Gaels on top at historic run

Claire Sumner wins gender-neutral Queen’s Invitational

Julie-Anne Staehil (left) and winner Claire Sumner at the 2016 Queen’s Invitational.
Julie-Anne Staehil (left) and winner Claire Sumner at the 2016 Queen’s Invitational. 
Credit: 
Supplied by Robin Kasem

At typical races, Gaels’ cross country runner Claire Sumner sprints the last few-hundred meters to the six-kilometer mark, ending her race. At the Queen’s Invitational this past weekend, she held her pace with the front pack. With two additional kilometers to go, Sumner knew she could finish strong.

The Queen’s Invitational shifted the competitive world of running, hosting the first ever university cross-country meet in Canada that had men and women compete at equal distances.

Up until this past Saturday, men have raced ten kilometres, whereas their female counterparts have raced the much shorter distance of six kilometres.

At the Queen’s Invitational, cross-country head coach Steve Boyd set the distance for both men and women at eight kilometres. 

“I’m used to stopping [at 6km]. Actually, at that point, I was feeling really good,” Sumner said in an interview after the race.  

Sumner led the women’s pack, placing first with a time of 27:50:91 — her first inter-collegiate title. Her teammate, Julie-Anne Staehli finished right behind, in second place.

Sumner explained that many schools aren’t ready for the change in regulations.

“There’s some schools that are more middle distance focused so they are not about the longer distance. They wouldn’t want [the equal-distance change].”

On the men’s side, the team came in one point behind Western, with Gaels’ Eric Wynands finishing second at a time of 24:48:94.

Gender equality in cross-country has been a long-time passion for coach Boyd. Since he joined the Queen’s team in 2010, Boyd has tried to make it his legacy as a coach to overcome the “inexcusable” gender inequality, working to get equal distances instituted. 

“There’s a basic inequality at the core of our sport, and the basis of it is that we give opportunities for a certain kind of male athlete, one with more aerobic long distances and endurance potential that we don’t give to their female counterparts,” he said.

Boyd explained that historically there are some athletes who struggle with shorter and middle distances, but excel at the 10 kilometre run — an all-male competition. He explained that female athletes with a strength for long-distance “would never get a chance to discover their abilities … it’s basically just not fair to women athletes who have those abilities.”

This inequality goes beyond the university level.  Canadian athletes are brought up running unequal men’s and women’s distances once they’re in high school, which continues through their university careers. 

Boyd explained that his runners are “products of the system in which they came up … they’ve been athletically socialized to accept shorter distances.” 

This sentiment was echoed as the women’s team was initially worried about the added two kilometres, but performed despite the nerves.

With limited formal opportunity to meet with other OUA cross-country coaches to address the distance-gap, Boyd used the Queen’s Invitational as a way to make the changes he sees necessary in the sport. 

Despite his unsuccessful motions for equal distances at OUA and CIS coach meetings in the past, he said he still plans to continue making a push for it, as he’s done since 2013. 

Boyd is hoping to gather a caucus of OUA coaches who support equal distances, and present a plan at an upcoming CIS coaches meeting.  

The women’s cross-country team has been preparing for the 8km distance under Boyd’s guidance for years, according to Sumner. 

When comparing her training for 6 km races to the 8 km preparation, she said, “I would say [our training] is pretty similar to how they’ve been for the past couple years. Steve’s been ready to have us run 8K for a long time.”

The cross-country team will be competing at OUA and CIS meets in the coming weeks with the traditional distances of 6 km and 10 km for women and men, respectively.

However, Sumner will continue to stand by her coach’s vision.

“After racing 8K I feel like it’s not much longer than 6K. I would support Steve if he wanted to change it.”

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