Wednesday 23 March 2011

The Paradoxes of Canadian Women's Distance Running

In my last post I talked about an apparent renaissance in Canadian marathoning-- Canadian men's marathoning. Sadly-- and, as I will explain, paradoxically-- the past couple of decades have witnessed a decline in the quality and depth of Canadian women's distance running-- from 5000m to the Marathon, and on the track, roads, and turf-- that has been much steeper and more absolute than in the case of our men. And this is largely because, for a while there, our top women were among the best in the world, and the depth of their ranks was cavernous. Here is but one of many possible data points from what might be considered the peak of Canadian distance running-- the late 1980s-- that conveys the extent of this erasure: Sue Lee, two time Olympian (and finalist in 1988, finishing 8th), and Canadian record holder in the 10,000m (a mark that lasted almost 20 years), never won a single national championship in her illustrious career, losing to not one but half a dozen different athletes over a period of 7 years! Today, a runner of Sue's calibre and consistency (31:52 for 10,000m, and World Road Best holder for 4 miles), would rarely, if ever, lose a single national championship race on the roads, track, or turf, let alone to multiple athletes over period of years.

What happened, and why is it paradoxical?

As with Canadian men, the efflorescence of Canadian women's distance running was a largely demographic phenomenon. All other things being equal, having a larger percentage of one's citizenry in prime sporting-age bracket-- 19 to 35-- means a larger pool of potential participants and, if that participation can be successfully encouraged, more intense competition, leading to better average performance levels. And, in North America in the 1970s and 80s, all other things were not equal. The women's movement, which removed much of the remaining social stigma surrounding elite women's sport, and led to the famous constitutional guarantee of equal funding for women's intercollegiate sports participation (Title IX) in the U.S., combined with simple demography to dramatically increase the ranks of serious female athletes in all sports across the continent. And, in Canada in particular, a few of the same factors that help explain the greater relative performance of Canada's male distance athletes contributed to the per capita spike in women's success, including: the Montreal Olympics, which led directly to increased funding for elite "amateur" sport; the appearance of few successful Canadian role models, such as outspoken middle distance star and pioneering sport activist, Abbie Hoffman and marathoner Jackie Gareau (with her home province of Quebec being a significant source of female talent in the 1980s); and, of course, the promotion of opportunities through provincial and national funding for a few knowledgeable coaches to spend more time developing their knowledge and experience-- opportunities that led directly to the creation of very powerful training groups in places like Vancouver, Victoria, Toronto, and Montreal.

As with the men, however, by the early 1990s, the effect of changing demographics would slowly begin to register, with many of our best from the 70s and 80s retiring and the pool from which their successors might appear becoming a little shallower each year. The simultaneous loss of one or more top athletes from some of our key training groups would also begin to undermine the depth and strength some of the these enclaves (e.g. the loss of both Sue Lee and Lynn Williams from Vancouver's Kajaks group within a couple of years). And, with the loss of top athletes and the slow erosion of the depth of their training groups would come a slow decline of the "demonstration effect", in terms of both training and high level racing, that a concentration of elite-level athletes tends to have on younger runners and their less experienced coaches within a given system. In short, just as with Canadian men, there was a subtle and gradual "forgetting" of the collective knowledge concerning precisely how an athlete manages to claw herself from the age class to the senior elite ranks, and a reduction in the number of active role models for this process. (And it is one thing to talk about great athletes from the past; quite another to actually watch one doing her thing on the track or roads, at least as far as the effect on aspiring elites.) In spite of this gradual decline, Canadian women distance runners would (and do) continue to produce outstanding individual performances; and, as a group, they would go on to enjoy a spectacular day in the international sun, when Canada claimed a bronze medal in the now defunct short-course IAAF XC championships in 2003. But this has been increasingly against a general trend of declining overall numbers and quality at national championships and major road races, with the 10000m and marathon suffering the greatest hollowing-out in recent years. The nadir of this decline was reached this past summer when the women's 10000m at our national track and field championships had to be cancelled due to lack of competitors-- a moment that long time observers could see coming, as the size of the senior women's fields at the bigger provincial X-C championships as well as the national championships began to dwindle almost to vanishing in some years, and this in spite of the enormous and ever deeper fields of girls in age-class events across the country.

The continuing high participation numbers and level of performance in girls age-class events, and the continued, if somewhat more sporadic, success of Canadian women distance runners at events below 10,000m/10k constitutes the aforementioned paradox, the heart of which is that the Canadian system (if it can even be called that) continues to produce as many or more top-notch female age-class athletes, many at very young ages indeed. Our success in the NCAA system, the worlds most competitive "league" for espoir athletes, continues to be remarkable (and currently greater than that of our men), perhaps even unprecedented in our history; and yet, the ranks of our peak-age senior elite athletes continue their steady yearly thinning. The story of the decline of Canadian women's distance running is therefore a story of failed promise, of the inability of our current system to convert our abundant age class talent into greater senior elite success. The disappearance of our once great regional training enclaves and the paucity of successful role models explains only part of this problem. The rest of the explanation is more broadly sociological cum sport-sociological.

