Utah, Colorado, and Matters of Distance

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Ashi Geberkidane, Colorado's top XC performer in 2012, is flanked by two Utah runners, Kramer Morton and Brayden McLelland, late in last fall's NXR-SW champtionship race. Photo by Alan Versaw.

The Nike Regional system has made a lot of comparisons between states much easier than those comparisons formerly were. In the case of Utah and Colorado, that's mostly good news for Utah and mostly not-as-good news for Colorado. Mind you, there are many states for which it would be more shameful to take a back seat to than Utah, but it's becoming increasingly clear that we are taking a back seat to Utah.

If you skim recent NXR-SW results, you'll find that Utah took six of the top ten boys team places in 2012 (compared to two of the top ten for Colorado) and five of the top ten team places (compared to three for Colorado) in 2011. It hasn't gone much better for Colorado among the individuals. Of the top 20 boys individuals in 2012, 14 were from Utah and two from Colorado. In 2011, it was 11 from Utah and five from Colorado.

Consider now that Colorado has a population roughly double that of Utah (the high school age difference may not be quite as large, however, as Utah is a demographically younger state than Colorado). 

Utah also sends a much larger proportion of its cross country runners to FLW than Colorado sends to FLMW. So, more Utah athletes than Colorado athletes are conflicted over post-season cross country racing plans.

Travel times to Mesa from Salt Lake City/Provo are roughly equivalent to travel times from Denver/Colorado Springs. If you were hoping for a meaningful difference there, there probably isn't one to be found.

We could argue about whether this is an advantage of a disadvantage for Utah, but their state cross country meet typically comes a week-and-a-half (in a few years, perhaps, only a half-week) earlier than Colorado's. The consensus opinion would be that that is a disadvantage for Utah inasmuch as it means maintaing peak racing condition over a longer period of time, but a dissenting argument can also be made.

If you care to extend your comparisons to track and field, the story is much the same. At Utah's 2013 state track meet, there were 14 boys who ran sub-4:20 for the 1600, 45 who ran sub 4:30, and 50 boys who ran sub-10 for the 3200. Colorado's corresponding tallies were 2, 24, and 26. Of course, it's not a straight-up comparison as Colorado has more high school boys to begin with, and Utah's state meet is at roughly 4500 feet of elevation, roughly 1000 feet lower than Colorado's state meet. Also, May temperatures are typically warmer in Provo than Lakewood. So, there are confounding variables in play here. But, in case you're missing the forest for the trees, Colorado is getting thumped at the boys distance game by our neighbors to the west.

And it's not just over the last two years, though the separation between Utah and Colorado does seem to have grown over the last couple of years.

So, what's different between the two states?

The advantage of climate goes to Colorado. The balance of Colorado's population lives where it is cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter than the Wasatch Front of Utah (where almost all of the population resides). 

As we've discussed before, the advantage of a larger population clearly rests on Colorado's side.

But Utah is not without advantages of its own. The larger high schools in Utah are much larger than they are in Colorado. In most high schools in Utah, ninth graders are not in the building, yet you still have the 25 largest high school enrollments in Utah at 1676 and up. In short, there are a lot of Cherry Creek sized high schools in Utah. So far as cross country goes, that means more competition to make the team and, therefore, stronger competition between the top teams. It's not an insurmountable advantage, but it is an advantage--at least where the largest schools in both states are concerned.

Utah, does, however, have far fewer schools in its 4A and 5A classifications than Colorado does--roughly only 40% as many schools in its two largest classifications as Colorado. That does, at least in part, serve to counterbalance the advantage of larger schools.

Utah has a much more popular, and much better developed, indoor season than Colorado. In Utah, indoor meets for high school athletes are regularly held at Utah State University, Weber State University, Brigham Young University, and at the Olympic Ice Oval. The BYU indoor facility and the Olympic Ice Oval are both oversized indoor tracks. The Olympic Ice Oval, in fact, is a 441-meter track wrapped around the Olympic speed skating oval. Indoor track and field in Utah is largely under the direction of the same coaches who coach cross country and outdoor at the high schools. That provides for a good deal more continuity than the current Colorado model.

By contrast, Colorado has cramped indoor facilities at the University of Colorado and Colorado School of Mines. There is an oversized oval at the Air Force Academy. A 200 meter facility with a little more elbow room than either CU or CSM is coming on line soon at Western State Colorado University and will be open to at least some high school events. Gunnison, however, is a long stretch a highway from any of Colorado's centers of population.

