In cross country, a team’s score is based on the finishing places of its first five runners. Runners number six and seven are called displacers – they have the opportunity to displace other teams’ runners by placing ahead of other teams’ scorers (i.e. their top five runners). The sixth runner also has important value in the event of a tie between teams, as in most competitions, the tie is broken by which team has the higher placing sixth runner.
If all of this seems pretty hypothetical and “not likely” to happen, guess again. More times than you might imagine, the sixth runner can make a big difference in the final results.
Last year at the Pacific Association Cross Country Race at the Presidio, the Pamakids and West Valley Joggers and Striders (WVJ&S) were in a tight battle in the masters race.
The results went like this:
1. Jose Pina, WVJ&S
2. Anthony McGrath, Pamakids
3. Jorn Jensen, WVJ&S
4. Other team
5. Andrew Chan, Pamakids
6. Adam Lucas, Pamakids
7. Adam Prince, WVJ&S
8. Robert Palos, WVJ&S
9 & 10. Other team
11. Jerry Flanagan, Pamakids
12. Other team
13. Richard Martinez, Pamakids
14. Other team
15. Denis Glenn, Pamakids
16-17. Other team
18. Andy Williams, WVJ&S
19-21. Other team
22. Tomas Palermo, Pamakids
23. Other team
24. Tom Fahey, WVJ&S
25. Jimmy Forbis, WVJ&S
Pamakids 2 5 6 11 13 (15) (22) = 37
WVJ&S 1 3 7 8 18 (24) (25) = 37
The Pamakids took 1st place in this race because Denis, as the Pamakid sixth runner, displaced the WVJ&S fifth runner, Williams, a crucial one point. Without Denis, Williams places one spot higher (17th) and WVJ&S would beat Pamakids 36-37. Instead, Denis displaces Williams one place, thus creating a 37-37 tie that is broken by the higher placing sixth runner. Denis won the tie-breaker placing 15th as compared to the WVJ&S sixth runner, who placed 24th.
If you think that was an isolated incident, you would be mistaken. The sixth runner was the hero again for the Pamakids last weekend at the Empire Open race in Santa Rosa. This time it was a tight battle for third place (and third place in the Open Men’s division does get prize money) between Pamakids and the Wolfpack.
The results went like this:
1-10. Other team
11. Simon Novich, Pamakids
12. Alex Esparza, Wolfpack
13-14. Other team
15. Casey Strange, Wolfpack
16. Other team
17. Joe Tomkins, Wolfpack
18. Matt Herzog, Pamakids
19-21. Other team
22. Zachary Hedling, Pamakids
23. Ryan Pletzke, Pamakids
24. Other team
25. Benjamin Willis, Pamakids
26. Eric Huynh, Wolfpack
27. Other team
28. Merick Dang, Pamakids
29. Bjorn Samson, Wolfpack
Pamakids 11 18 22 23 25 (28) = 99
Wolfpack 12 15 17 26 29 = 99
Merick, like Denis the year before, really was the hero for the Pamakids. By placing 28th, he displaced Samson to 29th place. Without Merick, Samson is 28th and the Wolfpack beat the Pamakids, 98-99. But thanks to Merick beating Samson, the Wolfpack score was pushed up to 99, creating a tie, and Merick broke the tie and gave Pamakids third place by being the faster sixth runner (Wolfpack didn’t have a sixth runner).
I don’t have the exact statistics, but I am quite certain I have been on the winning side of more sixth runner tie breaker situations than the losing side. At one memorable Sacred Heart Cathedral league finals meet in 2005, both our JV Girls and Sophomore Boys beat Mitty on the sixth runner tie-breaker (and the Freshmen Boys beat Mitty by one point).
I like to think that one reason the teams that I am associated with come out ahead in these close scenarios, is that I preach the importance of always running like every place will matter, whether you are in the front, the middle, or the back of the pack. Racing with that mentality is often worth one or two points for the team and more often than you might think, those points make a difference in the final team standings.
Keep these stories in mind when you need motivation to keep pushing in the last half mile of a race. You never know when you might score a valuable point or two for your team and be the hero!
