Great Article on the High School Cross Country Runner

I encourage all of you to read this article about the mindset of the Cross Country runner.  I think we can find the characteristics mentioned here in our kids... - Chris

Marc Bloom's Peak Performance: Coaches provide a place for XC "Types"

Athletes with an affinity for the XC make big strides regardless of track distance success

Los Alamos girls
The joy in Coach Kathy Hipwood's Los Alamos NM harriers is evident at a meet earlier this fall. Photo By: Los Alamos XC


Harrier XC founder Marc Bloom has covered running performance in numerous publications for more than four decades. His recent books are "God on the Starting Line" (Breakaway) and "Young Runners" (Simon & Schuster). He is a three-time recipient of the Track & Field Writers Association "Jesse Abramson Award" as track writer of the year.

Last spring, at a high school track meet where I live in New Jersey, I struck up a conversation with a girl in her junior year. She was running the 3200 with times around 11:25 to 11:30. When I inquired about how she felt about her progress, she said to me, a bit apologetically, “Track’s not my thing. But I really love cross-country.”

Every team has this sort of cross-country “type”—the girl, or boy, who may not stand out on the track but has an affinity for cross-country. Even though an 11:25 3200 is pretty good running, the young lady felt her cross-country performances were superior efforts. Like other cross-country types (hereafter, CCTs), she was an athlete who had not “found” herself on the track, but had found that running cross-country was so natural, so satisfying, so enriching, that she could tackle the rigors of fall and maybe surprise a few people, if not herself.

“We’ve seen this pattern a lot,” said Kathy Hipwood, who coaches the great Los Alamos team in New Mexico with her husband Rob. “More with girls than with boys. A big reason is the team concept. Girls gravitate toward that.”

Cross-Country’s Team Role and Large Canvas

The New Jersey girl I spoke with referred to team camaraderie as well as running on trails and, if you will, getting close to nature. Track, whether practice or competition, is much more exacting than cross-country. Some athletes, even those with running talent who love what they do, are served by the larger canvas of cross-country: the longer distances, endless variety of terrain, hills, racing for place rather than time and, yes, team scoring in which a mid-pack runner can play a role and feel important.

At Los Alamos, the Hilltoppers have collected 17 state cross-country titles (15 for girls) and many national rankings not because of speed to burn on the school’s 400-meter oval, but with the strength acquired from running at 7,500 feet amid the splendor of the Jemez Mountains.

“The students who are drawn to cross-country,” said Hipwood, “love the act of running on trails, the beauty. We hear that a lot.” She said they also tend to have a cross-country personality. “They are contemplative, soft-spoken, with more ideas in their heads.”

Los Alamos girls
Photo by: Los Alamos XC
The girls of Los Alamos have fun getting ready for their meet.

Hipwood’s current squad, defending state 4A champions with all five scorers back, has one girl in particular who fits the cross-country mold. “She’s very thoughtful, loves the act of running, loves the team,” said Hipwood. “Initially, she was not interested in track, but she realized it would help her in cross-country. Even though she’s not on the varsity this fall, she’s a team leader.”

The Hipwoods talk up team values at every opportunity. They say many runners will simply work harder to help the team than, say, to strive for a faster time on the track. “Maybe on the track they don’t have the pure speed of others,” said Kathy Hipwood, “but with hard aerobic development they are able to see physical success.”

That’s been the situation with the girl I spoke with last spring. Motivated by the fall season, she trained hard all summer and is currently running with her school’s number-one girl--who ran 20 seconds faster than her on the track--in workouts.

Great Ideas, Learn More, Run Longer

It’s important for CCTs and their coaches to recognize that even if an athlete does not make the earth move in track, he or she can still thrive on the earth in cross-country. Kathy Hipwood’s point about the “thoughtful” CCT with plenty of “ideas” presents a great opening for coaches. While this youngster may frown on what she considers the ordinary-ness of hitting splits on the track, she will thrive on putting together a more layered array of training elements with long runs and hills out on the trails.