Of course, indoor track and field is a bone of some contention for distance types. Even with oversized ovals, how much winter racing do you really want to be doing? Conventional wisdom says to build base in the winter and leave racing for the spring and fall. Utah, however, is pretty successfully challenging the conventional wisdom. Just about every high-achieving distance program in Utah is doing at least some indoor racing. They're going to the BYU indoor invite, the big shindig at the Olympic Ice Oval, and they're making trips to Simplot en masse to close out the indoor season.

For that matter, Utah distance runners show up in far greater numbers than Colorado distance runners at Great Southwest in June. Utah high school distance runners are doing a lot more racing than Colorado high school distance runners.

They're also doing more training. When I spoke with Timo Mostert (boys coach at American Fork High School, near Provo) the evening before NXR-SW, he spoke of backing his team off to 65 miles of volume in the week leading up to the Nike regional meet. Not absolutely sure, but I don't think there are any teams in Colorado running that much at any point in the season. If I'm wrong about that, it's not by a large count of teams.

More training means you can do more racing. I'm still of the opinion that more racing isn't necessarily good, but I am sure that someone who has trained at greater volumes is able to handle more racing, and particularly so if that racing is managed intelligently. It should go without saying that I'm of the opinion that most of the top coaches in Utah are handling their teams' racing schedules intelligently, but I'm saying it now just in case it does need to be said.

Timo Mostert, for example, ran his top boys six times before the Utah state cross country meet on October 17 of last year. One of those six was a two-mile effort, not a 3-mile or  5K. And, I'm pretty sure as I scan the results that not all of those six meets were hammer down kind of efforts.

It is true in Utah, that if you want to win, you must be prepared to race with teams like American Fork and Davis. On a year-in and year-out kind of basis, there are no comparable programs in Colorado. The state meet is still the primary bar for almost all programs (including programs that go to NXN now and then), and Utah has a higher bar for winning the state meet than Colorado does. It really is that simple. Because there is a higher bar in Utah, more teams will aspire to a higher standard. Teams tend to train to whatever level the bar is set.

Teams from Colorado can take heart that the boys cross country bar is set higher, at least for now, in Colorado than in any neighboring state--except Utah and, maybe, New Mexico. The depth in New Mexico is not nearly what it is in Colorado, but what it takes to win is pretty stiff in New Mexico.

There's another factoid here that may be worth bubbling to the surface. Both Utah and Colorado are strong in collegiate distance programs. Utah has six NCAA DI programs. Colorado has four DI programs (counting the Air Force Academy) and three very superior DII programs in Adams State, Western State, and Colorado School of Mines. So, the collegiate opportunities seem roughly equal between the two states.

Nevertheless, if you look at the rosters of these programs, the Utah rosters tend to be loaded with Utah athletes, whereas the Colorado rosters are pulling much more generally from across the region and nation. Now, some of that is to be expected if Utah is annually producing more collegiate quality runners than Colorado, but it also becomes a vicious cycle. Those Utah collegiate runners tend to stay in Utah, to inspire Utah high school athletes while they run at Utah institutions of higher learning, and, later, some trickle down into the coaching ranks and help develop more high school runners in Utah. Very few of Colorado's collegiate runners are sticking around to coach Colorado high school athletes. Relatively few of the names on Colorado collegiate rosters are recognizable to current Colorado high school athletes, so even the inspiration factor is not as great in Colorado as it is in Utah.

For the record, I salute those recent Colorado collegians (Kelly Christensen and Josh Glaab come to mind right away, but there are a few others) who have taken to the ranks of coaching, but Utah is doing a better job at passing the baton to the next generation.

So, maybe you've read the story to this point and you're fighting off the fit of depression by saying, "Well, at least Colorado is still ahead of Utah in girls cross country!"

I wouldn't get too attached to that sentiment if I were you.

Let's go back to the NXR-SW results from last fall. Of the top 10 teams, five were from Utah and four from Colorado. Going back to 2011, five of those top ten teams were from Colorado and four from Utah. Among the top 20 individuals, Colorado fares a little better--six were from Utah and 11 from Colorado in 2012. The recent trend has been one of Utah closing the gap on Colorado.

If we go back to state track meet comparisons for this year, Utah had 25 sub-5:10 girls, 47 sub-5:20 girls, and 26 sub 11:30 girls. For Colorado, those counts were18, 28, and 21. Those numbers do not suggest "advantage Colorado." It is true that different races go out differently, and these comparisons are fraught with all sorts of difficulties, but no rational person is going to look at these numbers and conclude that Colorado is clearly ahead of Utah in girls distance.

Arguably, despite a very fine year for the Davis, Utah, girls the state cross country meet bar is still probably set a little higher in Colorado than Utah. I don't have as good of a feel for how girls training compares in Colorado vs. Utah as I do for the boys, but I am pretty sure Utah has taken aim and doesn't mean to stay #2 in the region much longer.