In 2010, I was like a nine year old boy. I couldn’t wait for my birthday. Only I wasn’t nine. I was thirty-nine, and just as I couldn’t wait to turn ten, I couldn’t wait to turn forty. Why the eagerness of a little boy for a birthday? Because turning forty in the running world means entering into a whole new world. The world of Masters races, where young, fast twenty- and thirty-somethings no longer exist (or at least run in a separate race that I get to spectate instead of participate in from the back).
My first year as a masters runner went quite well, but it was nothing like this past year. All of a sudden my team, the Pamakid Runners, have a kick-butt team. Our transformation from not having a team, to having a mid-pack team, to having a podium-worthy team has happened gradually and slowly or, if you prefer, we just went out on pace rather than too fast.
The Pamakids participate in the USATF-Pacific Association Road Grand Prix and Cross Country Series. In 2011 we were fifth on the roads and fourth in cross country. We were solidly in the middle but were not really any threat to the top teams. Our top places were third place finishes Across the Bay 12K and Zippy 5K in the road race series, and at the Presidio race in the cross country series.
2012 looked like it would be a similar story. But after a second place at Zippy followed by back-to-back third place finishes, our team started thinking we might be able to challenge the “big boys” from the Aggies, Strawberry Canyon, West Valley Track Club, and New Balance Excelsior. At the San Rafael Mile we pulled a first place team finish, winning on a tie-breaker. It was our first PA first victory in at least a decade.
The win at the mile, spurred interest and hope for the fall cross country series, which is made up of eleven races plus the championships. Teams score their best five races out of the eleven, plus the championships. The season began typically with a fourth, a third, and a sixth. Then things got interesting. After being somewhat disappointed with our sixth place at Garin Park in early September, we were ecstatic two weeks later when we placed third at Golden Gate Park. We rode that positive momentum to our first PA cross country victory at the Presidio race, a race in which we had three runners in the top nine and five in the top 21. The next two weeks brought a second and another third place finish. All of a sudden we found ourselves in third place for the season and nipping on the heels of the second place team, the West Valley Joggers & Striders.
Back on the roads, the grand prix resumed with the October 21 Humboldt Half Marathon. Sensing a chance to make a serious impact on the rest of the PA, we made sure we had a full team at the race. Roy Clarke, Denis Glenn, Carlos Urrutia, Tomas Palermo, Steven Pitsenbarger, and Theo Jones as the sixth runner, just in case, came through in a big way. The Pamakids took first place, by a scant twenty-two seconds! That’s two PA road race wins in a row!
What’s been the key to our success? Depth. “Scary” depth as we’ve heard one team call it. At any given race any number of our runners could step into the scoring role for the Pamakids. Out of the five scorers in the half marathon team victory, only Carlos was among the five scorers at the road mile team victory.
In this cross country season so far eleven different runners have placed in the top five at one time or another. The Pamakids aren’t reliant on a core of five runners who do all the heavy lifting. We’re a team in the true sense of the word. That’s how we’ve weathered injuries to Tony, Carlos, and Adam; me missing races due to coaching obligations; and others missing races as they prep for fall marathons.
It sure helps to have a guy like Jerry Flanagan, who has run at all the cross country races where we’ve scored a team this year. And like Richard Martinez, who ran a great last mile at Presidio after Carlos was injured in the race to help us secure the win. We are lucky to have fifty year olds like Mike Axinn, Paul Zager, and Roy, who can drop down to help score for the Masters team when needed. Our incredible depth showed at Golden Gate Park when we lined up thirteen runners, enough for a “B” team of Colin Alley, Galen Carnicelli, Tomas, Steven, David Ly, and David O’Connor that beat one other team. Since John Spriggs was instrumental in the rejuvenation of the Pamakid Masters team, we sure hope he can heal his injury and be able to step on the starting line and race at the championships with us.
If I had known that turning forty was going to lead to so much fun, I would skipped right past that tenth birthday and gone straight to masters!
