Kroner: Ten years later, girls' cross-country better because of change
Ten years ago, equality was achieved in high school cross-country.
For the first time in Illinois, girls started competing at the same 3-mile distance that boys had run for more than a quarter of a century.
It was a move saluted by some and chastised by others. It was a change, however, which put Illinois in step with virtually every other state, which already had either 3-mile or the slightly longer 5-kilometer distance for female cross-country runners.
Next month will mark the 10th anniversary of the first 3-mile girls' state meet. With the benefit of hindsight, high school coaches agree the change was beneficial.
"It made things a lot easier from the practical side," Monticello coach Jeff Butler said. "Now, the courses that boys and girls run are the same.
"It was a nightmare trying to get two courses laid out that started and finished in about the same places."
When girls' cross-country was introduced as an IHSA event in 1979, the distance was set at 2 miles. That stood for 19 years, until the standard was increased to 2.5 miles in 1998. After four years at that interim distance, the 3-mile distance became official in 2002.
"That makes it true cross-country," Unity coach Gary Wieneke said.
"I think if they would have went right to 3 miles (from 2 miles), there would have been a lot of girls not go out then," Paxton-Buckley-Loda coach John Overstreet said.
For most current runners — unless they have studied the history of the sport — 3 miles is all they've known. Girls who are seniors now were in third grade when the first 3-mile state meet was held.
St. Joseph-Ogden coach Jon Jamison said his original concerns were centered around the possibility of attrition from the sport.
"Initially, I felt it could hurt the sport," Jamison said. "I thought it would be a lot harder to recruit girls out for high school cross-country because not many girls would want to run 3 miles and the numbers could drop drastically."
It didn't take long for him and other doubters to be convinced otherwise.
"At the time, I didn't think it would be good for the smaller programs because of the increased demands to train for a 3-mile race instead of 2 or 2.5," Normal U-High coach Lester Hampton said. "However, as time has gone on, the transition has been smoother than I thought it would."
Bloomington's John Szabo praises the decision to have the four-year transitional period where girls' competitive races were contested at 2.5 miles.
"You could convince girls that a half-mile was not that big of a change, but a mile may have been a little more difficult," Szabo said. "I think it was a good benefit initially as that would have been a big jump at once."
That was the thinking, according to Decatur Eisenhower coach Greg Collingwood, who was a member of the IHSA's cross-country advisory board.
"At the time, the plan was to move to 3 miles within five years," Collingwood said. "I recall there was some anxiety and hesitation on the part of some of my girls when the distance went to 3 miles, but within two or three years, we really didn't give the longer distance much thought.
"I do believe we might have lost some female participation if the transition would have been directly from 2 to 3 miles without those years at 2.5."
Oakwood head coach Tim Lee doesn't field complaints about the distance, but understands why. "Girls don't like it, but think they can run as far as the boys can," he said.
Girls are accustomed to running 2-mile distances in middle school, where many sports have different standards. Basketball games at that level feature six-minute quarters, instead of the eight-minute quarters that are standard in high school.
Jamison said the change to 3 miles for high schoolers was "a very good transition from middle school and makes for an even easier transition for the girls to the college level."
College coaches were in favor of the increased mileage. Danville High coach Todd Orvis was coaching at Danville Area Community College when the IHSA implemented the 3-mile distance for girls.
"From a recruiting standpoint, the move gave coaches a better idea of how athletes would be able to adapt to running 5K at the collegiate level," Orvis said.
Developing a distance mindset
Jamison said one key is for coaches not to push young girls to be race-ready at 3 miles too quickly.
"We have gone to great lengths to make sure the transition for freshmen and first-time runners to 3 miles is easier," Jamison said. "We train them for the 3-mile distance, but early in the season, tell them the goal is to make it to 2 miles and, if they are feeling good, they can try for 3 miles.
"We are a month into the season before they have their first race that we have them go a full 3 miles."
Helping in that venture is a decision by PBL's Overstreet to run a 2-mile junior varsity race (for boys and girls) in his early September invitational.
Spartan Classic unchanged
SJ-O's Spartan Classic is the area's lone remaining 2-mile varsity girls' cross-country race. It's not just to maintain the storied tradition that the distance hasn't shifted.
"It is nearly impossible to make it work with traffic control and for the safety of the kids," Jamison said, "trying to keep the town streets closed off for that long.
"Maybe eventually we will find a way to make it work, but for now a large majority of the coaches and athletes have preferred to keep the race distance for girls at 1.97 miles. They feel it gives the girls a good break (from 3 miles) and gives them some speed work."
The Spartan Classic also provides coaches a chance to explain the history of the sport to their female runners.
"Some of the current high school girls have no idea the races used to be 2.5 or even 2 miles in the recent past," Uni High coach Doug Mynatt said, "but I remind my teams of that every year before we run the Spartan Classic."
Unity's Wieneke said most of his girls aren't advocates of the shortened distance: "Our reaction to running the distance at St. Joe is they don't like it."
Elite runners excel
The elite girls' runners are now well-conditioned to the 3-mile distance. SJ-O's Chelsea Blaase, for example, has a time (17:23) which would place her among the top 75 in the area this year among boys.
"She could hold her own in a race with the boys and is running times that would place her in many of the top seven on boys' teams," Mynatt said. "Granted, she is an exceptionally talented runner, but she, along with other girls in the state and our own area, have proven the distance is a challenge they can meet."
Tom Kulbartz, coach of the Georgetown-Ridge Farm and Chrisman cooperative team, said the most dedicated girls will fare well.
"What it boils down to is the motivation of the individuals involved," Kulbartz said. "As they improve, and see their efforts coming closer to and exceeding some of the men's efforts, I think, what better motivational tool than that?"
The numbers game
What is impossible to gauge is whether the overall participation has declined among girls due to the distance.
Centennial coach Laura Koterba-Buss believes there have been consequences.
"I hear it (3 miles) is too long all the time," Koterba-Buss said. "Mostly it's when I'm conversing with athletes at Centennial who I would like to persuade to participate in cross-country, for example soccer players or long sprinters from track.
"I have also heard it from middle-school runners who aren't serious about running. Actually, I think I hear that 3 miles is too long more often now than I initially did. Pretty much most non-runners think 3 miles is way too long to run, let alone race."
Eisenhower's Collingwood doesn't think the sport has fewer girls than if the race distance were still limited to 2 miles.
"I have not noticed a significant drop across the board," he said. "It seems the overall number of girls participating is about the same."
Taking it in stride
Jamison believes there are girls who would prefer a shorter distance to run, but is proud how many have embraced the 3-mile format.
"I'm sure some wish it were still 2.5 or 2 miles," he said, "but they have transitioned well and by the end of the season, take great pride in their times for 3 miles and reflect on how much they improve.
"You see more and more girls taking the challenge of pursuing good 3-mile times. It's always exciting to see girls running times that many boys are running."
Monticello's Butler continues to welcome the 3-mile distance for girls.
"My opinion is running 2 miles for a high school athlete isn't long enough to be called cross-country," Butler said.
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette's prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by phone at 217-351-5232, by fax at 217-373-7401 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.