USATF Mountain Running Championships to feature equal race distances for men and women
The 2016 USATF Mountain Running Championship returns to Loon Mountain Ski Area in Lincoln, New Hampshire on July 3 and will be the sole selection race for the US Mountain Running Team. After considerable research and deliberation, the US Mountain Running Team staff has decided to equalize the race distances for men & women at the Loon Mountain Race. Men and women will have separate starts and run a 6.6 mile course climbing 2950’ to the summit of Loon Mountain Ski Area.
This decision represents a departure from a team selection strategy dating back to 2011 when the team staff recommended selection races very closely mirror the World Mountain Running Championship (WMRC) courses for men & women in both distance & profile. The rational being that athletes are best prepared for the WMRC when they race a course that matches the WMRC – approximately 12K for men and 8K for women.
When established in 1985, the World Mountain Running Association (WMRA) modeled it’s championship (then called a “Trophy”) race distances on the precedent set by the IAAF’s World Cross Country Championships where women ran a shorter distance than men.* These unequal distances are codified in the WMRA Constitution. US team selection races from 2011 to 2015 used the WMRC courses as a guide and featured separate course lengths and profiles for men and women.
This decision to equalize race distances was made based on information from a number of sources including:
1. Feedback from the mountain running community collected via an online survey.
2. Soliciting input from elite mountain runners & the USATF MUT Executive Committee.
3. Reviewing the effectiveness of our current selection strategy by comparing past US team selection races to team performances at past World Mountain Running Championships.
The results of this information gathering was as follows:
1. Results of the survey were overwhelmingly in favor a equalizing race distances. 117 of 130 total respondents supported equal race distances for men & women. 48 of 50 women supported equal distances. 24 of 25 women who had previously competed at the World Mountain Running Championships and/or USATF Mountain Running Championships supported equal distances. You can find results of the 2015 Mountain Running Survey here:
2. Feedback from elite athletes and the MUT Executive Committee was mixed but thoughtful and nuanced. Most supported the concept of equal distances but were concerned about the impact of changing our established selection criteria. Questions included; Are male athletes best prepared to race 12K at the WMRC if the selection race is 8K or 10K? Are female athletes best prepared to race 8K at the WMRC if they are racing a longer selection race? What would be the impact on team scoring at the WMRC given our mandate by USATF to achieve the best possible performances at the World Championships? To try and get answers to these questions we looked to our past history of selection races & world championship performances (see section 3 below).
3. US team selection races vs. team performance at the WMRC. After reviewing the data we were not able to prove that US teams performed better when the selection race course more closely resembled the world championship course. In some years the courses were closely matched like in 2013 for the men’s race – within 2% based on finishing time – and the men finished 4th. In 2011 the men’s selection race was almost 10 minutes shorter than the WMRC and the men again finished 4th. Examples on the women’s side include 2012 where the winning selection/WMRC race times were within a minute and the women won Gold. In 2014 the courses were also about 1 minute different and the women won Bronze. Our conclusion is that it’s important for selection race courses and WMRC courses resemble each other but not necessarily be an exact match. You can find details from 2007 to 2015 USMRC vs. WMRC US team performances here:
For perspective on what constitutes a closely matched course, consider back in 2003 a 7.5 mile dirt road uphill only Vail Hillclimb with 2000 vertical feet was used as a selection race for a rough, technical up/down WMRC with 3000’ of climb & descend. That year our men’s team finished 8th at the WMRC and the winner of the Vail Hillclimb finished 61st. While it’s clear that the Vail Hill Climb didn’t make a good selection race in 2003, it’s not necessarily clear that our “closely matched course” strategy from 2011 to 2015 could by itself deliver medal winning team performances. More important factors include attracting the very best mountain/trail runners to our team selection race, ensuring qualified runners accept their team spots and race to the best of their abilities at the World Mountain Running Championships.
Why choose 10K? The reason for selecting a 10K course at Loon Mountain is the limit of available vertical gain. There is a 2100’ difference between the top and bottom of Loon Mountain requiring some downhill running to achieve the current 3000’ of climbing. This results in a 6% average grade compared to 8% for the men’s course at the 2016 WMRC. Adding distance would result in a further reduction in average grade.
If Loon Mountain doesn’t have enough vertical gain to match a men’s WMRC course why choose it for a selection race? There are many factors that go into choosing a selection race besides course. Those factors include available prize money, elite athlete support, a race director willing to make a custom course and the overall financial sustainability of the event. Acidotic Racing has hosted high quality selection races 6 of the past 9 years, offered prize money and donated thousands of dollars to US Mountain Running Team members to pay for their travel to the World Mountain Running Championships.
The final factor supporting the decision to equalize race distances are related to the men’s and women’s courses planned for the 2016 WMRC in Bulgaria. Based on results from the 2013 European Mountain Running Championships held on the same courses, the men’s and women’s winning times should be closer than any recent WMRC – only about 4 minutes 40 seconds. Since 2008 the average wining time difference between men and women at uphill championships has been 9 minutes and 45 seconds.
While there are now equal race distances for the 2016 USMRC, this may not be repeated in 2017. This is because up/down courses at the WMRC for odd numbered years are substantively different from uphill courses due to the multi lap format. Since 2007 the average wining time difference between men and women at up/down championships has been 12 minutes and 15 seconds – 25% more than during uphill years. This is not to say that the US Mountain Running Team staff does not fully support gender equity – we do – and we will continue to advocate for gender equity at the World Mountain Running Championships in race distance and team size. In the meantime, we need to be sure to manage a selection process that is rational and fields the best possible team for the world championships. When the location and course for the 2017 World Mountain Running Championships are determined, the US Mountain Running Team staff and the USA Track & Field Mountain/Ultra/Trail Council will again evaluate options for an appropriate selection race.
The US Mountain Team Staff will continue to advocate for mountain running athletes including lobbying for full funding, gender equality in time size** & race distance and providing the best opportunities to assemble a competitive team for the world championships. We welcome questions, comments or suggestions from the mountain running community.
US Mountain Running Team Staff
Richard Bolt – Team Leader
Ellen Miller – Women’s Coach
Paul Kirsch – Junior’s Coach
Nancy Hobbs – Women’s Team Founder & USATF MUT Council Chairperson
* Starting in 2017, men and women will run equal distances at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships.
** The WMRC Council is considering a proposal for equal men’s & women’s team sizes at their annual meeting in Monaco this coming January. If approved, this proposal will need to be voted on by member countries at the 2016 WMRA Congress Meeting in September 2016.