Last week I completed one of my least favorite tasks as the head cross country coach at Sacred Heart Cathedral (SHC). I finalized our team’s final roster by making some final cuts following our team’s annual eight minute time trial run. The 2012 season’s final roster is 54 runners strong.
As an athlete and then as an assistant coach at Lowell High School there were no cuts (at least to my knowledge). Everyone who wanted to be on the team got to be on the team, provided that they came to practice and worked hard. The only people dropped were people who stopped coming to practice by their own choosing or those who came to practice infrequently enough that the coach told them to turn in their uniform.
When I became the head coach at SHC in 1998 I employed this same no-cut policy that I had experienced at Lowell. My goal was to build up the SHC program and making cuts was not the way to grow the team. As it was, we had so few people that often times we ran incomplete teams in the freshmen/sophomore (F/S) and junior varsity (JV) races. We were so thin, that sometimes I didn’t even have enough bodies to put the maximum seven runners on the line for varsity races. We had plenty of back of the pack runners during my early years at SHC. There were also plenty of instances when the coaches had to pay particular attention to make sure we didn’t lose one of the slower runners on a run through Golden Gate Park, and when faster runners had to wait for a slower runner to catch-up. The 2000 season in particular was quite small. I had no seniors and a total of 32 runners. We often joked that they had one of the best athlete to coach ratios in league history.
Over the years, my athletic directors encouraged me to make cuts. They believed that it was a privilege to be on the SHC cross country team and that the runners should feel that they’d earned something. I was against this and clung to my belief that you never knew who might improve a lot and grow to really love running, so it was best to keep everyone while I searched for diamonds in the rough. We compromised and I began to use the eight minute run as a tryout time trial in 2002. In the eight minute run, runners run laps on the track and try to cover the most distance that they can in eight minutes. This gave me an objective number to use for making cuts.
The reality of the situation, however, was that hardly anyone was ever cut. An occasional returning runner who was not very dedicated or badly out of shape would be cut but almost no freshmen were ever cut after the eight minute run. The only freshmen that got cut were ones so slow that I felt it was unsafe to have them on the team because they couldn’t keep up with the rest of the group. I would have needed to dedicate an assistant coach to give them special attention at every practice and that didn’t seem fair to the rest of the team. I would estimate that 95% of the freshmen who ran the eight minute run during this era, made the team. They didn’t know it, but it was pretty easy for freshmen to make the team.
The poster child for the “diamond in the rough” theory is a kid named E.J. In 2006, E.J. was one of fourteen freshmen boys who ran the eight minute run. E.J. bordered on that “so slow I need a special coach for him” line. In eight minutes, E.J. ran three laps or 1200 meters. Actually he ran 1200 meters in seven something minutes and then spent the remaining 40 or so seconds of the trial grabbing his stomach and gasping “I can’t run anymore.” I must have had a soft spot in my heart for E.J. that day because he ended up making the team. Of course this story has a happy ending. E.J. would improve tremendously over the years. He ran varsity his junior and senior year and we share the same personal record at Crystal Springs – 17:13. In E.J.’s final high school race he ran the 3200 meters (just under two miles) in 10:41. It brought tears to my eyes when we realized that in this final race, E.J. came through 2400 meters (six laps) in eight minutes – he ran twice as far in eight minutes in his last race (and kept going for two more laps) than he did at the trial his freshman year.
E.J. is also part of why I started to make cuts. As I mentioned, E.J. was one of a fourteen boy freshman class. By 2007 the group grew to be fifteen sophomore boys. That group would be known as “The Sophomore Boys” and it wasn’t exactly a term of endearment. Whenever there was trouble, “The Sophomore Boys” were in the middle of it. It wasn’t one or two of them. It was ALL fifteen of them. That same season, I followed my usual policy of not really cutting any freshmen and ended up with a 77 person team with 24 freshmen. It took two buses to get us to meets. In addition to some discipline issues with “The Sophomore Boys” we had a huge number of DNF’s (Did Not Finish) from the freshmen. They were just dropping out of races all the time. The team captains and I were quite frustrated. We felt the freshmen were a bunch of quitters – but due to the sheer size of the team, I really didn’t get to know the freshmen very well. I didn’t instill the passion for running cross country that I normally did. I couldn’t give my usual personal attention. At the end of the season I decided that the large team had negatively affected the program. I made the decision that starting with the 2008 season we would have a smaller team.