Broadly speaking, the story of girls and young women in North American over the past 30 years has been one of steady inroads into higher education in general, and the professions in particular, relative to boys and men. In fact, the remarkable educational success of girls and young women relative to boys in the past few decades has led some commentators to speak (baselessly, I think) of a "crisis of masculinity". Regardless of what boys have or have not been up to, girls and young women have without question, and in great numbers, seized the opportunities that years of feminist activism succeeded in prying open for them (or, at least, girls of women of the middle classes have). Paradoxically, this has lead to increased levels of athletic performance among young girls, particularly in those sports that require the kind of discipline and focus that also correlates with high academic success, and a simultaneous decline in the number of young post-collegiate women willing to make the sacrifices necessary for success as at the senior elite level. Post-collegiate women distance runners, it would seem, have become increasingly reluctant to risk sacrificing career and other personal aspirations for a shot at success at the highest levels of this most demanding of sports-- a sport that requires another tens years at least of serious training beyond the collegiate ranks to be sure the full realization of personal potential. And to this we can add a possible and related sport-sociological variable specific to distance running: Today's post-collegiate women, having often started very intensive, high performance-oriented training at very young ages, and in pursuit of external rewards such as athletic scholarships, may lack the drive to continue the sport at the senior elite level with or without the career sacrifices entailed. This hypothesis would require further study to substantiate, but my own personal experience as both a teacher and coach of high school and collegiate women would seem to support it. Early 21st Century Canadian life is generally more utilitarian and work-dominated than ever before, and girls/women seem to be succumbing to this new cultural imperative more completely than boys and young men, for better and worse.

With the weight of such seemingly intractable variables standing against the possibility of a return to 1980s and 90s levels of participation and performance in women's distance running at the national level, what is a sport enthusiast and coach to do?

First, wherever possible, we need to tone down the seriousness of age-class competition for girls (and boys too, of course). Training at adult intensities in order to win age class accolades, or to perform far ahead of the curve for one's age, is a recipe for disaster at the senior elite levels, notwithstanding the gains made by a tiny minority in terms of lucrative scholarships (which the most talented can likely win with more modest training and racing in any case). Today's intensely achievement-oriented girls are far too easy to convince to make extreme early sacrifices in the pursuit of immediate success. Coaches interested in the long term success of female athlete should therefore go consciously against the prevailing cultural grain when it comes working with young girls. It is, after all, no less fun to train and race in a way that promotes more gradual improvement rates, and that thereby allows some room for post-collegiate success, than it is to go for everything all at once.

Second, coaches need to commit to working with post-collegiate women, and to making the case that longer term success is both possible and worth pursuing. Years ago, in an era when they were expected to enter gainful, lifetime employment immediately following high school, college, or university, many of our best ever male performers managed to reach the highest levels of the sport without making debilitating economic sacrifices. The case must now to made to our many talented and career-minded post-collegiate women that vocational success and elite level athletic success are not mutually exclusive; that what might appear at first to be sacrifices are, in fact, life enhancing in the long term. Over the past 10 years, I have worked with many late-blooming female athletes who, upon experiencing rapid rates of improvement in their late 30s and 40s, have belatedly realized that they probably could have pursued the sport with great success at the senior elite level in their 20s and early 30s, if they had had both the opportunity and the courage to break rank and give it a try. Our talented post-collegians will ultimately make up their own minds about this; but, we sports veterans, coaches, and enthusiasts need to be there to make the case for the vast intangible rewards of taking risks in pursuit of higher glory on the field of play. Every spring, literally dozens of very experienced and highly talented female distance runners pour out the collegiate ranks, never to lace up a pair of flats or spikes again. Surely more can be done to convince a few more each year of the many rewards of sticking with it.

P-K January and February Performances of the Month:

The demands of my first season of varsity indoor track at Queen's are responsible for this long delay in announcing the last two P-K monthly performance winners. A usually quiet time on the competitive scene for club athletes, the nominees for the winter months are few but of very high quality.

The two nominees for January come from opposite ends of the age spectrum, but for performances in the same event, the indoor 3000m. Junior Blair Morgan, who has been on a tear this winter, chopped 13 seconds from his personal best in going 8:52 at the Dome Louis Riel in Orleans. Finishing with his usual flair over the final 200m, knowledgeable observers could clearly discern that there would be more where this came from. Meanwhile, masters athlete Steve Boyd (with whose competitive record I am somewhat familiar) broke a 16 year old age group national record with his 8:49.17 on the University of Toronto oval-- and this in his (my!) first indoor track race, and second outing at 3000m, since 1995. Since a national record, even a lowly age-group mark, is always a very difficult achievement, the nod for January POM must go to the old guy.

February would feature two more outstanding indoor track performances. Remarkably, Blair Morgan would strip another 6 seconds from his 3000m best with his 8:46 at the Winternational Meet early in the month. This revision would bring his total improvement since late November to 23 seconds! And late one evening two weeks later, road specialist and multiple 2010 POM nominee Christian Mercier of Quebec City, would reduce his 5000m best by some 22 seconds, in the process putting on a display of metronomic pacing the like of which I, in my 3 decades in the sport, have never seen. Aiming for a time under 15mins, we joked before the start that all he would need to do was run 24 thirty-six second laps (15:00 pace per 200m), followed and a single 35 second lap, and the job would be done. When the clock was stopped 14mins and 57 seconds later, he would in fact have run 23 consecutive 36 second laps, one 37 second lap, with a final turn in 32 secs, spurred to a frenzied kick by being told that, for the first time, he had slipped above goal pace! Anyone who has ever attempted a 5k on a 200m track will appreciate the feat of sheer psychological hardness and old-fashioned attention-paying under pressure that such a performance represents. Nevertheless, for sheer scale of personal improvement that it represents, the monthly win must go to Blair's 8:46. Congrats to Blair on his first ever POM!