High School Cross-Country Running: We Do It in the Woods
Competitive athletic running is extremely multi-faceted. It can be loosely divided into short or long distance running; events can range from 60 meters to ultra-marathons as long as 100 miles or occasionally even farther. Cross-country running falls somewhere in the shorter end of the spectrum; events usually range from 2-7 miles. Cross-country running is the only type of long distance running that most middle and high school students have the opportunity to participate in as a scholastic activity other than the 1 mile (1600 meter) or 2 mile (3200 meter). I was privileged to participated in the cross-country programs of Jackson County Comprehensive High School (Jefferson, Georgia) from 2001-2005 and North Georgia College and State University (Dahlonega, Georgia) from 2005-2009.
Cross-country probably originated from the Hare and Hounds, which is a hunting-inspired game that began in Great Britain. In this game, the "hounds" (the runners competing in the event) chase the "hare" (a fast runner that runs ahead and leaves a trail). The hare drops bits of paper as he runs either to attempt to confuse the hounds behind him into losing his scent or to let them onto his trail, and the first hound that tracks down and catches the hare wins. When I had the opportunity to visit England last year, the family I was staying with immediately spoke of Hare and Hounds when I was describing the cross country events I participated in at school. Though the game is still played on the British Isles, it has largely been supplanted by traditional cross country running. Interestingly, the Cambridge University Cross-Country Running Club is named Hare and Hounds.
Cross-country differs from track and road distance running in that it is run over rougher terrain such as the snow the Air Force women above are running upon. This is the only similarity that one course may have with another. Even standardized running events like the 8K and 10K runs in NCAA and NAIA men's college cross-country can vary from their intended distance by as much as half a mile. Terrain varies even more heavily: courses can range from a high percentage of road surface or manicured golf courses to a nightmarish goat trail through heavily-concentrated coniferous forests. On average, cross-country races usually consist of an alternative surface like grass, a trail, dirt, or gravel, and have a good deal of incline. Runners rarely approach their fastest track times on a cross-country course.
In high school, me and my teammates all ran 5 kilometers in an average cross-country race. Most races were small with two to five teams (14-50 runners), but some were very large, like the Last Chance Invitational in Carrollton, Georgia (200-500 runners per race or more). The 5 kilometer distance is approximately 3.1 miles (about 12 and 1/2 laps on an average 400-meter track). My best time for this event in high school was 19:18, but the sport is very competitive even at that age. I observed the rare runner that could run the 5K in less than 15:30, although I only remember two.
Cross-country season is generally in the fall. It typically starts off very hot and ends with biting cold, so there is a temperature adjustment that requires some getting used to. The team competition works in the following way: runners form a team of up to seven runners (affiliated by school or club) and run as fast as possible. Their finishing placement in the race determines the number of points they score: a first-place earns 1 point, second-place 2, and so on. The goal is to earn a team score that is as low as possible. Generally, only the first five runners out of the seven count for scores, but if two teams tie, then the sixth runner's score may be used to break the tie. By this model, the best possible team score is 15 points (1+2+3+4+5). The scoring system ensures that one incredible runner cannot greatly alter a team performance; instead, runners must get a good average performance in order to place well. The individual competition, however, is merely a factor of time. Teams and individuals may compete to earn a chance to attend the state race (a race of elite teams within their state). In Georgia, this meant competing against a region of 7-15 local teams for the top two or three team places, or one of the top 6 individual places in order to progress to state. I competed for this with my school's team at the International Horse Park in Conyers, Georgia for Region 8AAAA.
There is very little specialized equipment required for cross-country. XC spikes are cross-country specific shoes intended for rough terrain. They are similar to the track spikes below except for they typically have a rubber spike plate instead of plastic (softer for the distance), have a bit more padding, and have six spikes that are slightly longer for grip in dirt. While spikes can be advantageous, many runners often run in typical tennis or training shoes. Cross-country is not merely run by high-school students, but by collegiate and professional athletes all over the world. The IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) hosts the World Cross-Country championships; in 2010 the event was on March 28 in Bydgoszcz, Poland.
A famous cross-country quote:
"I'm wasted on cross-country! We Dwarves are natural sprinters, very dangerous over short distances." -Gimli, Lord of the Rings movie series