The philosophy of shaping the team roster that I use currently has been the same since that 2008 season. I believe that having approximately fifty kids on the team is what works for me. We fit on one bus to travel to meets and I feel that the athlete to coach ratio is perfect for providing proper guidance and instruction. I use the same eight minute run as a tryout trial. Veteran runners who are pretty certain they are going to make the team still get excited and run hard at the eight minute run because they are trying to improve on their mark from previous seasons. Borderline non-freshmen know that they are going to have to run up to a certain standard for me to keep them. The freshmen get three days from the first day of tryouts until the eight minute run. Over those three days, some quit because they just don’t like cross country. Of those that stick around and do the eight minute run, approximately 80% make the team – still the majority, but it’s also something to be earned, just like what my athletic director wanted.
We have had some tremendous team successes since I went to the smaller team size in 2008. However, I know that my cut-policy is always evolving. I will make adjustments based on the circumstances with the team. For now, this is what works for me and my team and my coaching style, so I am going to stick with it.
It’s the middle of August in San Francisco and I haven’t seen the sun in weeks. What does that mean? It’s cross country season!
Yes, the fall “harrier” season is just around the corner. For high school teams the first official day of practice is probably next Monday. Many college runners are reporting to campus for running camp before school begins. Here in United States of America Track & Field (USATF) Pacific Association territory, the first of ten grand prix cross country races is Saturday, August 21. Are you ready to go?
No matter what level of runner you are there is great benefit from running cross country. At the high school level, if you are a distance runner, then this is your season. For other high school athletes not participating in another fall sport (where I live the primarily other fall sports are football for boys and volleyball for girls), cross country can be a way to get in shape for another sport. High school cross country races are relatively short (usually three miles at the most) so the training volume does not have to be extreme. Any soccer or basketball coach is going to love a kid with endurance, a kid that can outrun everyone else up and down the pitch or court.
For sprinters, hurdlers, jumpers, and throwers on the track & field team, cross country can be daunting (“What! I have to run 3 miles!”) but there are many upsides. Cross country develops strength in the legs, and leg strength is needed to run, jump and throw far and fast. Cross country also improves endurance. When event-specific workouts and drills begin during the track season the athlete can do more repetitions at a higher quality because he isn’t gassed after one or two. A well rounded cross country training program includes bi-weekly sprints so there is no need to worry about “losing your speed.” It appears that for about the fifth time since I’ve been head coach at Sacred Heart Cathedral, I will have a thrower on the cross country team (Kudos to Evan!). Finally, I think there is great benefit in having structured workouts in the fall season and in maintaining a sense of competition by racing with the cross country team.
For adults cross country also has many benefits. In the September 2009 edition of Running Times Marc Bloom lists his top ten reasons for running cross country. I won’t list ten, but I definitely can cite reasons why I think all runners should consider cross country.
Number one is: fun. Going to cross country races and being part of a team is just plain fun. In cross country you get to forget the clock and just run for place. Everyone can help the team. All you have to do is try your best. Sometimes the most valuable runner at a meet is the one whose accomplishment was just finishing so that there was a complete team. With separate men’s and women’s races at cross country meets, there are opportunities to cheer on teammates and to be cheered for.
Racing cross country usually means racing on some combination of grass, dirt, sand, and other trails. There are likely to be hills, both up and down. Possibly even something to jump over. Your leg muscles will get stronger navigating trails, which take more work to cover than the road. This sounds like perfect training to get faster for the roads or a marathon to me! Trails are more forgiving to the joints than asphalt; plus you won’t need to go do hill repeats on Tuesday because you will have already covered that at the Saturday race.
