Courtesy of Ohio State athletic department
On the surface, cross-country racing seems like such a simple sport. Go a long distance as fast as you can, and get as many top finishes as possible.
But collegiate cross-country is not quite that simple.
While the goal is still to run as fast as possible, there are nuances to the scoring and the structure of the events that can leave newcomers to the sport scratching their heads.
Races for the men are between five and eight kilometers long (3.1 – five miles), with the majority being eight km. If the race is an NCAA regional or national championship event, it is 10 km (6.2 miles) long.
Women’s events are between five and six km. (3.1 and 3.7 miles).
At each event, only a team’s five fastest times count. The team is then given points equal to each runner’s overall finishing position. So if a runner finishes second, the team is given two points, three points are given to third place and so on.
“It’s scored just like golf in that the lower your score, the better you finish,” said men’s team coach Brice Allen. The best possible score is a 15, which is achieved only if a team takes first through fifth place.
The team with the lowest total wins the match. This is the case for all regular season events and the Big Ten Championship meet.
Qualifying for the national championship is a bit more complicated.
There are nine major regional events. The top two teams from each of those events automatically move on to the NCAA Championships. An additional 13 teams will qualify based on their performance in the regular season.
Events prior to the weekend of September 15-16 are considered warm-up events and do not count for national qualifying.
Top runners whose teams do not qualify for nationals may qualify to compete as individuals.
There are other minor changes that occur during the cross-country postseason.
“When you get into the championship races there’s more team tactics,” Allen said. “Sometimes your lead runners will set the pace for your No. 5 guy. There is strength in numbers.”
The strategy was echoed by women’s cross-country coach Khadevis Robinson, who said that sticking together is key.
“You can get (positions) one, two, three and four and that’s only 10 points, but if your fifth person gets 110th then you gotta add that 110 onto those 10 points and now your score is 120. Whereas someone else can get 15th, 20th, 21st, 23rd and 24th. Add those up and it’s less than 120,” he said. “Even though your first four girls got one, two, three and four, you lose.”
However, this is not easy.
“Getting five guys to finish an eight-10 km race within a 25-35 second spread is extremely challenging,” OSU redshirt senior runner Chris Fallon said.
There are a number of other aspects to the sport that most people are not aware of. Athletes spend a lot of time in the weight room and recuperating from injuries.
“I don’t think people know how much time we put into our sport,” said junior runner Meredith Wagner. “We never have an offseason. We train year-round and compete in three seasons. We spend many hours a week in the training room and doing rehab to stay healthy.”
Cross-country injuries can range from simple blisters to tendonitis and stress fractures.
“I give a lot of credit to our athletic trainers for putting up with us,” Fallon said.
Despite the difficult year-round work, the pain and the strategy involved, the essence of cross-country is fairly simple.
“At the end of the day it comes down to just racing,” Robinson said.