More and more, I’m hearing from coaches who say their athletes appreciate an understanding of what they do every day. Maybe it’s the internet that is promoting an exchange of ideas. Or maybe our very smart young athletes (usually the highest SAT scores and academic honors of any sport) increasingly require a formal grounding to support their hard efforts.

Get up early to run at 6 A.M. before school on a “double” day? Why, coach?

Thinking CCTs are not always comfortable in the spotlight either. The track is a spotlight. “I was talking to some kids today about that,” said Matt Ward, boys and girls cross-country coach at Canandaigua High in upstate New York. “They said, ‘Sometimes, coach, track is running in a fishbowl, all eyes on me. I want to be more on my own, with time to myself.’” Ward added, “Every step on the track is visible. In a 3200, if things are not going well and the wheels come off, that’s a tough road.”

In cross-country, however, you have the time and “space”--more freedom, shall we say--in which to recover. As Ward puts it, once you get the tough hill out of the way, everything falls into place. And there’s usually a reach-able teammate up ahead to key off.

Canandaigua Academy girls
Photo by: Canandaigua XC
Canandaigua girls on a recent training run.

At Canandaigua, situated between Rochester and the Finger Lakes with expansive running trails, Ward has his top-seven girls back on a squad that is probably 4th-best in the state behind the national triumvirate of Fayetteville-Manlius, Saratoga Springs and North Shore. Ward echoed Hipwood’s points about team emphasis while noting that track is typically broken up by event into sub-groups and therefore does not always bring that many teammates together in a given workout. Speaking of cross-country bonding, he said, “I don’t think you can overstate the value of pushing that 12th hill repeat as a group.”

CCTs Like Independence and Responsibility

Ward also agreed with Hipwood’s assessment of a cross-country personality. “It’s the strong-minded youngsters who don’t need the constant feedback of a coach reading split times,” said Ward. “They are comfortable in their own skin, away from civilization. These are not kids who will slow it down when they’re a mile away from me and I can’t see them.”

And they want to learn. “As they get older,” said Ward, “they welcome the chance to have some autonomy in their training and become students of the sport. If you tell them you’re working on oxygen uptake or lactate threshold, they feed off that.”

When it comes to CCTs, boys may feed off a different mind-set, one that speaks to male identity in a hard-driving school sports atmosphere, says Ward. At Canandaigua, football and lacrosse are the major sports, where boys gain stature. Ward sometimes has his boys run workouts on school grounds, purposely giving them repeats around the football field. He says, “The boys tell me, ‘Coach, I had so many football players say to me, Oh, my God, you guys ran so much, I can’t imagine doing that.’ The boys get their chests pumped out a little.”

X-C Melting Pot Mixes Many Mind-Sets

Five girls in Canandaigua’s lead training group of nine started cross-country already full of pride. They’re lacrosse stars. Thus, the team has only four of its best harriers also running track, not because the others are not cut out for it; they excel in another sport. Ironically, the Braves benefit from the girls’ lacrosse backgrounds. As all-around athletes, the girls possessed team grit, good body awareness and, says Ward, a killer instinct; they may be less keen on the beauty of cross-country and more fixed on, well, winning.

In cross-country, no matter what the circumstances or team dynamics, everybody wins. For CCTs, in particular, athletes need to use their running likes and convictions to build a season that takes their qualities to heart. Their coaches should feel assured that any youngster’s lacking from other seasons can be overcome, especially with a personalized approach in which the CCT is given the freedom to define success on his or her terms. Experienced coaches learn how to blend all “types” to create a cohesive team.

And in the best of all worlds, the cross-country type may eventually discover some inner strength that plays itself out on the track. My instinct tells me that come next spring the Jersey girl with “disappointing” track times will find that a 400-meter oval can have a wonder of its own.

Canandaigua Academy girls
The girls of Canandaigua training over hill and dale.  Photo by Canandaigua XC.