We Need More Professional Cross Country In America

By Kyle Merber

December 8, 2022

Just about every distance runner in the country participated in the sport growing up – even the milers. But as soon as athletes leave the NCAA, the harrier scene more or less dries up except for when it comes to selecting a team for the World Cross Country Championships via a poorly attended national championship race.

This historic lack of focus on cross at the post-collegiate level is a shame for a few reasons:

– We have the infrastructure for it, we just aren’t using it. There are already pro teams! But most fans probably don’t align super strongly with any single uniform like they might in other sports. That’s likely due to a lack of connections between clubs and their farther-reaching, geographic areas – they all do a nice job of engaging with their immediate communities – but also the non-existence of team scoring at most events. One of the most common suggestions for making track and field more popular is to create a league, which is a concept I see as having many potential issues. However, the league concept is significantly more viable through the mud. Let’s test it here and see if there is potential!

– Without a widely-participated-in cross country season, we tend to go months without seeing top athletes compete, let alone head-to-head against one another. There’s this narrative that the only meet that matters is the last one of the season, and that makes for a lot of quiet months of athletes hibernating. If we want to encourage fans to follow athletes, teams, and hell, THE ENTIRE SPORT, then we need to make everything more visible. Taking half the year off from competing kills the momentum.

– There’s this pervasive concept of athletes only ever racing if they’re ready for a big one. The track only encourages that further because times run on the oval actually matter and follow an athlete around all season. Enter XC: there shouldn’t be any expectations during the first week of December on grass. It’s competition for competition’s sake, which isn’t just good for fans, it’s good for athletes’ racing tactics, and takes the heat off of goal races a little by allowing them to get more lower stakes reps in.

So you already know I was thrilled by the announcement of a gold label cross country race in the United States, and not in Spain, where almost all of them are. I figured that now since cross country is eligible for world ranking points (must have three performances), and the standards have been lowered to 27:10 and 30:40, that this would be a major attraction for top US-based athletes, and we’d get some solid fields assembled.

Honestly, the point values assigned for placing well at these meets are so absurdly high that it shocks me that no athlete is hopping around the globe to do three gold label XC races then so they don’t have to worry about chasing times the rest of the year. For perspective, Alicia Monson’s six-second win over Emily Infeld was worth 1280 points, which is far and away the biggest point haul of her career – her previous high was the 1227 points she got for winning last year’s Milrose 3000m in 8:31.

On the men’s side, we saw a sea of OAC uniforms up front early on – 3:30 men are going to do what 3:30 men are going to do when there’s a narrow gate 120 meters into the race. Hot start aside, the team still dominated with a 2-3-4-5 finish, but the 2019 NCAA XC Champion Edwin Kurgat got the field’s attention with an emphatic win. The unsponsored Kurgat, who is still training out of Iowa State, also won the Sugar Run 5k a couple of weeks ago – he’s healthy and fit, two things you love to see from a former NCAA champ!

Now this wouldn’t be a Lap Count section about cross country with some course commentary. And buddy, this was a polarizing course for athletes and fans alike. Apparently, there were some issues with permits at a few other potential sites, and while the roughly-mile-long loop definitely conjured up a sense of controlled chaos with lots of turns, bumps, and terrain shifts, it was certainly “real” cross country (despite the occasional straightaway on a track).

From my perspective, it made for a pleasant viewing experience standing in the middle of a field and watching an entire race develop. Hosting the event in Austin during The Running Event also meant the entire sports marketing side of the industry could come check it out. If only we could have layered in the USATF national meeting, then the entire running world (in America) could have been in one place at once – the Brooks after-party on Sixth Street.

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Kyle Merber

After hanging up his spikes – but never his running shoes – Kyle pivoted to the media side of things, where he shares his enthusiasm, insights, and experiences with subscribers of The Lap Count newsletter, as well as viewers of CITIUS MAG live shows.