Having recently generated an analysis of the consistent, unaccountably large percentile differences between male and female distance runners at the elite level in the U.S.–from high school to college to the professional ranks–it was through this lens that I viewed yesterday’s NCAA D-1 Cross-Country Champs in Terre Haute, Ind. Given similarly sized men’s (246 finishers) and women’s (250) fields featuring very few stragglers, I expected to see the customarily greater depth on the men’s side, as determined by looking at the time spread between the winners of each race and the 25th, 50th, and median finishers–shrink or even disappear.
In fact, this was the case. The women run 6K in NCAA championship-level meets, then men 10K. The spreads between the women’s winner and the 25th-placer, 50th-placer, and median time were 5.5 sec/km, 8.8 sec/km and 14.2 sec/km respectively; on the men’s side the numbers were 5.8, 7.5 and 12.0. As for the performances themselves (median time for men = 31:23; for women, 21:32), it’s hard to compare since these races, while both run on the same day at more or less the same time, were not held on precisely the same terrain, and things like wind (and it was breezy) tend to take a greater percentage bite in races of longer duration as runners spread out and cannot as handily use each other to shield themselves from the elements. That said, a 21:32 for 6K translates to about 37:12 for 10K, a difference of about 18.5%–unduly large on its face, but not surprising. Also, the races developed differently, with fully a third of the women’s field within five or six seconds of the lead at the halfway point but the men’s race becoming a three-runner affair by that point.
Cool story on the women’s side–the individual winner, Sheila Reid of Villanova (the Lady Wildcats also won the team title), almost saw her running career end a couple years ago after incurring the same injury (a tear to the cartilage at the “lip” of the ball-and-socket joint of the hip) that took out two-sport standout Bo Jackson in his prime. Cross-country is the most difficult of the distance races–harder than the steeplechase, harder than the marathon–because you never, ever get to be comfortable. Some are just nastier than others.