Coach Mike Mead

Cross Country Season - September 2003

The month of September is a time of transition as summer winds down and the fall season arrives to bring cooler, more colorful days. September is also the start of cross country season for college and high school runners. However, most road racer types totally ignore the opportunity to get off the roads and enjoy this competitive, gritty form of foot racing.

Before I go on, let me clarify a distinction regarding cross country that has irritated me since getting grammar-check on my computer. “Cross country” refers to the sport; “cross-country” refers to going across the country. Grammar-check, as well as many editors, wants to hyphenate “cross” and “country” when referring to the sport. It’s funny, but “road race” is not hyphenated! Maybe I’m just a little sensitive, but ignorance is no excuse.

Coming up through the high school ranks, I ran cross country for two years before I ran in a road race. If you’ve never run in a “true” cross country meet, you just do not know what your missing. Contrary to most outsiders, cross country racing is a team sport. You need a minimum of five runners to score as a team. Every place is awarded points. If you finish first, it’s one point. If you finish 10th, it’s 10 points. However, the team with the FEWEST points wins!

There is a lot of strategy involved in running cross country. It’s not just simply going out and running. Since there is a team emphasis, you tend to run in “packs” or small groups of teammates in order to help each other through the race. Usually these “packs” are grouped according to ability. The faster packs run among the leaders while the remaining packs hang back and try working their way up throughout the race. I always tell my runners, “It’s not how you start; it’s where you finish.”

It’s impressive to watch this type of racing play out. If properly executed, the packs are passing their competitors in the later stages of the race and finishing near the front. I recall a memorable experience in high school. I ran for the Lakeshore High School Lancers of Stevensville, Michigan. During my sophomore year, we had a decent team. During my four years as a Lancer, we wore a distinctive uniform that was actually a soccer jersey (with sleeves) made of solid red with white lettering in the front and a big white ‘X’ in the back. It made it easy to spot your teammates in a meet. Well at our region meet that year, we were doing our pack thing and surging nicely with about a mile to go. One of the rival coaches who saw how well we were positioned yelled to his runners, “Get those guys in the X’s!” When I heard that, it sent both chills and adrenalin through me. We ended up finishing third and just missed a trip to state (I and another teammate made it to state as individuals), but at the time it was our best region finish.

I have many fond memories of running cross country, as well as coaching it the past eight years. While I’ve run in more road races than cross country meets, I’ve had more fun doing the latter. I’ve always been curious why road racers shy away from the cross country experience. Could it be fear of the unknown or unfamiliar? Could it be fear of becoming injured from the “rough” terrain?

There are pros and cons to both forms of racing. As I mentioned in last months column, it’s good to take a periodic “running vacation” and cross country racing maybe that break from road racing.

Cross Country is similar to road racing in that one needs to take into consideration weather, competition, course conditions and time of day when racing. Cross country is run on surfaces ranging from dirt trails to manicured golf courses which will save your legs from the constant pounding of the roads. One argument against cross country is times will be slower. However, if you are a true cross country purist, all that really matters is how you place. Besides, if you can run decent on a cross country course, than you’ll likely do much better on the roads and tracks.

If you do a few cross country meets each fall, you’re going to be a tougher, stronger runner. I used cross country to toughen me up for track. If you want to become a better runner, do some “cross” this fall. Heck, if you haven’t run cross country you’re not a real runner!