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A Fan's and Parent's Guide to The High School Cross Country Season

By Alan Versaw, 09/19/17, 8:30AM MST


Know the facts!

Each year, a little better than a fourth of the parents you see lining the courses are new to high school cross country, or at least new to it with the current son or daughter in the program. We're a simple sport, really, but there are some things around here that take some explaining.

And, you may have been around the sport a while and still need to have some things explained. Perhaps this article will help!

Cross Country Scoring

No matter what the sport, you want to know who wins and how that's determined. I'll work you through that in this section.

It's different in 2A here in Colorado, but standard cross country scoring goes as follows:

Each finisher in the race is assigned a place. The runner's place determines the number of points he or she contributes to the team score. But, it's not always a one-to-one correspondence. For the purposes of team scoring, any runners from incomplete teams (four or fewer runners) are removed from the finishing order before team scores are calculated. So, if after runners from incomplete teams are removed, a team's top five finishers placed 2, 13, 15, 22, and 30, then these places are added to get a team score of 82 points. Low score wins. 


There are seven runners on a varsity team (if a meet allows more than seven, the standard procedure is to discard the finishes of runner #8 and beyond, much as if they were runners for incomplete teams, for the purposes of team scoring). Of those seven, the top five runners' places score, as explained in the preceding paragraph. But, runners six and seven are retained in the results for the purposes of team scoring. This means that your sixth and seventh runners can actually displace runners from other teams and add one point to their scores if they finish ahead of any of the first through fifth runners of a different team. So, there is some advantage in having strong sixth and seventh runners even though those runners don't contribute to the score. 

If two teams tie, the tiebreaker is to go the the sixth runner. The team with the higher-finishing sixth runner wins in a tied team score. That typically resolves a tie, because two runners cannot share the same place. If neither team has a sixth runner, then the tie is broken by seeing which team had a better score through four runners. 

All the same applies to 2A here except that 2A only scores three runners in place of five. The fourth runner becomes the tie-breaker.

By the way, NCAA cross country breaks ties by a different rule. You can learn about that when your son or daughter starts competing in college.


Pacing is when a coach, teammate not in the race, or spectator runs alongside a participant in the race. Don't do it. If seen by a meet official, this, by rule, results in the disqualification of the runner. 

Assisting an Injured or Fallen Runner

Until this year, when an athlete helped an injured or fallen runner resulted in the disqualification of both competitors. With a new rule change this year, this situation now only results in the disqualification of the fallen/injured runner. The logic here is that the assisting runner gets no advantage from helping another runner and so can only hurt his or her place by stopping to help. Thus, disqualifying the runner resulted in a kind of double penalty for a supportive gesture. 

Criterium Course

This is a course that has repeated loops. More and more, it's becoming difficult to find 5K cross country courses here in Colorado that are functional for racing, have enough parking, and the property owner is amenable to hosting a cross country race at less than a princely sum. One means of dealing with decreased course availability is to resort to a criterium course so that you don't need to lay out a full 5K course.

Pack Time

Some cross country fans like to talk a lot about pack time. Pack time is the time gap between your first and fifth runner. A small pack time is considered a good thing and may indicate your team is working well together, but really this depends on the situation. If you have a ridiculously fast top runner, you'll never have a great pack time unless he/she has four ridiculously fast teammates (hardly ever happens), but you still might win a lot of meets. Conversely, a small pack time might just indicate that your top runner was slacking that race. In case you couldn't tell, I'm of the persuasion that pack time is overrated as a measure of the strength of a cross country team.

Training Through

When a coach or athlete talks about "training through" a race, it means that they didn't do any backing off on the training regime leading up to the race. It may actually mean they ran the race on an especially difficult training week. Honestly, this happens a lot with invitational meets. Invitational meets are about learning, and sometimes about breaks in the routine, So, plenty of teams go to invitationals with no particular intention of winning. We're not like football or basketball that way.


Generally speaking, a race will be restarted if a competitor falls within the first 100 meters. If, however, you are the runner who falls in the first 100 meters, it behooves you not to assume that the race will be restarted. Rather, your mission is to as quickly as possible get back up and get in the race.

Chip Timing

It's how most races are timed these days. An electronic chip (and sometimes two) is attached to each runner's bib or shoe. When the runner crosses a timing pad at the finish line, the timing pad picks up the identifying chip and records a finish time. The push-pull here is that shoe chips are more durable, more accurate (owing to being closer to the timing pad), and, alas, more expensive. Convenience might be a toss-up between the two.

Repetitive Motion Injuries

Most cross country injuries--to include shin splits, stress fractures, tendonitis, and other maladies--fall under this category. Distance running involves doing the same body motions repeatedly. If a runner has even a slight mechanical flaw, multiplying that flaw over multiplied thousands of steps can result in an injury. Generally speaking, though, most repetitive motion injuries happen to less experienced runners, not so much because they are less experienced but because they've not built up their running musculature through hundreds of miles of running and accumulated ancillary work. Consequently, they tend to fall back to letting their skeleton and connective tissue support their running relatively more than a more hardened runner would. A more hardened runner would have relatively greater support from his or her musculature. Using the skeleton and connective tissue for support accelerates the rate at which the weak points in the system reveal themselves in the form of an injury. 

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