The XC Season - USA Athletics Scholarships

The XC Season

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With the NCAA XC season underway, we start a series of XC articles with a look at the season structure.

Upon conclusion of the IAAF World Athletics Championships, we have nearly reached the end of the track season. All that remains on the International calendar are the final Diamond League meets in Zurich and Brussels. One last chance for the worlds best athletes to set seasonal bests and perhaps just as importantly top up their bank accounts ahead of the winter months.

As the curtain draws on another track season, attention now turns elsewhere. In the UK we move into a short road racing season with half marathons, full marathons, and road relays taking place throughout September and October. Then comes cross country. The cross country season in the UK is typically long and meets run all the way from early October through to late March. Elite athletes have the chance to ‘double peak’ with the European Cross Country Championships taking place in December followed by the World Cross Country Championships in March. Club standard athletes have the chance to compete in local league races which again go all the way through from October to March. This can be contrasted with the US system where each season has a distinct beginning and end. The autumn is known as ‘the fall’ and is when collegiate cross country takes place.

Summer and Pre Season

Whilst the racing season does not begin until September, preparations typically start long before this. With the collegiate track season finishing in early June, this leaves almost three months with no racing scheduled. This is the period where most college athletes undertake the real bread and butter work of base training. That is weeks and weeks of high mileage, which if executed properly will give them the base required to last the duration of the forthcoming season. This long period of no racing and lots of running is one of the major differences between the UK and US systems. We recommend speaking to any athlete who has been on a collegiate cross country team to find out more on how this training phase is structured. Teams will typically report to campus in mid August and athletes will be expected to be in condition to be ready to handle the intense 12-14 weeks training and racing that lay ahead.

In terms of racing, a collegiate cross country team has to compete in a certain number of fixtures to fulfil NCAA requirements, and we have informally categorized these into three distinct parts of the season.

The early season meets

The first part of the racing season runs from the last week in August until the end of September. Teams typically compete in small, localized meets, often with only a few schools present. Teams with big squads will often use these meets to allow the younger or second string athletes a chance to show what they can do or even just get the chance to wear the vest. Often these meets are used as tempo or training runs, allowing the coach to test different tactics or strategies. It is rare that you would see teams racing their top athletes at full throttle during this stage of the season.

Big regular season meets

The first weekend in October is where the season really starts. Having sat out the early meets, the top athletes will now be let loose and allowed to race. Schools are now truly competing against each other, and results at these open meets have a big influence on which teams will qualify for the NCAA Championships in November. Whilst not all teams take the regular season meets seriously, most will at least compete in one or two during October. Pre Nats is typically the biggest regular season meet of the year, with up to 80 teams usually entering and being divided into two races. Whilst most teams do race seriously during this period, some teams will still be acting with caution and trying to keep their hand hidden, perhaps resting top athletes or avoiding the competition for the time being. All kinds of tactics and mind games are employed by coaches and athletes during the cross country season and these just add to the anticipation and excitement ahead of the championships.

Championship season

November signifies the business end of the collegiate cross country season. The regular season meets are now finished and we move into the championships. By now everyone has raced several times and coaches should know who their top seven athletes are.  The first championship is the conference meet. The standard of the Conference Championship will vary significantly. The Pac 12, Big 12, and SEC meets are fiercely competitive and easily as strong as the biggest regular season meets. However, for the lesser known conferences where the depth is not as strong, the standard may be fairly average. Following conference there is a two week gap until the NCAA Regional Championships.  The US is split into nine geographic regions for cross country and each regional meet takes place at the same time. The top two teams from each region qualify automatically for the NCAA Championship, and the other thirteen qualifiers are determined according a points system based on results achieved throughout the season. It is also possible for individuals to qualify by being one of the first four at the regional meet not already on a qualified team.

For the 31 teams and 36 individual qualifiers who survive the cut at the regional meet, there is a ten day gap until the ‘big dance’ that is the NCAA Cross Country Championship. Five months of hard training, intense racing, and dedication all comes down to one race on the Monday morning of thanksgiving week. From personal experience of having competed in the NCAA meet three times, it is certainly something worth striving for and the added team emphasis only adds to the occasion and helps makes it unique to other races.

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