The word competition takes on many meanings in the natural world. For two animals in competition for the same basic needs in the same ecosystem, it means survival, and ultimately life and death. Fortunately for humans, competition in the athletic domain of our society has far less consequences. Loosely defined for sporting application, competition is a rivalry between two or more persons or groups for an object or title desired in common. The rivalry usually results in a victor and a loser, but not necessarily involving destruction of the latter. Ultimately, athletic competition may have some psychological destruction that may temper some of the motivation of the loser, but it is not designed to be a fight to the death.
In cross-country running there are tests to measure the collective combination of psychological fitness, physiological fitness, strategy, and desire. These are called races, and are the means by which runners compete. Cross-country races are of varying distances, varying terrain, and vary in the skill level of the competitors. Elementary age cross-country races may be as short as 1 kilometer and can increase all the way to 12 kilometers, which is the men’s long race at the IAAF World Cross-Country Championships, a race for Olympic caliber adult men.
For races to be a legitimate assessment of the competitors they need to be of an appropriate length and difficulty for the people that are actually racing. For this reason, races need to be physiologically homogenous in regard to the growth and development factors of the competitors in the field. For example: boys should race boys, girls should race girls, high school age runners should race other high school age runners and so on. This concept satisfies the old apples to apples axiom that is ubiquitous in our society and is continually used to determine what is fair.
USA Track and Field, The National High School Federation, The National Collegiate Athletic Association and The International Association of Athletics Federation are all governing bodies that sanction cross-country races. The administrators in these organizations have determined appropriate age diversity and race length for all levels of competitors. Generally speaking older competitors run progressively farther than younger competitors and boys and men run farther than girls and women in the same age group divisions.
In high school, the typical length for a boy’s cross-country race is about five kilometers. For girls, it is less consistent and varies from two miles to five kilometers. In both gender groups it is common to find cross-country races early in a competitive season that are shorter than the championship distance. These are races that fit well into a developing athlete’s training plan as the less skilled runner struggles to run the full distance. The focus of these shorter races then remains with competing against one another rather than just trying to complete a distance that they are presently unable to effectively compete at.
Typically in high school there are junior varsity competitions and varsity competitions, usually in two different races at the same meet. Many elite-level meets also offer sophomore and freshmen level races that allow for athletes that are novice or emerging to compete against people of their same age. These various situations allow coaches to put athletes into situations that will lead to developmental success. The coach and athlete must be patient in setting up a training and racing plan and focus primarily on long-term success rather than less positive alternatives. Races are the means by which athletes and coaches realistically measure present-day fitness rather than dream about long term aspirations.
Cross-country races should be challenging in respect to terrain and other variables. Distance races in track and field are conducted over predictable surfaces, over exact distances, with weather and competition factors being the only variables. In cross-country, weather is a factor, but so is the footing on the course, the number and gradient of the hills, the number of sharp turns, the visibility of the racers on the course, and a host of other things unique to the geographical area of the race. Courses vary from luxurious golf courses to mountain goat trails on the side of a mountain. In many respects, it is the nature of the cross-country race course itself that draws the most interest to the sport. It is most important to get the advertised race distance as accurately measured as possible so that athletes can compare times from year to year and course to course. Cross-country is a fascinating sport with many more variables than races on the track. Be enthusiastic with your team at each and every race you attend and point out the uniqueness of every course your squad competes at. Focus on the course and competition in order to minimize self-doubt in your runners.
Some things to do in setting up appropriate, interesting, and worthwhile competitions:
- Make a list of the characteristics that would like to see in a cross-country course. Check around with other runners and coaches to find what courses offer the most in what you like. Get in touch with the race director.
- Search the internet, consult with coaches and with other runners to find cross-country races that have the age-group competitions that would be most appropriate for your situation.
- Research the governing association that is most associated with your situation to find how races are conducted in regard to age, distance, and gender.
Scott Christensen is the head track coach at Stillwater Area High School in Oak Park Heights, MN.