Sometimes you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is.
As much as coaches and administrators may preach that female athletes can reach the same endurance-based athletic milestones as their male counterparts — and they can and do, as proven by countless marathon, Iron Man and Iditarod finishers — when female competitors aren’t allowed to perform on an even playing field with the boys, the reality betrays a very different point of view.
This fall, Minnesota is rectifying that discrepancy by finally letting the state’s girls cross country runners show they can run as far as the boys.
In February, the Minnesota State High School League approved a recommendation from the Minnesota State Cross Country Coaches Association to move the girls’ race distance from four kilometers to five, the same distance the boys run.
“I think it’ll be a good change overall,” said Litchfield senior Jane Hulterstrum, the Dragon girls’ top returning runner and lone state-qualifier last season. “… We’ll all run on the same course, so that’ll be nice.”
Since girls cross country’s official MSHSL inception in 1975 — boys first raced in 1943 — the female runners have competed at shorter distances than the boys: from 1975 to 1977, the girls ran two miles; from 1978 to 1993, 3,200 meters; and from 1994 to 2014, they ran four kilometers. The boys have ran five-kilometer races since 1979.
But when the Litchfield High School cross-country team travels to Little Crow Golf Course for an eight-team scrimmage on Aug. 24, all the Dragon runners, boys and girls, will be running 5,000 meters.
Report sparks discussion, change
The conversation about changing the girls distance began after a 2012 ESPN report brought the issue to the attention of many coaches across the country, according to Julie Dengerud, Litchfield’s boys and girls cross country coach.
The report opened Dengerud’s eyes to just how rare Minnesota’s distance difference was; at the time, Minnesota was one of 10 states whose girls ran shorter distances than its boys.
“For me, I didn’t realize that until the ESPN report had come out,” Dengerud said. “… Nobody had ever brought it up until ESPN had.”
The Minnesota Cross Country Coaches Association gauged the support of a possible change by sending a survey to the state’s coaches, including Dengerud.
A majority of the MCCCA approved of the idea, including the Dragon coach.
“I was all for it,” Dengerud said. “I said, ‘I’m all in.’”
Dengerud’s support was echoed by her girls team.
“When we talked about it, none of my girls were opposed to it,” Dengerud said. “They were like, ‘Why wouldn’t we?’”
The report spurred a national discussion that has had a real impact: there are now only five states — Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma and Texas — where at least some of the girls divisions run a shorter distance than the boys.
In many ways, the change will simplify things for Dengerud: the boys and girls teams already practice together, running the same practice routes; and many of the girls already run 5K road races on their own.
Now that the two teams will run the same distance on race days, practices should intensify, Dengerud said.
“It’ll make practice more competitive with the boys pushing the girls and the girls pushing the boys,” she said.
And not only does the change to five kilometers even the playing field — what better way to demonstrate that girls are just as capable as boys? — it also helps prepare high school runners as they make the jump to college, where races are six kilometers.
“That is a good part about it, because I have heard that when coaches from colleges are looking at runners it’s easier to compare it when you’re running the 5K,” said Hulterstrum, who may pursue a collegiate running career.
Weeks to tweak
Though Dengerud and her girls team are ready to run the extra distance, there will still be an adjustment period.
“For me, the only thing I’m going to have to tweak is getting the girls ready for race day,” Dengerud said. “… It’ll be making sure they have that endurance for the last six-tenths of a mile.”
For runners like Hulterstrum, the adjustment may be less about endurance and more about acclimating to what constitutes a quality time.
“One of the harder things to get used to at the beginning will be knowing what time to shoot for,” Hulterstrum said.
There are some opponents to the change, including Jane Reimer-Morgan, a member of the Minnesota State Cross Country Advisory Board.
In an interview with Runner’s World, Reimer-Morgan voiced the opponents’ primary concern.
“I fear that we may lose runners coming from middle school, who frequently come out for social reasons, and then discover they love running and are actually good at it,” Reimer-Morgan told the publication in February. “I am afraid we will lose these girls to other sports.”
So far, however, states that have undertaken the distance change — like Connecticut, for one — have seen no demonstrable drop-off in participation numbers.
Dengerud doesn’t believe the increased distance will damage girls cross country participation.
“If you’re going to be out for the social part, you’re going to run with someone who runs at your pace anyway,” she said. “The kids that want to be out for the social part of it, they’ll still be out for the social part of it because essentially you’re looking at one race a week. I don’t think that will deter someone from doing it.”
In fact, Dengerud thinks that once novice runners realize they can finish a five-kilometer race, it may actually prove more meaningful and bolster their confidence.
“It’ll give them that boost,” she said.