HOLDREGE — Gabby Gracia faces a new challenge this cross country season.
The returning Class C state champion from Holdrege isn’t just tasked with wanting the All-Class designation at the state meet or finding some new inner motivation to repeat as champion. She certainly will find it impossible to beat her time from 2012.
That’s because Gracia’s new challenge is 1,000 meters long. Rather, it’s an extra 1,000 meters. But luckily for Gracia, though, this new barrier isn’t hers alone.
For the first time, all girls will run the 5,000-meter distance in cross country meets in Nebraska instead of the previous 4,000-meter distance, and it’s a change that athletes and coaches are, for the most part, embracing. Gracia said she’ll take what she can from the new distance to use it to her advantage.
“I’m so used to the 4K since I’ve been running it since freshman year,” Gracia said. “I like the distance because I had enough to get through the race. I’m kind of nervous for the 5K, but I feel like it will be an advantage.”
She also gets a new test: She’ll be running the same distance as the boys on Holdrege’s team.
“That just means that I want to be the top person on the team,” Gracia said. “It’ll push me to run better times than the guys on the team.”
At one point, Nebraska was one of eight remaining states to have not made the switch for girls from the 4K to 5K distance. Across the nation, the trend has been for states to make the adjustment. One argument in favor is that the girls run the same distances as the boys in track in the spring. If they run the same then, why not the same in cross country, as well?
While the idea of the shift had been discussed for several years in Nebraska, a written proposal finally reached all the Nebraska State Activities Association districts in January. At that point, it passed enough districts to reach the NSAA legislative assembly, where the proposal was voted on and passed.
Jon Dolliver, associate director for the Nebraska State Activities Association, said he wasn’t sure why this year was finally the year the member schools decided to change, and added that it wasn’t necessarily pressure from other states that pushed the idea through the member schools.
“We never feel pressure to do those types of things,” Dolliver said. “I suppose it’s more of a trend that happens. Based off trends that happens, if other states are doing it, why isn’t it good enough for our kids? There was no pressure, but it was more of the people that wanted 5,000 meters saying, ‘Hey, look, we’re one of only eight states that don’t run 5K for the girls.’”
Particularly at the elite level, coaches were very supportive of the move. Kearney High School girls cross country coach Pat McFadden said he became aware of the disadvantage of the 4K distance when some of his runners competed in a Nike regional event in South Dakota. That meet was a 5K, and many of the other girls were trained for that distance.
“Is it a disadvantage to run 4K? Certainly it is the mentality when you get to a race where everyone else has experienced the 5K and you haven’t,” McFadden said “I think it’d be a helpful, positive thing if you’ve had that (5K) experience.”
Steph Fuerhrer, Gracia’s coach at Holdrege, was indifferent to the move. While she sees the benefit for elite runners like Gracia, she also had concerns for participation levels.
“For the really good athletes that are going to run in college, it’s probably good,” Fuehrer said. “But for some of my younger kids that are just getting into cross country, a 5K seems like a lot. I can see pros and cons both ways.”
Kearney Catholic cross country coach Don Liess said he didn’t really have a stake in the matter. He added that convenience and efficiency at meets is one reason he’s in favor of the switch.
“It didn’t matter to me either way,” Liess. “I think it’s going to be easier because you mark one course and you don’t have to sit there and figure out where they turn and that stuff. Now it’s going to be one course and both boys and girls are running it.”
As for the runners, the new distance might seem like a small hurdle to cross. The biggest part of the hurdle may be at the mental level.
Fuehrer, Liess and McFadden said their teams have trained physically for the longer distance this summer. As far as stamina, new race strategy will come in to play.
“They start off fast,” Fuehrer said about the previous 4K distance. “I think they will really have to learn to pace themselves, even with that 1,000 meters. Some girls can get through that 2.5 (miles), but that extra is going to make a difference.”
But the mental block may be the biggest test.
“I’ll need to tell myself that I can push through that half mile, that I can do it, just believe in myself,” said Morgan Starman, a Kearney Catholic senior.
Jaylin Randall, a state qualifier from Franklin High School, added similar sentiments.
“Some people, it will be a mental thing because it’s an extra half mile, but you just have to put in your mind that you can do it, that you don’t have too much further to go,” Randall said.
But Brenna McFadden, a Kearney High senior, added that the playing field will be level.
“It’s going to be a completely new season, not just for freshmen, but for everyone. It’ll be fun. It’ll be something different.”