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September 1, 2017

High School How-To: How to run a 5k cross country race

As great of a resource as Google is, the items that occupy the front page of most searches end up there through some combination of paid placement and/or shadowy computer algorithms. This means that any blowhard with a computer, an internet connection, and enough money can land on the front page. And I know you’re not going past the front page.

For people just looking for a quick “HOW TO” article or attempting to diagnose a weird rash, this can prove discouraging. Despite being firmly rooted in the Age of Information, the internet–our greatest informational resource–is full of misinformation. That, and our rapidly diminishing attention spans mean we’re spending less and less time doing our research. In 2017, most articles looking to inform a reader about anything would be better served to just eliminate all pictures and blocks of text and replace them with flashing GIFS. “IT’S POISON IVY,” flashing on the screen over and over is this generation’s ideal WebMD page.

With that being said, I’ve created a series of images and GIFS to help our high school readers get re-acquainted with cross country racing. If you’ve been feverishly googling “how to race a 5k” ever since practice started but have only found Runner’s World articles about “going slow and steady” or “running within yourself,” please know that–if you’re a high schooler–this is a stupid strategy. We at Citius Mag are here to teach you how to properly run a 5k cross country race in just two easy steps.

1. Attempt to PR in the mile in the first mile of most races

The ideal racing strategy in most high school races is to run your first mile far faster than your overall finishing pace. Do you fancy yourself a 17 minute 5k runner? Then please go out in 4:50. Are you faster than that? Maybe you’re a 16 minute 5k’er–then you should probably go out in 4:30.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at this chart below. These are the top-50 finishers in the 2016 Minnesota State Cross Country championship. The average finishing time was 16:40, but the average first mile was 5:05 or roughly 15:47 pace. Did anyone in that race run a 15:47? No. No they didn’t. But they went out in what I like to call “aspirational pace.” Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.

Chart courtesy of Scott Olberding.

2. Die a slow death

Where do you go after you nearly PR in the mile during a cross country race? Downhill, baby. Most high school cross country races are races of attrition. You go out stupid fast, and then the person who dies the least wins.

Three examples.

a) Resident Citius Good Boy, Paul Snyder, ran his best high school 5k in a time of 15:22. He remembers his splits as 4:30-9:30-15:22. “No one passed me after the first 400m,” he said. And with good reason, because so far, he employed the two hard and fast rules of high school cross country racing: go out far too fast, and die slowly.

If he had maintained his 4:30 mile pace, he would have ran 13:58. Instead he ran 4:30, 5:00, 5:52 for the last 1.125 (that’s about a 5:12 mile). Those are some phenomenal positive splits.

b) The first time I broke 17 minutes in a high school 5k I ran 4:59-10:40-16:58. So, what is that? 4:59-5:41-6:18 for the last 1.125 (or 5:36). I remember I got like 12th place in that race. What could I have done different to run faster and probably place higher? You guessed it, ran a faster first mile, die less.

c) If you look at the chart above, you’ll see that the finishing times all trend this way. Go out fast, die, and then die less. The ones who hang on are the winners.

As stated before, the average first mile from our sample of Class A Minnesotans was 5:20. The average second mile was 5:47, average 3rd mile was 5:49.


Now, you might be thinking, “well that’s stupid. I should go out and race a little bit smarter than that.” Please don’t. In college and professional running, the person who goes out the fastest is generally considered the martyr. They’re going to go out fast, have an impressive lead for about a mile of the race, and then finish like 55th. High school is the last chance you’ll get to go out there, race like an idiot, and still be rewarded. If this isn’t the absolute epitome of your time in high school I don’t know what is. Cherish it.


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