By Kate Queeney
Sunday, November 8 was a perfect cross country day for runners of all ages, including the 340 runners who converged on Franklin Park for the USATF-NE Cross Country Championship. The masters women’s race lived up to the championship hype when 42-year-old Regina Loiacano mixed it up with some of the top open runners from the region, finishing 23rd overall and the first masters runner in the combined women’s race with a 34-second margin over masters runner-up Diana Bowser. Regina led her Central Mass Striders 40+ team to a dead heat with the 40+ team from Western Mass Distance Project. Only by virtue of their 4th runner (Nancy Peck-Cook) finishing ahead of CMS’s 4th woman did WMDP eke out the championship title, cementing their win in the 5-race cross country grand prix series. Team members and fans alike waited in suspense until the team results were announced on-site.
Only in fact that’s not what happened. Regina Loiacano did run a fantastic race to finish as the first masters woman, and Diana Bowser did finish as the masters runner-up. But because of a new rule this season, although the open and masters women run together at this race, any masters women who wanted to score for their team’s open division had to declare that before the race and were then not eligible to score for their masters team. Both Regina and another masters runner from her team (Barbara McManus) declared for their open team to fill the required 5 spots for a team score. With those two runners taken out of the masters scoring, CMS fell to 5th place in the 40+ team competition, and WMDP won by 7 points over the 2nd-place team from Greater Lowell Road Runners.
Not only were the team results not available onsite; for the masters women they weren’t available for over 48 hours. Until Tuesday night, the results on coolrunning.com had all teams EXCEPT W 40+ posted. The write-up on the USATF-NE website, which has not been changed since, notes that Regina was the first masters woman to finish, and it notes that the masters men’s winner, Chris Magill, led his B.A.A. 40+ team to a 35-46 win over CMS. Anyone reading the USATF-NE writeup would be hard-pressed to see that there was even a team competition for masters women.
So why the new rule? In road racing (including the USATF-NE Grand Prix), open and masters runners compete in the same race, and masters runners can “score down” at will. And many of them do—for instance, at the 2015 Bobby Doyle 5-miler, 9 open men’s teams (Whirlaway, CMS, HFC Striders, Green Mountain Athletic Association, SISU Project, Greater Lowell Road Runners, Gate City Striders, Cambridge Sports Union, Greater Springfield Harriers) and 9 open women’s teams (B.A.A., Millennium Running, Whirlaway, WMDP, CMS, GLRR, GMAA, CSU, Gate City Striders) counted masters runners among their 5 scoring finishers.
In most of the USATF-NE cross country races the open and masters teams run together, and masters runners can score down for the open team. The one traditional exception to this has been the Mayor’s Cup, where the elite races are for open runners only, and both men and women masters runners compete in the open Franklin Park 5K.
At the USATF-NE Championship race, the open men run a 10K race, while the masters men compete separately in an 8K race. The masters and open women run a 6K race together, and until this year, masters women could score for both open and masters teams. In other words, the masters men at the championship cross country meet were the anomaly, the one set of masters runners at a championship race who could NOT score for their open teams. And this year USATF-NE decided to correct that anomaly, not by figuring out a way for the masters men to score for their open teams, but by denying masters women the right to do so.
In making this decision, USATF-NE created a new inequality, where in theory a masters man could score for both teams, as long as he was willing to race the masters 8K and then come back after the women’s race and run the open 10K. A masters woman did not have that (admittedly undesirable) option. The USATF-NE rep who answered my question about the rule change told me that the goal was to make men’s and women’s scoring “equivalent.” He also pointed out that, since masters women currently only score 3 runners (masters men, like open teams, score 5), “A very talented masters women could have an outsized impact on scoring if allowed to score down as well.”
First of all, it seems reasonable to acknowledge that scoring only 3 runners for masters women makes the team competition there less of a legitimate team competition, and so in fact we should be scoring 5 women at the 40+ level. Since 6 of the 8 women’s 40+ teams who scored at that meet (including the top 4 teams) did, in fact, have at least 5 finishers, USATF-NE probably would not have gotten much pushback from the masters women if they had suggested that as a fix to this problem.
But perhaps this question of “outsized impact” deserves more attention. Does a runner like Regina Loiacano potentially have an “outsized impact” on team competition if she’s allowed to score for both open and masters teams? Of course she does. So do runners like Sheri Piers, Mimi Fallon, Trish Bourne, Kara Haas and Christin Doneski. And so do all the male masters runners who score for their open teams in road racing. From my perspective, as a masters runner who was never fast to begin with but who has still managed to slow down substantially with age, I think that anyone who can remain legitimately competitive into his or her 40’s and 50’s deserves the “outsized” impact s/he creates. And frankly, I would be surprised to hear that competitive runners under 40 feel any differently. In a year where we are all watching Meb and Deena compete at the highest level, I wonder why we in New England feel the need to define “open” as anything but, well, open.
It is, to be fair, a complicated question to figure out how to handle scoring at the championship meet when there are 4 different classes of runners (not counting the age groups at 50 and above) running 3 different distances. Should masters and open men run the same distance so masters men can score down, and if so, what distance? Should everyone run a separate race, so no one can score down? These questions have cropped up this year in New England at the same time the broader question of whether or not men and women (and in some states, boys and girls) should still be running different distances in cross country at all, given that we have finally equalized distances in track. There are also rumblings within the USATF-NE membership about whether or not it is time to raise the number of women scoring for teams in road racing to equal the numbers for men. These questions have both philosophical dimensions (is there any reason not to shoot for equality?) and practical ones (do we have enough women/masters to score full teams? what distances should we run?). While it might be challenging to address both dimensions, I’d suggest that in cross country this year, we made the misstep of trying to address one practical consideration (masters women have a scoring opportunity that men don’t) without pausing to consider the broader context.
While it’s well known that women now make up a majority of US runners finishing running events at all distances (source: http://www.runningusa.org/statistics), women still appear to lag behind men in participating at what we might call a “competitive” level. The 2015 USATF-NE membership numbers reveal that women (including youth) comprise just over 42% of the total membership in this region and only 32% of the 40+ ranks. And yet in the 2015 cross country championships, there were 8 40+ women’s teams and 9 40+ men’s teams—more men’s teams than women’s, to be sure, but not by a factor of 7 to 3.
I have a hunch that, if USATF-NE wants to grow participation by masters women-and maybe by women of all ages-more and better team competition is the way to do it, regardless of the series and the terrain. But my hunch is no better than anyone else’s, so for starters, we should ask the 5 masters women’s teams who ran the championship cross country race but not the rest of the series: what’s keeping you from series participation? And then we should think about whether or not, in both cross country and road racing, raising the number of scoring women to 5 for 40+ would encourage more teams to recruit more masters women to race for them. These are hardly the only possible approaches to take if USATF-NE wants to grow its masters women’s ranks, but they are a start. Inviting more masters women into the conversation would no doubt provide us with both more ideas and the individuals and energy to put those ideas into action.
Featured image is a team shot from the USATF-NE XC Championships by Karin Lee George.