Not always a natural match: negotiations between track and cross country

Including some thoughts from St. Olaf’s Phil Lundin

A version of this article appears in the current edition of the Cross Country Journal.

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Photo by Steven Bugarin

Each year we try to meet with the freshmen athletes at the end of football and soccer in the fall and then basketball in the winter to recruit them for track. Playing football, soccer, and basketball year round, we tell them, might not be the best way to become a better player.

We can make them better football, soccer, and basketball players by teaching them to run faster and jump higher. They can develop more as athletes in track, and then return to their chosen sport with new abilities.

But even as I deliver that message, sometimes I feel like a hypocrite. We tell our cross country runners to run track if they want to reach the highest levels of their abilities. We even encourage our track sprinters to run cross country for the conditioning if they are not doing a fall sport.

While there are always exceptions to the rule, distance runners develop best by running all year round. What’s more, the competitive seasoning of track season—and the slightly different kind of training emphasis on speed—develops runners both physically and mentally in ways that make them better cross country runners.

There are differences in the sports of track and cross country for distance runners. In cross country we teach runners to race side by side. In track, we tell them to run behind in lane one to save distance and draft, or else just edge up on the shoulder. There are other tactical differences, like planning race strategy around hills and terrain in cross country, as opposed to positioning in the pack and carefully watching the pace clock in track.

In terms of the time we have with our athletes, the track season covers much more of the school year than cross country season. On the East Coast, indoor season starts in early December and then outdoor continues in the spring, with three months for cross country and six months for track season. Track runners run fast early season track times building off their cross country training. The Illinois High School Association mandates a couple months off from official practice after the mid- August to early-November cross country season, but the track season covers five months from January to the end of May. In warm weather areas, it seems, cross country is an even shorter season—and track season is longer. Track can extend into June with national competitions, but the regional and national cross country season goes until December. Summer training in July might be counted as part of cross country. But, pretty much everywhere, runners are in school and under the watchful eye of the school track coach for much longer during the track training season.

This summer a family trip took us to Northfield, Minnesota, and a visit to St. Olaf College for a long weekend. I dropped an email to Phil Lundin, coach of the defending Division III men’s cross country champions at St. Olaf. He came in for a chat. The topic of the relationship of track teams and cross country teams came up in our conversation—even though I hadn’t even taken on the assignment for this story yet.

When he arrived at St. Olaf College as head coach for track and cross country, Lundin says, “There was probably a culture among the distance guys here that emphasized cross country as opposed to track.” It is a natural and common situation, he acknowledges: “Many of the distance guys are just going to like cross country best. It’s a purer version of what they like to do. They like to go out to the woods and roads and run.”

But part of the process for building a national champion Division III cross country team at St. Olaf involved an emphasis on the cross country guys running track, as well. In the 2014 spring track season, after winning the 2013 cross country title, three St. Olaf runners ran in the final of the 1500 meters at the DIII national track championships. Sophomore Paul Escher finished second in 3:48.12, and, as it happens, he was St. Olaf’s number eight runner in cross country. Lundin will have to replace runners at the number three and seven spots next year. Escher’s emergence as a track runner suggests he will be an even better cross country runner now, and he will fill in nicely as the team defends its title.

A great cross country program does not automatically mean success in track. Even as York High School dominated Illinois cross country championships through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, Coach Joe Newton’s track teams did not win a state title until the spring of 2000. In 2013-14, Hinsdale Central won the Illinois 3A cross country championship with a dominating performance that featured four runners in the top 30 spots. But at the state track meet they managed just one medal for fifth place in the 3200 out of the four distance events—not even making the final in the 4×800 relay.

The sting of that disappointment, however, arguably makes them more dangerous for the coming cross country season.

There is potential for the relationship between track and cross country to go wrong–especially when there are different coaches for each sport. I know nothing other than what I have read about the situation at Arcadia High School and the conflict between the track and cross country coaches there. But it seems like a good example of what can go wrong. Neither program and none of these coaches and athletes win in that kind of conflict situation.

Track is not for everyone, of course, and even cross country runners can be athletes with multi-sport skills.

In Illinois, on the boys’ side, there can be athletes who run cross country and then choose lacrosse—or even baseball—in the spring. On the girls’ side, there is a bigger conflict, because girls can run cross country in the fall and then play soccer in the spring.

At St. Olaf—and in many northern states—the conflict arises between track and Nordic skiing. Cross country skiing, one might argue, is even a more natural fit with cross country running than track. St. Olaf’s number two cross country runner, junior Jake Brown, Coach Phil Lundin understands, “is first and foremost a Nordic skier.” Brown transferred to St. Olaf from Princeton, and at least part of the reason was to be closer to the snows of Minnesota. He has been one of the top American finishers in the Birkebiener over the last couple of years. This year he initially was not going to run track after the rigors of the ski season, but he ran a few races to help the team. He won the 3000-meter steeplechase at the conference meet, and his time of 9:09.46 would have qualified him for track nationals . “We encouraged him to run in the NCAA meet,” Lundin says, “but he was scheduled to depart for Norway the Sunday after the championships and felt that he had had enough.”

The relationship between track and cross country is sometimes a negotiation. Boys inclined toward track might want to pursue track competition through the summer in the AAU and USATF Junior Olympics series. Cross country coaches tend to prefer runners shut it down, in terms of serious summer competition, and build a distance base. Cross country coaches tend to win that one.

Track coaches win the battle when the cross country runners join the track team.

And when those tricky conflict situations arise, as Lundin notes, “negotiation is always possible.”

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2 responses to “Not always a natural match: negotiations between track and cross country

  1. Pingback: Cross Country Runner’s Post of the week.

  2. Pingback: Cross Country Runner’s post for the week.

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