Thoughts on the NCAA Cross Country Championships

By Jesse Squire

November 20, 2017

By now you’ve surely seen, read, or heard who won at Saturday’s NCAA Cross Country Championships.

You know that Northern Arizona won their second consecutive men’s championship and New Mexico won their second in three years. You know that Syracuse senior Justyn Knight won the men’s race and New Mexico sophomore Edna Kurgat won the women’s race. You’ve perused the results and the All-Americans and the Citius Mag photo gallery.

So I’m not going to tell you all of that. I’m going to give some of my final thoughts on the meet and the season.

Weather was a non-factor. The forecast leading into Saturday was dire: heavy rain, high winds, possible lightning, all predicted for race time. Meet management decided to move up race times to 9:00am (women) and 10:00am (men) in order to avoid what could have been a very challenging scenario. It turned out that the severe weather didn’t come until after the original race times and there was no need for the rescheduling.

Weather is always part of cross country. It’s cold and/or windy. The footing is snowy or frozen or muddy (or sometimes all three). Cross country combines three of the four classic narrative conflicts: man versus man, man versus self, and man versus nature. Without the last of those three it’s just a track meet on grass.

So I was hoping for rain and mud and chaos – then I drove home through the storm, and was glad I’d missed it. It was dangerous. If you’re not from this part of the country you may not realize how unusual a thunderstorm with torrential rain is in mid-November. Climate change is even affecting cross country.

Organization was not what it could be. The decision to change race times was made at about 6:00pm on Friday, and the news was instantly passed along via email and social media. But it never showed up at the official athletics website of the host institution: GoCards.com still shows the race times as 10:45 and 11:45. It appeared that vendors were not notified of the time change either – some were just setting up less than half an hour before the first race began.

There were other shortcomings. When Indiana State hosts the meet, their NCAA Championships gear sales tent is a highly efficient operation, but Louisville’s sales tent on Saturday had just two workers and the line got very long. A few course maps were available in public areas at the meet, but finding them online was a bit of a scavenger hunt.

As for the course itself I can’t comment much because I only saw small parts of it (although that alone says a lot). But one thing I did see was a bit disturbing: a right turn about 600 meters into the race got at least a dozen men forced into a temporary fence, bringing them to a dead stop, scraping up many, and forcing at least one to the ground. Mike McGuire, Michigan’s women’s coach, was standing right there and said it happens in every race.

Indiana State is the gold standard for quality of course and organization, but I understand why it can’t be there every year. The meet needs to move around to attract new attention and Terre Haute is small and remote. The next three non-ISU hosts—Wisconsin, Oklahoma State, and Florida State—all have experience putting on major events, and I have some confidence that they’ll do a good job. Next year especially I expect to have a good time in Madison. But over the last 15 years, ISU has improved every aspect of hosting the NCAA cross country championships and the meet needs to return there with regularity.

Predicting is hard. Maybe I’m saying this only because I did poorly in the fantasy league that my buddies and I do every year and I always do poorly. Isaac Wood does a great job of trying to predict what was going to happen, and even he was significantly off in a few ways. For example, he called the men’s team race as a complete toss-up between Northern Arizona and BYU, but NAU won easily while BYU finished third.

Last week I noted that all men’s champion teams had either finished in the top four or were very close to it in at least one of the two years before winning the championship. If the trend held it meant Northern Arizona (champions last year) was more likely to win than BYU (7th last year, 10th two years ago), and obviously it did hold.

Why this occurs is anyone’s guess, but likely it’s that experience matters. Teams have to be close to winning before they can truly understand what it takes to win. In this way it’s actually remarkably similar to how the NBA Playoffs usually go. My favorite team of all time, the 80s’ Detroit Pistons “Bad Boys”, took years before they could finally get past Larry Bird’s Celtics, and another year before they could get past Magic Johnson’s Lakers. Similarly, it took several years before Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls could knock them from the top.

But there’s still a difference. The best NBA teams run through the regular season on cruise control and then ramp it up for the playoffs, while the borderline teams can’t afford to do that. The same goes for college cross country since the best teams take it up a notch at the NCAAs while the borderline teams were already at max effort before they got there – but we can’t really see who is racing at less than full effort in the regular season. It’s obvious when Gregg Popovich rests veterans (my favorite injury report: “Did not play—Duncan (old)”) but not so obvious when a few 21-to-23-year-old runners are leaving something in the tank.

Blue-bloods beaten by mid-majors. If I asked you to come up with the “blue-blood” cross country programs based on results of the last 15 to 20 years, your list would probably include Stanford, Oregon, Colorado, Wisconsin (men), and Oklahoma State (men). As a group, they did OK but not great.

Stanford won trophies for both the men (4th) and women (4th), while Colorado won a trophy for the women (3rd). Oregon took 5th (women) and 6th (men). Wisconsin’s men didn’t even qualify, while Oklahoma State’s men finished 29th.

The top teams were so-called “mid-majors”: teams from the Mountain West, Big Sky, and West Coast conferences. I don’t think this is a sea change coming to college cross country. Everything goes in cycles. There are, however, some definite reasons for the current state of affairs.

The race was unusually international. Foreign athletes have been running in the NCAA cross country championships for nearly 60 years, and in significant numbers for the last 35 years. Personally I don’t think that’s a bad thing because it raises the level of competition. The foreign influence this year wasn’t just Kenyans but also Canadians (Justyn Knight, Charlotte Prouse), New Zealanders (Matthew Baxter), Sudanese (Peter Lomong), Irish (Sean Tobin), Australians (Jack Bruce), French (Emmanuel Roudolff-Levisse), English (Charlotte Taylor, Alice Wright), Polish (Weronika Pyzek), Swedish (Isabelle Brauer), and so on.

Many of those named above were on the mid-major teams that beat the Power 5 conference blue-bloods. It’s because that’s the only way they’re going to do it. They cannot compete with the well-heeled programs when it comes to recruiting obvious talents. Their route to the top combines finding American talent that slipped through the cracks and bringing in talent from abroad. In the words of Malcolm Gladwell, it’s the insurgent strategy.

Who will be tough next year? New Mexico returns three of their top four and is the early favorite to repeat as women’s champions, although it should be noted that the year-to-year performance (or even return to campus) of international athletes are often less reliable than those of their American competitors. Oregon and Colorado will probably rebound in the women’s competition, but my early dark horse is North Carolina State.

Similarly on the men’s side, Northern Arizona returns three very strong runners and definitely could win a third straight championship. BYU and Stanford appear to be the teams that could knock them off. The ascendant team is Iowa State, but I think they’re two years away from a championship.

Jesse Squire

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