New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

Changing course: Narrowing the gender gap in cross country

Racing distances in NCAA cross country are unequal across genders; should that change?
Ethan Rendon
(Ethan Rendon for WSN)

If you showed up at a high school cross country meet in Texas or Oklahoma, you might find two courses with different race distances: 3,200 meters for girls and 5,000 meters for boys. In these states, it is believed that female high school runners would find racing a 5K so daunting that only the largest schools with the most athletes have enough girls willing to race the distance. At smaller schools, these women race only 3,200 meters, a distance just shy of two miles.

At the college level, cross country distances reflect those of these small high schools in Texas and Oklahoma on an increased scale, as women run a shorter distance in all divisions. In Divisions I and II, women race a 6K while men race an 8K in some in-season meets and a 10K at the national championship. In Division III, women race a 6K while men race an 8K. At the Olympics, professional races and world championships, men and women all race the same distances. It is only different in the NCAA.

“I never really even thought about it before. I always accepted that men ran more and women ran less. Those were the rules and I had to follow the rules,” said Jessica Allen, an NCAA Division III cross country and track and field athlete at NYU. “But, it’s a really harmful mindset to have — the idea that women have to run less, because women are 100% capable of running an 8K, a 10K, whatever you give them. To me, the question is: Is it necessary?”


The biological question

Allen, like many other NCAA athletes and women runners, believes that female collegiate athletes are capable of racing the distances their male counterparts race.

“Women have proven they can run very competitive times in the marathon and other long distances,” said Matthew Devens, an athletic trainer for the cross country team at NYU. “To me, it doesn’t seem like it’s necessary for women to run a shorter distance in competition. If the women prefer to run the shorter distance, then why change it? But, there is no reason they cannot compete at the longer distance.”

However, women’s cross country has only existed since 1967, first in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women and then in the NCAA in 1981. In the NCAA, women ran a 5K until 2000, when the distance changed to the current 6K. There is still some belief that women should race a shorter distance for a variety of reasons like slower times or an inability to handle the increased training necessary to race an 8K.

“I think coaches would definitely feel more pressure to make girls run 60, 65 miles a week. Which is personally too much for me. I think for a lot of girls it’s too much,” said Allen. However, several of Allen’s female teammates are already running in the 60-70 miles per week range during outdoor track season to train for the 10K.

Allen also brings up the bridge from high school to college as a difficult time of transition as racers move from the 5K to longer distances. She believes that women athletes heading from high school to college might find an increase of more than 1K daunting.

“I think our data would show that there’s an increase in injury between the middle of the summer of freshman year to the end of the cross country season because the volume that they put on themselves is more so than they’ve ever seen before,” said Devens. However, he said that by the summer of sophomore year, athletes were prepared for college distances, and did not see an increase in male injuries due to longer training distances.


Effort to increase

In the past five years, there have been several efforts to change all racing distances in NCAA cross country to 8K. One of these efforts is Equal Distance, a coalition of several professional female and male distance runners, many of whom raced in the NCAA themselves, dedicated to creating an equal racing distance for all genders in the NCAA.

This project, however, has faced serious pushback from the NCAA, which refused to consider equal racing. After rejection from the NCAA in 2023, Equal Distance conducted an independent survey of NCAA athletes and found that 86% of athletes thought women should be given the chance to race 8K or 10K, and that 90% of athletes wanted the NCAA to conduct a formal survey about the matter. Following these results, the NCAA agreed to survey athletes in the fall of 2024 about the potential for equal distances across genders.

Allen, however, has a different plan about how to equalize race distances in college cross country.

“Honestly, I’m happy to only have to race 6K,” she said. “But, if you really want to be nitpicky about it, I think moving both men and women to the 6K is the way to go. Automatically, there’s this kind of standardization to the men. Women always have to do what the men do. Why not just have everyone race the 6K? I think you can prove yourself in a 6K just as much as you can in an 8K.”

Allen thinks that if the NCAA were to switch women to racing an 8K there might be some backlash from athletes, especially those already several years into racing the 6K. If the 8K was introduced, she would want the new distance to either start with an incoming freshman class or have them increase the distance by a kilometer each year for races.

“It’s not a question of if women are capable. They are,” Allen said. “It’s a question of extent. There are steps that would have to happen, but I think a lot of women would enjoy it. I think a lot would take it on as a challenge,”

For now, racing distance in NCAA cross country will remain unequal across genders, however, in years to come, that might become another piece of NCAA and women’s sports history.

Contact Avery Hendrick at [email protected].

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