What's the right distance for girls' cross-country?

  • Article by: DAVID LA VAQUE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 23, 2013 - 11:50 PM

Many girls’ cross-country coaches favor increasing the race distance; others fear a participation dropoff.

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Edina junior Shannon Spalding, center, broke the school’s 5K record last year at the Roy Griak Inviational, the only meet that didn’t run the usual 4K distance. “Some girls were more nervous and afraid of running the extra 1K,” Spalding said. “That’s sad because this is what we should be running, and we were afraid to run it.”

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Nearly 1,000 girls’ cross-country runners from high schools around Minnesota are bracing for their lone 5,000-meter race of the fall, Saturday’s Roy Griak Invitational.

Meets such as the Griak would be the rule rather than the exception if some of those runners and their coaches have a choice. Girls have run 4,000-meter varsity meets since 1994.

Last fall the state cross-country coaches association surveyed its members and found 61 percent in favor of moving up to the 5K distance for girls.

Minnesota is one of only 10 states in which girls compete in shorter races than boys during the regular season. A 4K is 2½ miles. Boys’ races are the standard 5K (3.1 miles).

Proponents of a longer race for girls believe Minnesota should be in step with the majority of the country and that top-end runners would be better prepared for national and collegiate success.

Those against an increase fear a change that might reduce participation numbers, especially among smaller Class 1A schools.

Slightly more than half of Class 1A coaches support lengthening the race for girls running varsity and junior varsity. Support was stronger — approaching 70 percent — among Class 2A coaches, according to responses from the survey that was given to 85 coaches.

Edina junior Shannon Spalding, in her second year of cross-country and the Hornets’ top runner, competed in the Griak meet last year and broke the school’s 5K record. She plans to run again with her teammates Saturday.

“Last year everyone was excited. Nobody was complaining but some girls were more nervous and afraid of running the extra 1K,” Spalding said. “That’s sad because this is what we should be running, and we were afraid to run it.”

4K support, burnout fears

About 80 percent of coaches in both classes said in the survey that they believed girls are physically able to race 5,000 meters. They also generally agreed, by a 3-1 margin, that race distance is not an issue of gender equity.

“We’re not letting the topic go away but we’re not rushing into it,” said Tom Sharp, Eastview boys’ cross-country coach and president of the cross-country coaches association.

Both Jane Reimer Morgan of Minnetonka and Rey Zimney of Pierz were coaching in 1994 when the distance last increased, from 3,200 meters to 4,000. Neither could recall a decline in participation numbers that some coaches feared. However, they are staunch supporters of keeping the 4K distance.

Zimney said he doesn’t understand “why the whole state should have to change for a very few number of runners” who go on to compete at national meets or in college. Zimney said he can “count on one hand” the number of girls he coached in the past 40 years who competed in college.

“I have no problem with 2A schools making the change but leave 1A out of it,” he said.

Reimer Morgan, a 37-year coaching veteran, is concerned with burning out young runners. About 340 Minnesota schools have girls’ cross-country teams, which count more than 5,000 participants, according to the Minnesota State High School League.

Many school districts allow seventh- and eighth-graders to compete on junior varsity and varsity teams. Reimer Morgan said she would miss the number of e-mails she receives from former runners who were average high school performers but made running part of their adult lifestyle.

“The top of the line runners would be fine,” Reimer Morgan said. “I’m worried about turning off kids who don’t know yet they might be a good runner. Let them grow into it. Maybe the rest of the nation isn’t so smart.”

Distance doesn’t matter

Wayzata coach Dave Emmans, who supported the 5K distance, said the length of race never enters the discussions he has with prospective runners.

“Once you hook a kid, they’re in regardless of distance,” Emmans said. “Whether it’s two miles or a 5K does not matter. They like it or they don’t.”

Emmans, who coaches at the state’s largest school and has 90 girls out for cross-country this fall, said he is “sympathetic to 1A schools but if I was a 1A coach, I don’t think I’d care. Kids are going to come out if they see the value in it, and coaches and the other kids drive that.”

Eagan coach Lisa Langenhahn said she gets about 50 girls out each fall and that a 5K would not change the turnout. The training expectations are the same for each runner, she said, because she doesn’t “want any kid, even the ones with less talent, to feel like they are getting shortchanged.”

Some too young for 5K?

Two Class 1A coaches, Mark Lagergren of Norwood-Young America and Joel Burmeister of St. Croix Lutheran in West St. Paul, supported the 5K distance. Burmeister, who previously coached in Arizona where all high school races are 5K and seventh- and eighth-graders are not allowed to participate, said he would have concerns about “pushing a seventh-grader into a 5K unless I know they’ve been running previously.”

Zimney and Edina coach Matt Gabrielson offered possible alternatives. Zimney said Class 1A could stay at 4K and 2A could run the extra 1,000 meters. Gabrielson suggested making only the section and state meets 5K distances.

Lisa Lissimore, associate director at the high school league, said different race lengths for different classes could be an option but changing the lengths for postseason meets is unlikely.

Lissimore said she is working with the National Federation of State High School Coaches Associations to survey states on whether going to a 5K negatively affected participation numbers. She plans to give the information to coaches around the time of the state meet in November.

“We are not opposed to increasing from a 4K to a 5K, but we will do what best serves our schools,” Lissimore said.

 

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