Women's Sports: The two year debate on equality in cross country running

RunEqual are campaigning for equal distances in cross country

The 2019/2020 cross country running season is now well underway, taking place throughout the winter months.

While for many of us it conjures up memories of rainy PE classes, there is a surprising debate bubbling away in the sport: should men and women compete across the same distance?

Traditionally in cross country, men have competed across longer distances than women. This is no longer the case at some events but at others, male competitors still run further than female runners. 

For campaign group RunEqual, they want this to change. After grumbling to each other privately, in 2017 some runners decided to form a campaign to create a national voice for their cause. Since then the runners have set up a petition, post regularly on social media about the disparity, wear green and purple ribbons on their kit at events and campaign for change.

This season, the group has written an open letter calling for the South of England Athletics Association (SEAA) to equalise their events which includes the South Cross Country Main Championships where women run 8 kilometres and men run 15k - almost double.

GMSW spoke to Maud Hodson, one of the founders of the group. She recalls how, until she joined a running club and started competing in cross country herself, she didn't know that men and women ran different distances.

She remembers: “I was surprised to find that women were not thought to be capable of running the same distances because, on the roads and the track, everybody runs the same. We don't run short marathons because we're women so why should we run shorter cross country?”

Hodson has been a member of East London Runners since 2013, and describes the cross country as a “club-based sport”. “Unless you're a member of a club, you're unlikely to be taking part in the league or championship races,” she explains.

At Hodson’s club, she says they are supportive of RunEqual: “The opinion is nearly unanimous in favour of equal racing for women and the club has made it an official policy that we support it.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Hodson isn't concerned about the specific distance people run, just that it is equal. Her motivation isn't running related at all. The reason that Hodgson is so passionate about seeing the distances equalised is because of the message that it sends to young athletes.

She says: “Even from quite a young age, the boy's races are longer than the girl's races. I thought this was something we needed to put right to make the sport reflect 21st-century values.” 

Equal distances for Hodson is about what society tells boys and girls they can be. She says it is about, “both unconscious and more obvious sexism in the way society brings up boys and girls."

Stereotypically, says Hodson: "Boys are encouraged to be more active, more daring and girls are often subtly encouraged to be more passive, more concerned about what they look like and more risk-averse.”

Hodson believes that having official events where men and women are treated differently cements these misconceptions: “We reinforce these damaging gender stereotypes by saying, ‘Well, we can all do cross country, but the boys can do it a bit more.’.”

“Sport needs to make space for girls and women and it needs to work on equal terms. Sport should be pushing back against these unconscious gender stereotypes rather than reinforcing them,” adds Hodson.

The IAAF and UK Athletics now advocate for equal distances in cross country and changes have come about since the campaign launched.

Counties including Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk have moved in line with the guidelines. Now both men and women run 10k rather than men running 12k and women 8k. The Metropolitan Cross Country League based in London is trialling equal distances this season taking a different approach: men and women will run the same 7-8k course. 

The latter, Hodson says, “was quite hard-fought over. There were very strong feelings on both sides of the argument but they've decided that for a trial season in the first instance, they will run over equal distances”.

For Hodson and her fellow campaigners, it isn’t about being disruptive at events but starting conversations. That’s why they wear purple ribbons: “It’s a way of showing our support and a way of starting conversations with people who may not be aware of the campaign. Because the most important thing is to get everybody talking about it.”

RunEqual wants to collaborate and provide workable alternatives. Of their open letter to the SEAA, Hodson says: "We're offering our help in terms of finding a solution of how to deliver it correctly, but we've not yet heard back from them. We're trying to engage, we're not trying to just shout and be the opposition.”

Ultimately, the group would like to see the English, Welsh and Northern Irish National Championships held over equal distances. Currently, women still run 8k and men 12. There is a strategic reason for this goal, explains Hodgson: “Once that changes to equal distances, it will make it a lot easier for other events at a local and regional level to follow suit.”

Practically, Hodson has plenty of solutions to arguments against the distance equalisation. If it's a question of schedule, that it wouldn't be possible to fit in races with both men and women running 12k, she says make it 10k. 

If it's a question of confidence and women being unsure of whether they can compete over longer distances, she says: "Anybody capable of running a 6k cross country is probably going to be able to manage an 8k, because a lot of these people are the same people who are training for half marathons and marathons on the road." 

For Hodson, the sport is “caught in a bit of a time warp”. Competing across different distances is “historical accident” and an “anomaly that needs to be ironed out".

The Scottish National Championships is the example that RunEqual uses to highlight how equal distances can work: "They've been equal for a while now, and it's been a big success for them. They've had increasing numbers for both men and women over the last few years." Indeed at the 2019 event entry numbers were record-breaking.

But at the English National Championships, they too have had an increase in runners. In 2018 more than 1000 senior women took part for the first time. They also saw the number of women running at the event double over the ten years prior. 

GMSW contacted the English Cross Country Association (ECCA) who run the event to hear their view. Ian Byett, the ECCA honorary secretary said: “We have monitored what the majority of women think on this subject and also taken into account what the male side of the sport thinks as well.”

“We carried out a survey 20 months ago and there was a majority against equal distances with women not wanting the Championship distance to be increased from 8k and men not wanting the distance of 12k to be reduced.”  

Byett said the situation for them hasn't changed since then, adding that they have seen record participation among women over the past two years, "so the popularity of the event and the distances run has been proved correct”.

According to Byett: “The Group campaigning have been very vociferous but are relatively small compared with the many thousands of athletes happy with how things are.” The ECCA has said, however, they will continue to keep track of their runner's wishes.

Increased participation can't necessarily be linked to distance in either instance. It could be down to any number of reasons from running's increasing popularity to the growing number of active women. One thing is for certain though, RunEqual won't stop their campaigning until they get the equality they are looking for and can disband.

From Hodson's point of view, she says she feels like momentum is on their side, despite some ingrained opposition. She explains: "Where there's an event where distances are equal, particularly where they have been for some time, everybody is just happy and gets on with the racing. Nobody is saying: 'Oh should we have shorter races for women?' It's just so obviously, the right thing."

GMSW contacted the SEAA who didn't respond.

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