In muddy heartlands across England, a battle is raging. It will intensify this weekend at Parliament Hill in north London, where thousands of runners will gather for the Southern Cross Country Main Championships. Men will footslog 15 kilometres of the course and women, eight. It is an indignant example of how cross country - a winter sport which dates back in this country to 1876 - is still stuck in the dark ages when it comes to levelling the playing field for women.
Watching proceedings will be members of Run Equal, a campaign group which advocates for equal status in athletics. “For a couple of years, we’ve been waiting for this to sort itself out,” said Maud Hudson, a club member at East London Runners who founded the group. “But when that didn’t happen, there was no point whinging to ourselves in the club, so we started writing to competition organisers and got the press interested.”
Sporting green and purple ribbons - the colours of the Suffragettes - the group’s aim is clear: this is about principle, not distance. Since the IAAF announced in 2015 the World XC Champs would be raced over 10 kilometres for men and women at senior level, Scottish Athletics swiftly followed suit and has seen an increase in the number of female runners at its events. Sussex Athletics Association became the latest body this month to trial identical distances at its championships, changing the 12-6.4 kilometer disparity to 10 kilometres for both genders.
The resistance from the South East of England Athletic Association (SEEA), the organisers of Saturday’s event, paints a bleak picture of how cross country is refusing to relinquish its iron-clad grip on tradition. According to Let’s Do This, the world’s largest online discovery platform for participation sports, more females (68 per cent) ran 10 kilometres in 2018 than men (37 per cent). Why should cross country forbid females from trudging the same distance as men, when everyone knows they can? “It’s like cross country is stuck in a time warp because on the track and on the road, everyone runs the same,” said Hudson. “Women don’t run short marathons. It hasn’t moved with the times.”
The most frightful repercussion of this gender imbalance is the toxic message it sends to young girls. The under-13 age group is the only category where both genders will race the same length, with boys running a combined total distance of 4000m more across the junior ranks than their female counterparts. How does this encourage teenage girls to pursue physical activity and not morph into another exercise dropout statistic? Girls already have the added impact of dealing with periods and changes such as breast size and body hair during puberty and in not being allowed to tackle the same distance as boys, it engenders the belief that they are second best. Women’s bodies - and their wombs - are more than capable, as evidenced by Jasmin Paris and Sophie Power, both of whom breastfed during ultra-marathons last year, with Paris even winning the 268-mile Spine Race in a record time.
The South of England Athletic Association (SEAA) refused to justify its reason for allowing men to run nearly double the distance when approached by Telegraph Sport. Many like Hudson have grown tired of its blatant sexism. “I’ve chosen not to run in the races which aren’t equal for the past couple of years,” she said. “It’s a personal choice. I don’t feel comfortable doing it. We won’t have many women from my club running on Saturday because a lot of them have decided they don’t want to.” The fight to free cross country from its gender-driven shackles is far from over.