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What is Cross Country?

What is Cross Country?

Cross Country (abbreviated CC or XC) is a running event in which runners compete to complete a course over open or rough terrain. The courses used at these events may include grass, mud, woodlands, hills, flat ground and water. It is a popular participatory sport, and usually takes place in temperate regions during the autumn and winter when soft conditions underfoot prevail.

It is one of the sports which, along with track and field, road running, and racewalking, makes up the umbrella sport of athletics. The foremost elite competition is the IAAF World Cross Country Championships. Cross country also features as part of themodern pentathlon at the Summer Olympic Games. Cross country featured on the Olympic athletics programme between 1912 and 1924 but was dropped for following editions.


A cross country race in Seaside, Oregon. Some races may contain obstacles, like the standing water pictured here.

A cross country race in Seaside, Oregon. Some races may contain obstacles, like the standing water pictured here.

Cross country is an organized sport that originated from the Crick Run held nearly every year since 1838 at Rugby School in England. In the early 19th century, cross country was practiced in all private schools in England. In 1851, undergraduates atExeter College, Oxford organized a foot grind. This was an analogy with steeple chasing on horse where a race would be held towards the nearest church steeple, forcing riders to clear rural obstacles such as hedges, fences, and ditches. A two-mile cross country steeplechase formed part of the Oxford University sports (in which many of the modern athletics events were founded) in 1860, but was replaced in 1865 by an event over barriers on a flat field, which became the modern steeplechase in athletics.
In 1868, members of Thames Rowing Club looking for winter exercise (when rowing did not take place then) formed Thames Hare and Hounds in Roehampton on the south-west fringes of London and adjoining Wimbledon Common on which cross-country races were staged. They were joined by Peckham Hare and Hounds in 1869 (which became Blackheath Harriers in 1880), Cheshire Tally Ho Hare and Hounds in 1872, Birchfield Harriers 1877, Cambridge University Hare and Hounds in 1880, andRanelagh Harriers in 1881. The English Cross Country Union followed in 1883 which introduced the National Championships. Most of these early clubs continue to thrive to this day. The reason for the names associated with hunting is that in many of the early matches, the course was set by paper chasing: a few runners (the hares) would have a start on the bulk of the field (the 'hounds'), and lay a 'scent' by scattering a paper trail behind them which the hounds would follow. Racing would take place between the hares and the hounds and within the hounds themselves. Because of the obvious nuisance this can generate, this form of racing was largely discontinued quite early on. Occasional matches still take place, by Cheshire Tally Ho and the popular Hash House Harriers, for example. However, from an early date steeplechases and championship races also took place over fixed courses, as today.
In 1878, the sport was introduced to the United States by William C. Vosburgh. At first, the sport served mainly as training for summer track and field athletics. Nine years later, cross country running became a formal sport in the United States. Despite the international popularity of cross-country, the sport was dropped from the Olympic Games after 1924 due to it being an inappropriate summer sport. In the 1960s, the International Amateur Athletic Federation, which regulates cross-country running, allowed women to run for the first time.
The sport is still popular in temperate countries, but is relatively unknown in Asia. Japan's love of distance running has manifested itself in a slightly different format, theEkiden, which began in 1917. Internationally, the IAAF organizes the World Cross Country Championships. In recent years, courses have tended to change to faster, drier courses than the traditional ones.

Courses and Distances

Each cross-country running course is different in its make-up. Distances vary for age groups, and are decided by the race directors and are usually split up based on the gender of the runners. There are usually two different types of cross-country meets, competitions (such as dual meets, conference championships, state championships, etc.) and invitationals. The invitationals are traditionally larger meets because they are open to any team and individual runners with no affiliations. At smaller meets, it is very common to combine races to save time. For high school, Varsity and Junior Varsity will often be combined into one race. Another common combination of races is to put the genders together, so Varsity men and women will be in the same race. Seven Lakes High School And All Texas High Schools Varsity and Junior Varsity run 5K(3.1068556 miles).  Freshmen Run 2 miles.

