David Chalfen considers the debate surrounding equalising cross country distances for men and women

And so we welcome in 2021 with something else to divide the sport along partisan lines, whether it be professionalised NGB vs voluntary regional associations; male vs female (I’ll stay binary on this one for the purposes of this debate); and old, perhaps reactionary, guard vs politicised moderniser.

Yep, it’s that oh so visceral matter of the distances of cross country races. Anyone remember them?

Here are a few points, which most definitely aren’t meant to be exhaustive or indeed decisive:

– Cross country is pitched as a test of long distance running. The World Athletics federation (IAAF as was) categorises long distance running, within its Track and Field programme, as 5000m and upwards. Mr Cheptegei has whittled his long distance down to 12 mins 35 seconds – so once, at senior level we are racing for longer, that is in the realms of long distance.

I wonder how many of the supporters of distance equality would actually categorise 10k as ‘middle distance’ but it’s a significant minority, based my own chats and online surfing further down the performance pyramid.

– There is an undeniable case that as women do the same standard distances as men on track and road, equality on cross country has its merits.

– Some of the more vociferous articles have been scribed by runners who probably come more from the recreational camp than the performance camp. Theirs is a valid point of view but it’s certainly no more valid than a Radcliffe, Pieterse or Yamauchi and there’s an argument that it’s a far less rounded and informed viewpoint in terms of the sport ‘ at large’. Particularly as they were in the sport as young female middle distance runners……

– A bit of contextual data – and we will leave out from the mainstream the highly outlying old chestnut about the notorious Southern XC Male Champs being 15k whereas the women do 8km. The typical Male Senior XC Course, in events which haven’t set equalised distances, is about 25 % longer than the Women’s equivalent. Women at elite level race about 12% slower than men at that level. So in terms of racing duration, that’s already gone some way to redress the balance.

Factor in that women’s depth at club level is still a little lighter than the men’s, and the discrepancy in race duration is even more diluted. As a random sample, I checked some Metropolitan League XC results for 100th place in the Men’s 8k race and Women’s 6k races – the times start to become very similar, less than 10% difference.

– An anecdote – about 40 years ago the English Men’s National, always billed at 9 miles seemed to come in at about 7-and-a-bit miles. This was the trial for the World XC Champs when in a bad year the England team might get only a minor medal – so numerous of the best distance runners in the world contested the National.

In the ever-extensive AW coverage of the race, the obvious ‘short’ course had maybe two lines of coverage, with the medallists briefly mentioning that the lap seemed a tad short on warm up. Again – the race did exactly what it was intended to do, and everyone hit the tea queue about ten minutes earlier.

Leading women at the National Cross. Credit: Nigel Bramley

– I’m a coach, I coach and have coached many men and women who do Cross country races at varying levels. Pretty much all these runners fit into the category of long distance runners – that is, they aren’t focusing on middle distance or Ultras. From all the exchanges over the years, no one has expressed any strong views on the matter to me – which perhaps goes back to them understanding the first point above. From a coaching perspective, I don’t care what the distance is, either per se, or by gender. (I expect to know what the purported distance is though!).

If it affects training, it does so only marginally if at all, and nobody has any misguided view that further is better. It’s just further – it’s not a qualitative thing. (Going back to that Southern Champs, I see no athletic need for the leading men to be racing for around 50 minutes – the point of the competition would not be weakened in any way if they chopped 30% off the distance and I doubt results would be affected in any significant way. To support this theory, have you ever heard an athlete who thinks that 5k or 10k doesn’t really suit them and they believe their destiny would be better fulfilled at 7k or 13k?).

Purely from an athlete development angle, I wouldn’t worry if the discrepancies in senior racing distances were reversed so women had the longer races – I don’t expect that to happen but if it did, the nature of what the athletic test was designed to achieve wouldn’t change.

– I haven’t chipped in to the official consultation, partly because I don’t actually care that much; partly because I believe that the decision is only heading one way; and partly because, ever delusional, I think slightly more people may view my musings if posted on Fastrunning. Though they might not read this far.

David Chalfen