Cross country racing can fit into just about everyone’s training schedule. The cross country grand prix races here in the Bay Area tend to be held about every other weekend. So running cross country does not mean giving up every single weekend to a race, or sacrificing a weekend long run every week. I think the series has a perfect number of races. I suggest the Saturday cross country race be used as your weekly tempo workout. Complement them with a medium-long run (maybe with some lactate threshold pace running if you are an advanced runner) on Tuesday instead of doing a fartlek or hills. On the weekends that there are no cross country races you can get in a long run. If you are in marathon training mode and need a weekly long run, I think a perfect training weekend is to run the cross country race on Saturday and then run long (two to four miles less than your usual long run) on Sunday. For the long run after a cross country race, ease into it but then try to run marathon race pace for the second half of the run. Your legs may be tired from the cross country race, but this is a great way to simulate the later stages of the marathon when your legs are tired and running marathon race pace really becomes a challenge.
A final hidden benefit of cross country is that you race frequently. Nothing makes you a better racer than experience. In a cross country grand prix you get to hone your racing skills often. You can try something one week and if it doesn’t work so well you can try something different the next time out. If you learn something at one race you get to compete again soon and apply what you’ve learned. I have seen runners go from “racing novice” to “experienced veteran” over the course of one season; this is something that could take more than a year when racing only periodically on the roads.
If you are young or not so young; fast or wish I was fast; marathoner, 5K’er, or sprinter, cross country can be a great experience for you. Find a team, seek out that coach, and get ready. Cross country season is just around the corner. I can hear the starter calling the runners to the start line already…
There are two high school cross country controversies taking place right now. Although neither one has a direct effect on me at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory (SHCP), I am following both situations with interest as the final decisions will affect the integrity of the sport that I love.
In Oregon, the Oregon School Activities Association (OSAA) State Championship Committee is considering a change in the Oregon cross country state championship meet format. In almost every championship cross country meet that I know of the top placing teams at the regional or sectional qualifying meet move on to the championship. These teams consist of seven runners. Also qualifying to compete are the top placing individuals who are not members of a qualifying team.
The OSAA is considering eliminating the team aspect of qualifying, to make qualifying for the state meet based on individual performance only. There would still be team scoring at the state championships but it wouldn’t be the team scoring that is currently associated with cross country (top five runners score, runners number six and seven can displace, fifteen is a perfect score, the lowest score wins). The new scoring system would award the most points to the first finisher, say 200 points for first place, 199 points for second place, and so on. The sum of your team’s total points would be your team score. The highest score wins. Each team will have a team score whether they have one runner in the race or seven.
The OSAA appears to have been tasked with two jobs, to save money and to strengthen the competitive level of the state championships. I am not sure how this saves money, but by having the fastest individuals and not the fastest teams qualify, the quality of the competitors is increased. It becomes the state track & field championships on trails.
I think another reason for the proposed change has to do with a pet peeve of mine – they are trying to make all sports conform to the same rules. Team sports like basketball and volleyball qualify as a team to post-season playoffs. There are no individuals in the post-season. You can be the best basketball player in the state but you don’t go to the playoffs if your team doesn’t qualify.
Then there are individual sports like wrestling, swimming, and track & field, where you qualify for state championship meets strictly based on individual performance (relays notwithstanding). You don’t send your whole team to the state meet just because your miler is the best in the state. There simply is not enough time in the day, lanes in the pool, or lanes on the track to accommodate the top athletes AND all their teammates at the wrestling, swimming, or track & field state championship meet.
There is a team component to the wrestling, swimming, and track & field state championship meets but it’s similar to the scoring system proposed for cross country. That’s precisely it. The OSAA doesn’t want cross country to be a hybrid, part team sport, part individual sport. Their proposal would make cross country an individual sport, with qualifying and scoring like wrestling, swimming, and track & field. In fact, the OSAA is considering the same changes for the sport of golf.
From my perspective this is crazy. Cross country, as those of us in the United States know it, is seven runners with five scoring, low score wins. That’s the beauty of the sport. Championships are often won and lost by a fifth runner battling in the middle of the pack. By changing the format of the state championship meet Oregon would be changing a core value of the sport – teamwork. The sport as the OSAA proposes it would no longer be all about the team. No longer would there be pack running strategy or suicide race plans. Every runner would only be concerned with how they did in the race. Depending on a teammate for team success would be a thing of the past.
