The Leading Runners at Every College National Championship Ever

By Jesse Squire

November 16, 2018


Here is something cool to peruse the night before the NCAA Cross Country Championships.

Over the last year I’ve put together a more-or-less complete listing of the top individuals at every collegiate cross country national championship (the NCAA Division I Championships and its various predecessors). You can access them below:



The number of competitors I included is a reflection of how deep the competition was at the time. I have the top 15 finishers from 1971 to present (1990 to present for women) and gradually reduce as the years go back. Cross country is a national sport now, but was mostly a midwestern and northeastern sport from its inception through the 1950s.

I included the home nation of each competitor because cross country is among the most international sports in the NCAA. Forty-four different nations are represented in these results: Australia, Belarus, Belgium, Botswana, Burundi, Canada, Colombia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, England, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Israel, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Lithuania, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Scotland, Serbia, Somalia, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Sweden, Taiwan, Tanzania, Trinidad & Tobago, Uganda, United States, Venezuela, Wales, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.


Virtually every important US distance runner makes an appearance somewhere. Olympic champions Frank Shorter and Bob Schul do not: Shorter’s best NCAA finish was 19th (he went on to win four USA cross country championships) and Schul’s best was 20th.

However, relatively few Americans who later won an Olympic or World Championships medal were an NCAA cross country champion first. Galen Rupp, Shalane Flanagan, Meb Keflezighi, and Mary Decker are notable exceptions. Alberto Salazar and Craig Virgin are two other NCAA cross country champions who made major international impacts, by winning the NYC Marathon and and World Cross Country Championships respectively.

Shockingly, two top finishers from the 1997 championships were part of the elite field at last week’s NYC Marathon: Abdi Abdirahman and Bernard Lagat.

While cross country is obviously a training ground for future champion marathoners and long-distance runners, milers such as Lagat, Joe Falcon, Kevin Sullivan, or Suzy Favor sometimes make an impact too. The only international champion 800 runner who ever finished in the top end of an NCAA cross country championships is Dave Wottle. He took 12th in 1971, less than a year before his world record and Olympic victory.


What do those acronyms at the top of each result mean?

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) first held its championship meet in 1938. For at least its first decade it was considered a national championship rather than the national championship. Western teams rarely competed until the 60s. The regional qualifying system was put in place in 1972; prior to that it was an “open” championship.

The Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America (IC4A) has organized collegiate championships since 1908. Now exclusively Northeastern colleges, it was national in scope through the 1940s, although generally only a few Midwestern colleges attended.

The Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) was the governing body for women’s college sports from 1969 until a hostile takeover by the NCAA in 1982. Both the AIAW and NCAA held women’s championships in 1981; the talent was essentially evenly split between the two meets and no one ran in both.

The Central Collegiate Conference (CCC) was a track & cross country conference for Midwestern colleges. Its first cross country championships were in 1926, initially a triangular between the major independent powers of Michigan State, Notre Dame, and Marquette. The NCAA Championships were an outgrowth of this meet; the early NCAAs were so midwestern-oriented that the CCC was held concurrent with it for its first decade or so.

The Western Intercollegiate Conference (WIC) is now known as the Big Ten. It held an “open” cross country championships from 1908 to 1925. The CCC was created when the Big Ten closed its championship meet to members only in 1926. Another alternate name was the Intercollegiate Athletic Association (ICAA).

The Intercollegiate Cross Country Conference (ICCC) was the first collegiate governing body for the sport, eventually transferring power to the IC4A.

Jesse Squire

I was second in the 1980 Olympic* long jump. (*Cub Scout Olympics, Pack 99, 9-10 age group.)