The Start

The start to a typical cross country race at Tom's River Park. Official fires gun to signal start of race.

The start to a typical cross country race at Tom's River Park. Official fires gun to signal start of race.

Races are started in masses, sometimes with each team having its own bull pen or box along the start line. Boxes may be big enough to fit the entire team on the starting line. In some meets, there is only enough room for one or two runners from each team on the line. The 3-5 remaining team members (a team requiring 5-7 runners) follow in a line, and if permitted may flow into other boxes. A gun or horn is then sounded, and runners have a few hundred meters to converge from the wide starting line into the much narrower path that must be followed until the finish. However, races are typically smaller in the common dual races between two schools, so that there is generally enough room for each team on the starting line. In these dual races, instead of starting in boxes, teams may be interspersed along the start line.

Marking the Course

The runner is responsible for staying within a specified distance of the marked path. The course length is measured using a distance wheel. When the course is "walked out" by the wheel, the course markers will be placed no more than 3 feet away on the inside of the turn. If one runs every turn tight, they will theoretically be running a shorter distance than the course claims to be. Courses may be marked using various methods, such as tape, chalk, ribbons, paint, cones, and flags. When flags or cones are used, the runner must stay to the outside of the marker at each turn; on the other hand, when ribbons or paint lines are used, the runner must follow the line (if parallel lines are used runners must stay between the lines, or if a single line is used they must stay within a certain distance of the line). Often, volunteers stand on the course and point in the correct direction to go at an intersection.

During the Race

After the first 200–300 meters, runners typically fall into their "race pace", or a steadier pace that can be maintained for a long period of time. When runners try to maintain the initial start speed, they will go into "oxygen debt" early, and lose much of their momentum. The course may be entirely flat, or runners may encounter a series of hills, patches of mud, or obstacles like small creeks to run through. Runners are not permitted to come into physical contact with each other. This will result in disqualification. Different strategies may be used among runners on different teams. For example, they may try to run as a pack in groups of two or three. This strategy is used to help the slower runners along, and may also intimidate runners on other teams (seeing all the runners on a team together may make the team seem very good). Another strategy is to "surge", or pick up the pace for 200–300 meters every few minutes. This may help runners pass others and score better for their team. This part of the race generally lasts until the runners are about 400 meters from the end, where the finishing stage of the course begins.

The Finish

The course usually ends at a finish line located at the beginning of a funnel or chute. The chute is a long walkway marked with flags that keeps athletes single-file in order of finishing. Since every place could potentially make a difference, runners will normally try to overtake as many people as possible in this stretch.

Helpers at the finish line assist in making sure the athletes keep moving through the line while staying in order as more runners come through. They settle close finishes and help along any collapsing athletes to make sure that they get their numbers in the right order. The helpers that work the chute also are in charge of giving water to the finishers and helping them if they are having trouble (vomiting, collapsing, trouble breathing, etc.).

There is often a small slip at the bottom of the runners' number (that is pinned to the front of their jersey during the race) which is ripped off and collected; this shows each athlete's information. That slip is used to keep track of finishing positions. An alternative method (common in the UK) is to have four officials in two pairs. In the first pair, one official reads out numbers of finishers and the other records them. In the second pair, one official reads out times for the other to record. At the end of the race the two lists are joined along with information from the entry information. The major disadvantage of this system is that distractions can easily upset the results, particularly when large numbers of runners finish close together.

Another method of timing which is being used somewhat more often, most commonly larger races, is chip timing. Each runner is given a transponder working on a RFID basis before the race to tie to their shoe; when the runner crosses the finish line they step on an electronic pad which records the chip number and is matched to the runner from an already made database. Occasionally there will also be checkpoint mats or mile mats to deliver splits and make sure runners go over the entire course. This is by far the most accurate method, although it is somewhat expensive.

In competitive team cross country events, like those between schools, there is yet another method of recording the finishing orders and times. Each team member has a number that is theirs for the entire season, which they pin onto their shirt before each race. At least two coaches, parents, or other volunteers wait at the finish line. One person records the number of each runner that crosses the finish line, while another uses a stopwatch to get the approximate time. While the times are not as precise as with the chip, it is much more cost-effective and works for the purpose of getting the order in which people finish, which is all that is needed to determine the winning team and highest "scoring" runners. There are, of course, schools who do not use this system or have changed it.


