various NCAA championships. The reports followed a TikTok video that went viral in March showing the dramatic differences between the men’s and women’s practice facilities at last year’s NCAA March Madness basketball tournaments. People are seriously talking about gender equality in sports right now; the window is wide open.
Regardless of the changes that happen in other sports, during the upcoming cross-country season Peters plans to host some women’s 8Ks at her college, where she’s the meet director. Rather than wait for governing bodies to comply with her vision, she’ll model the system she wants to see. “It pains me to host races that aren’t equal,” she says. “I guess it’ll soon be time to put my money where my mouth is.”