Just how competitive is the NCAA XC Championship?
The clocks have gone back, the temperature is steadily dropping, and endurance athletes across the globe are gearing themselves up for winter. For the lucky few, this may consist of escaping to the Southern Hemisphere where summer is approaching in places like South Africa or Australia. However for the vast majority, winter consists of strength work complimented with either indoors or cross country racing. November sees the international cross country season commence. The European and IAAF permit meets have now started, national trials will be held soon and the first major championship of the season takes place this weekend in Louisville, Kentucky; The NCAA Cross Country Championships.
Here we will analyse just how good the NCAA meet is compared to other major meets such as the World Cross Country Champions (WXC) and the European Cross Country Championships (EXC). Some pundits involved in the collegiate system claim that the NCAA Cross Country Championship has more strength in depth than any other cross country race in the world. Whilst it is hard to argue against the NCAA Championship being a high quality event, suggesting that it is ‘the deepest race in the world’ is somewhat of an overstatement. That honour quite possibly belongs to the Kenyan Cross Country Championships. Having personally witnessed some of the district meets in the Rift Valley area, it is simply remarkable to see how high the standard is. With Kenya regularly returning all six runners in the top 10 across both genders and age groups at the WXC, it is not out of the question to say that the Kenyan Championships are of a tougher standard. Ethiopian fans will no doubt claim that their national championship is of equally high standard.
East Africa aside, let us now consider the other major meets. The NCAA meet consists of 255 of the finest collegiate distance runners and asides from the race distance, the format is the same for men (10k) and women (6k). 31 teams of 7 athletes as well as 40 further individual qualifiers advance through a tough and highly complicated qualifying procedure, which is designed to ensure that only the nation’s best get to compete. The age of the participants typically ranges from 18-24, and the student athletes are drawn from all 50 US States as well as many nations around the world.
The World Cross Country Championships, now held biannually, sees national teams of six athletes competing over 12k (men) and 8k (women). The event is almost completely dominated by the African nations, and this is further enhanced with many athletes seemingly facing little obstacle when it comes to switching nationalities, e.g. From Kenya to Qatar. As one would expect, the front of the World Cross is as good as it gets. Kenenisa Bekele, Zersenay Tadesse, and Vivian Cheryiot are regarded as some of the greatest athletes in history, and all have won the World Cross in recent years. Whilst the strength at the front is at an all time high, recent editions of the event have unfortunately seen fewer European Nations compete than before. For example, in the 2010 event only 4 European Nations completed a team in the women’s race and 5 in the men’s. It will be interesting to see what effect moving the event to being held biannually has on participation.
The European Cross Country Championships is held annually in December. The event is well supported by most European nations, though the introduction of the U23 age group in 2006 has led to rather small fields being assembled in the senior races. Cross Country specialist Serhiy Lebid is the name most famously associated with the event, and the ever present Ukranian has won the men’s senior race a remarkable nine times. It has been quite common over the years for athletes to double up and compete at both the NCAA and European events, something site co-founder John Beattie did in 2008.
In terms of a direct comparison, the tables below give a breakdown of the athletes who finished in various round number positions at three different editions of the NCAA, WXC, and EXC. Also listed are the known track or road personal bests of the athletes. NCAA athletes are listed with their best known collegiate bests, rather than what they may have subsequently achieved as a professional. For example, 2003 NCAA Champions Dathan Ritzenhein and Shalane Flanagan are both athletes who improved significantly after graduating, though at the time had only achieved bests of 13:27 for 5000m and 8:55 for 3000m respectively.
What can be drawn from these results?
- All three events show significantly more depth in performances on the men’s side than on the women’s
- The NCAA meet has roughly double the amount of finishers compared to the WXC and 4-5 times the number of EXC finishers
- Whilst the standard of the top 50 at the WXC is considerably stronger than the NCAA equivalent, it is not inconceivable that a 28.30 10k runner could finish 100th in either event.
- From the selection of results we have chosen, predicting the EXC appears difficult. In 2003 a 2.07 marathon runner finished down in 10th, whereas this contrasts strongly to the 2011 race which was won by an athlete whose best objective performance has been a 13.43 5k.
- Outside of East Africa and perhaps the strongest of Japanese road races, the NCAA meet will most likely produce the best quality of athletes finishing between 150-250th positions.
- Taking out the top 10% of athletes, there does not appear to be a huge amount of ability separating 50-200th place in the women’s NCAA meet.
- With recent editions of the EXC having less than 50 finishers, it is a struggle to make a serious comparison between that and the NCAA meet where there are upwards of 250 finishers. The only thing that can be compared is the top 10, where the standard is reasonably similar.
- The women’s WXC appears to be getting stronger and is seeing increasing numbers of participants each year. The standard required to finish top 50 is certainly tougher than the NCAA, though again it is the sheer size of the NCAA meet that adds depth once you go beyond into triple figures.
- Reaching the same conclusion as the men and perhaps even including East Africa on the women’s side, you will be hard pressed to find a race where the athletes finishing between 100-200th positions are as good as those in the NCAA meet.
Click to expand the below table for source data.