When two or more teams of cross country runners compete, a score may be compiled to determine which team is the better. Points are awarded to the individual runners of eligible teams, equal to the position in which they cross the finish line (first place gets 1 point, second place gets 2 points, etc.). Teams are considered ineligible to score if they have fewer than the meet's required number of scorers, which is typically five. Only the first five runners in for a team are counted towards that team's score; the points for these runners are summed, and the teams are ranked based on the total, with lowest being best. In the event of a tie, the rules vary depending on the competition; often the team that closes scoring first wins, though in the US NCAA ties are possible. In high school competition, if two teams tie, then the victor is decided by whose sixth runner, the first one whose score does not count, finished first.

The lowest possible score in a five-to-score match is 15 (1+2+3+4+5), achieved by a team's runners finishing in each of the top five positions. If there is a single opposing team then they would have a score of 40 (6+7+8+9+10), which can be considered a "sweep" for the winning team. In some competitions a team's sixth and seventh runner are scored in the overall field and are known as "pushers" or "displacers" as their place can count ahead of other runners. In the above match, if there are two non-scoring runners and they came 6th and 7th overall, the opponent's score would be 50 (8+9+10+11+12). Accordingly, the official score of a forfeited dual meet is 15-50.


Cross-country running involves very little specialized equipment. Most races are run in shorts and vests or singlets, usually in club or school colors. In particularly cold conditions, long-sleeved shirts and tights can be worn to retain warmth without losing mobility. The most common footwear worn consists of a pair of spikes, sometimes called cleats, which are lightweight racing shoes that incorporate metal spikes, known as teeth, into the sole. Teeth may or may not be replaceable, depending on the shoe's design. These spikes are changed depending on race conditions. For example, if the course is muddy a larger spike will be used. Regulation teeth for cross country courses range from .25-.5 inches (6.4mm - 12.7mm). Alternatively, rubber studded shoes may be worn, as spikes are forbidden in some leagues. While spikes are suitable for grassy, muddy, or slippery conditions, runners may choose to wear racing flats if the course includes significant portions of paved surfaces or dirt road. Flats are typically less aggressive in foot positioning and heavier than spikes. They possess less rigid outsole tread than spikes and do not have any metal teeth.

Individual Results

Team Score Place
Blue Team 1 1
Independent n/a 2
Yellow Team 2 3
Yellow Team 3 4
Blue Team 4 5
Yellow Team 5 6
Blue Team 6 7
Independent n/a 8
Blue Team 7 9
Yellow Team 8 10
Blue Team 9 11
Yellow Team 10 12

Team Scores

Team Total Score 1 2 3 4 Tie breaker
Blue Team 18 1 4 6 7 9 *Wins Tie
Yellow Team 18 2 3 5 8 10

Note on examples, there are usually 5 scoring runners on each team, 4 is for brevity.

Notable Athletes

In recent years, international cross-country has been dominated by eastern Africans, particularly those representing Kenya and Ethiopia. Several athletes have won three or more individual titles at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships: Carlos Lopes, the first man to win three times; John Ngugi, the first man to win five times; Paul Tergat, the first man to win five times in a row; Kenenisa Bekele, the only man to win the short and long courses each five times in five years; Grete Waitz, the first woman to win five times; Tirunesh Dibaba who won three times at the long course and once at the short; Lynn Jennings, who won three times; Derartu Tulu, who won three times; Gete Wami, who won twice at the long course and once at the short; and Edith Masai, who won the short race three times. Doris Brown Heritage (USA) was the first woman to win five championships (1967–72).

Regional Organization

Cross-country running is a far reaching sport in Canada. Starting in elementary school, most children have had some form of exposure to cross-country running, usually in the form of an annual all-school event. In middle school, races are more serious and are divided by grade and gender. In high school the races are very serious and tend to be the main talent pool (especially at the senior level) for university or national-level runners. At the university level, the sport is administered by the CIS.

