To be honest, when I first started coaching Cross Country, I knew very little about the sport. I did not participate in any high school sports and simply knew that it involved a lot of running. As a developing adult runner, I was immediately drawn to the spirit of the kids and the excitement of racing. Over the years, I have seen that most people do not know much about cross country. If you are reading this, you may be a seasoned veteran, a new athlete, a curious parent, or my wife (she is my #1 fan). This post is geared towards the person who knows next to nothing about Cross Country, other than it is a lot of running.
What is Cross Country?
Cross Country (usually abbreviated XC) is a competitive team sport for 7th-12th grade boys and girls. Training is considered to be year round, but is generally broken up into different phases, with the summer months being the crucial base building phase. Most of your teams fall results will be directly related to the duration and quality of the summer workouts. Most races are 5 km, or 3.1 miles, with some meets having the JV girls race a 2 mile course. Courses are mostly run on grassy fields or wooded paths. Some course will have more hills than others or may include small obstacles such as hay bales or logs to make the course more challenging.
Scoring for XC is a team based score. Lowest score wins. What? Yep, the goal is to get the lowest score total. Each team usually consists of 7 runners who all compete in the same race, on same course, against all the other schools. All runners earn a place at finish, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc, with that being their score. The top 5 runners from each school are added up and that is the team score. Although the 6th and 7th runners on each team don't earn points for the team, they still contribute by "pushing." Does that mean they get to physically push other people like a football lineman? That would be fun, but no. They can push the scores of other teams higher (remember, lower is better) if they can finish ahead of the other teams' top 5 finishers. They can also help determine a win in the event of a tie in the scoring of two teams' top 5 runners. The 6th runner comes into play at that point and breaks the tie. A goal of a top team is to get a perfect score of 15. This places them in 1st-5th, beating every single runner on every single team.
Why do it?
To the average high school athlete, running is some type of punishment. Something you are forced to do. With XC, running turns into something you want to do. It teaches you self-discipline. Because a lot of the training is in the summer and not always with the coach nearby to monitor, the successful XC runner has to develop the discipline on their own to get better. The successful XC runner generally has an inner desire and motivation to do well. XC running also teaches accountability. You are accountable for yourself, but also your teammates. Your success as a team is determined by not only your own running and conditioning, but the work and effort put in by your team. Knowing that your team is relying on your effort to win will keep you accountable and provide that motivation to keep going. XC will also teach you humility and patience. Being great at XC takes time. There will be many races that you will be bringing up the rear or stuck in the middle. There will be a learning curve on pacing...don't go out too fast or you'll (almost) die by mile 2. Don't go out too slow or you'll run out of time to get to the head of the pack. Over time, you'll discover the right pace and be able to push past your boundaries.
There it is, XC 101. I hope you'll discover that being a part of the XC team is one of the defining moments of your high school experience.
"What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals." - Henry David Thoreau