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The opportunities have increased — but the path is now a little longer.

Girls high school cross country runners will now have more chances to reach the Iowa state co-ed meet, but, to get there, they'll have to put in an extra kilometer's worth of work.

The Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union's Board of Directors unanimously approved an increase of the girls'race from 4-kilometers (2.48 miles) to a 5K (3.1 miles) on Jan. 7, the most significant change facing cross country runners in the 2015 season.

The IGHSAU and Iowa High School Athletic Association also agreed to expand the individual qualifier pool at each state-qualifying meet to the top 15 boys and girls, up from the top 10.

The increased race distance for the girls is something that teams like Muscatine, hoping to make a return trip to the state meet in Fort Dodge, have already been preparing for.

"We were trying to up our mileage anyway, even if we weren't switching to 5K," Muscatine senior Larkin Chapman said. "We're going on longer runs, we're doing seven miles, and then our interval days, our shorter track days, we're doing longer."

Iowa joins a growing number of states making the change as the call for race-length equality at the high school level has almost completely been met.

Only North Dakota, Oklahoma and Texas still run shorter races for the girls. North Dakota runs a 4K, Texas runs a 3.2K (2-mile) race for the smaller four of its six classes, and Oklahoma runs 3.2K races for all but its top two classifications.

Most of the debate in some of the holdout states has centered on worries that turnout will be negatively affected by the change. So far, indications seem to be that is unfounded locally.

"Haven't run into that yet," Columbus Community coach Steve Riley said. "I think in a year or so everybody will say it's probably not a real big deal."

And for those that want to continue running at a collegiate level, where the girls run 5K races — and 6K races at championship events — the increase can only help.

Taylor Hills, entering her sophomore season of running for St. Ambrose after graduating from Columbus, wishes she had been prepared to compete in 5K races in high school after she had to make the jump from 4K to 5K as an incoming college freshman.

"I got to 2½ (miles) and I was ready to be done," Hills said of her first 3.1-mile college meet. "It took time for my body to realize, oh, wait, we don't do that anymore, we continue. It definitely made me want to have (5K races) in high school.

"I know there are some workouts we did in high school that are similar to ones we did in college, and I'm grateful that my coach took that into consideration to make us run extra in high school."

The extra practice will likely be key for this transition. Riley said he expects to increase his girls long-run practices to between seven and eight miles and also increase the number of intervals ran during short-track practice days.

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Incoming freshmen theoretically face the largest leap, with most junior high races two miles long.

"That's hard with just one year difference," Hills noted. "More miles might be more of a turn off for some girls, but running is something I love to do and that extra mile wasn't going to stop me."

If the physical aspect of the distance increase is minimal, the mental aspect and strategizing for the race may play a larger role, and it certainly was a part of the initial reaction to the change.

"I think all of us were really scared because we don't have any times to compare it to and we've never done that," Muscatine's Regan France said. "I think now, seeing the workouts we've been doing lately, I think (the increase) is going to help us."

Muscatine girls cross country coach Tim Armstrong doesn't expect the race distances to increase further anytime soon, even with boys cross country runners making a large jump from 5K to 8K going from high school to college.

Armstrong did note that anyone who competes in the sport can overcome any change with some elbow grease.

"It's a hard sport," Armstrong said. "At that age a lot of kids don't want to do anything that gets them out of their comfort level but good, hard workers don't have to worry about that."

As for the Muscatine girls, several of whom ran in the Watermelon Stampede on Aug. 15, Armstrong does not expect too much to be different.

"[The Stampede] is harder than any course they'll run during the season," Armstrong said. "We're all anxious to see what we do over at [the season-opening meet Sept. 1] at [Iowa Mennonite]. I really can't tell what will happen but I think we're prepared for it."

Girls cross country has been a part of high school athletics in the state since 1966. The last time the race changed its distance was in 2002, increasing from two miles to the 4K.

The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights issued a letter to the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association last April after receiving formal complaints about girls cross country being run in 4K races despite continued pleas from various groups to extend the race. Wisconsin extended the race to a 5K the following month. Iowa is one of four states this year that made the switch to 5K, joining South Dakota, Minnesota and Kansas.

Other changes coming this season include allowing schools to have the option of holding sub-varsity races at boys and girls cross country meets to be ran at 4K for the first four weeks of the season, after which time all races must be 5K races.

Riley hopes the change in distance will push more of his athletes to embrace running as a lifestyle, regardless of what they plan on doing after high school.

"When I feel like I've achieved something is when I can get kids to go on from high school cross country to life-long running," he added.

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