United Kingdom
The organization of cross-country running in the United Kingdom has continued to be mostly devolved to the four national associations: England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. The sport is based around the clubs, which usually are mixed cross-country and road running clubs. The current position (which is changing) is that in England, the ECCU is part of the Amateur Athletic Association.

Cross-country running takes place from roughly September until March. Most matches are parts of different cross-country leagues, which are organised on an ad hoc basis. These vary from large, high quality leagues, such as the Birmingham League and SurreyLeague (which is unusual in requiring ten runners to score) to small, local leagues (such as the Gloucestershire AA league), and individual clubs can be a member of several leagues.
Typically there will be four or five fixtures a season. In addition there are county championships, area championships (north, south, and midlands), the national championship (whose location rotates around the three areas), and the Inter-Counties Championship (which is often the best quality race owing to its restricted entry and its role as the trial for the World Championships).
In addition there can be many inter-club matches, particularly among the older clubs. Most league matches are around 10 km (6.2 miles) long, and most championships 12 to 15 km (c. 7½ to 9 miles) long. Most clubs are mixed, though men's and women's races tend to be run separately.

Secondary school aged students are also to compete at local schools races, with a set number of students qualifying for county level, at which there is a further race to qualify for the English Schools Cross Country race. There is also quite a lot of racing between universities, with larger fixtures organised through BUCS.

US Armed Forces cross country meet

US Armed Forces cross country meet

United States
Distances in United States (US) amateur running differ based on gender and league.

Most elementary schools in the US do not have school teams, but many running clubs exist for youth runners of 18 years of age and younger. Youth running clubs compete in local, regional, and national championships sanctioned by the AAU or USATF. Course distances for this age group vary depending on the age of the athlete. Common championship distances are:

Age Group Distance in Miles Distance in Kilometers
6 & Under .62 1 km
7 & 8 1.24 2 km
9 to 12 1.86 3 km
13 & 14 2.5 4 km
15 to 18 3.14 5 km


Many middle schools (grades 6-8) in the US offer cross country as a school sport and youth running clubs are still very dominant in this age group. A typical middle school course (7th and 8th grade) is usually around 1.8 mi/ 3 km long, while a typical high school course (9th-12th) is usually around 3.1 mi/ 5 km.

Minnesota Golden Gophers cross country, University of Minnesota Les Bolstad Golf Course

Minnesota Golden Gophers cross country, University of Minnesota Les Bolstad Golf Course

In secondary/high schools, the standard male and female varsity distance is 5 kilometers (approximately 3.1 miles) in many states such as Pennsylvania, Indiana, North Carolina, Michigan, and Virginia. In states such as Illinois, 3.0 miles is also common. However,states differ in their regulations, and in some, different distances, mostly 3 miles and 4 kilometers, are typical for females.

At college level, distances are usually 5 km or 6 km for females and 8 km (5 miles) for males for most invitationals and NCAA Division III regional and national meets. For NCAA Divisions I and II, men race 10 km (6.2 mi) and women 6 km at regional and national competitions. There are both individual and team honors at the NCAA Men's Cross Country Championship and NCAA Women's Cross Country Championship. The largest cross-country invitational in the world is at Mt. SAC. The USATF National Championships consist of a long course and a short course similar to the IAAF World Championships. The long course is 12 km for men and 8 km for women, while the short course is 4 km for both men and women. The most recent NCAA Division I National Championship was held in Terre Haute, Indiana at Indiana State University, the Division II race was at Slippery Rock University, and Division III was at Hanover College, also in Indiana.

Roy Griak Invitational, University of Minnesota

Roy Griak Invitational, University of Minnesota

Outstanding American cross-country runners include Don Lash, who won seven consecutive national championships from 1934 to 1940 and Pat Porter, who won eight titles from 1982 to 1989. Only two American athletes have won the IAAF World Cross Country Championships: Craig Virgin, who won in 1980 and again in 1981 and Lynn Jenningsfrom 1990–1992.