Coach Mike Mead

Cross Country: Off-Road Racing - September 2007

If you are a high school or college runner, than you are in serious training mode for cross country season. From now until late November, cross country training and racing is the vogue thing if you call yourself a distance runner. In the past, I’ve challenged the die-hard road racers to do a few cross country meets.

Cross country racing is a team sport for distance runners. You run about in open fields, over hills and dales, on trails, through forests or woods and sometimes across golf courses (God forbid!). It’s all about team work, packing together and encouraging each other along the way. It is also a challenge running on different kinds of surfaces and in different kinds of weather conditions.

To endure these challenges, one has to go in with a good attitude particularly when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate. Over the years, I’ve run on a variety of cross country courses. They have ranged from manicured golf courses coved in snow to a horse race track covered in ankle-deep mud. In high school, one sadistic coach had us running up the side of a gravel pit (twice!), crawling on all fours to the top. I recall another race, a summertime race on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, where you had to go out in knee-deep water twice.

Cross country racing is not about time. It’s all about place, man! Unlike road racing or track & field, it’s not how fast you go, but how you finish that matters. Too many times, some cross country runners focus too much on time. No two cross country courses are identical, unlike track & field where the “course” is 400m in length. So it is just so hard to compare one course to the next. Some folks have tried, but there are just too many variables to get identical courses. Most of the time, if you finish high in a cross country race you will run fast.

Up until about the early 1980’s, many cross country courses varied in length. One week you might race 3.0 miles and the next it might be 2.8 miles. Today, meet directors layout their courses to standard distances ranging from 3K to 12K. The standard distance for high school (boys and girls) is 5K while the distance for college is typically 5K for women and 8K for men.

For those who don’t follow cross country, the team that scores the fewest points is the winner. Fifteen points is the lowest possible score because you count the first five runners per team for scoring. If you finish first, you score one point. If you finish 21st, you score 21 points for your team. Now you should see the reason for pack running and placing as high as you can.

Teams with more than five runners have their six and seven runners help out as “displacers.” Say a team has their sixth runner ahead of another team’s fifth runner. That No. 6 runner helps their team by keeping the No. 5 runner from the other team get fewer points had that No. 6 not been in the race.

If you have not been to a high school cross country invitational, you are truly missing out on exciting racing and fan pageantry. There is a lot of energy and enthusiasm exhibited by the athletes and fans at these meets. You will find at every meet a kid who runs to the point of exhaustion and a kid who pukes his/her guts out, too.

For those who haven’t experienced cross country first-hand, you have a few opportunities during the fall. The Atlanta Track Club usually puts on a couple of cross country meets and provides information to other cross country meets within the state and region.

If you want to be a better road racer or be faster on the track, you need to run some cross country. It’s a whole different kind of running!