A lot of “mid-packers” get to participate in the cross country state meet. Athletes who can’t even think about qualifying for the more elite track & field state meet can dream about making it to state in cross country (I was one of these people). It’s also pretty ironic that Oregon, home of Nike, the University of Oregon, and Prefontaine, a state rich in cross country tradition is the state that’s looking to buck history.
There’s been quite an outcry against this proposal. You can read lots more about the topic, become one of more than 4,400 fans of the Facebook page “Save Oregon High School Cross Country!”, or sign an online petition (they have over 2,000 signatures) “to save Oregon cross country.”
A lot has transpired since the initial news broke. Due in part to the outcry against the proposed changes, the OSAA is rumored to have had a conference call and may soon announce that the proposed format change for the Oregon state cross country championship will not happen.
Closer to home is a controversy involving the Santa Clara Valley Athletic League (SCVAL) and senior boys running in the Junior Varsity (JV) Boys Division. Late in the 2009 cross country season, about two weeks before the SCVAL Finals, the league commissioner, citing league bylaws, stated that senior boys who were not on the varsity team would be ineligible to run at the SCVAL Finals in any other division.
The controversy surrounds whether or not the league bylaws have an exception that specifies that sport bylaws can supersede league bylaws when it comes to seniors participating in JV. There is also controversy about whether or not the current cross country bylaws include such an exception clause. Regardless of the existence or non-existence of such bylaws and exceptions, the reality is that senior boys have been running in JV races in the SCVAL for more than fifty years. The league commissioner’s declaration caused quite a stir and some parents from Mountain View actually took the league to court. In the end, seniors boys not in the varsity seven were allowed to run, but they ran as non-scoring members in the varsity race.
However the story isn’t over yet. The SCVAL board of managers is meeting to consider changing the cross country bylaws so that moving forward seniors boys and girls will not be allowed to run JV. While the initial ruling in 2009 affected only the boys, a change in bylaws would affect both girls and boys in the future.
SCVAL coaches and parents have banded together to make their pitch to the board of managers for allowing seniors not on varsity to compete in JV races. Among their arguments are: the long tradition of seniors not on varsity running JV in the SCVAL, the fact that having seniors running in JV does not cost the league additional money nor deny any non-senior of a competition opportunity, and the fact that all the other leagues in the section (including the West Catholic Athletic League, where I coach) allow non-varsity seniors to compete in JV. For that matter, their research of all the leagues in California that publish full league final results with the grade level of each runner, indicates that every league in California (other than the SCVAL) currently allows seniors to run JV. The matter is now being researched by the section commissioner and she will report back to the board of managers in April. Look for a decision from the board some time after that. If you want to keep abreast of the news on this topic join the parents’ SCVAL Cross Country Yahoo group.
Again, this may be a matter of trying to have one set of rules apply to all sports. That doesn’t always work. In sports that have rules limiting how many players can play at any one time, it is logical to exclude seniors from JV. Why have a senior taking up a roster spot on the JV when you could have a non-senior in that spot learning skills and preparing for the varsity level the next year? I’m all for that. But everyone competes in cross country. A senior running in the JV race is not taking away anyone else’s opportunity to compete or train for the future.
I, like most cross country coaches, see the value of having seniors on the JV team. Cross country is not just about being on the varsity team. There are innumerable ways (leadership and team spirit being the two major ones) that seniors contribute to a program while being members of the JV team. Some of my favorite people from SHCP, people who still keep in touch with me, were seniors who never saw a varsity race. Many spent three or four years on the team and we developed a close working relationship. These people were dedicated and committed and I counted on them to make sure the varsity worked hard at practice, to set an example for the younger runners, and to be enthusiastic at the meets.
Cross country is one of the purest and simplest sports. There are very few rules and for those that participate the rules are pretty easy to understand and follow. It’s sport in a very simple form – run from here to there as fast as you can. The same rules have applied for many years and it is a shame to see two administrative groups attempting to change the rules of our beloved sport. I’m sure they mean well and have the sport’s best intentions at heart, but I wish they would leave well enough alone.