Trend Lines In Colorado High School XC Performances

Here in Colorado, girls like Brie Oakley are separating from the field. And not just because the Brie Oakleys are getting faster. Read on. Photo by Jeff McCoy.

Confession time. 

Summer isn't as busy for me as other seasons and I spend time thinking about what's happening in our sport (talking about cross country right now--track folks are welcome to listen, though) and how understanding what's going on on a macro scale help might make me a better coach on my more micro scale.

One thought that's been nagging at me lately is that though we've been watching the Elise Crannys, the Katie Rainsbergers, the Lauren Gregorys and the Brie Oakleys push out to ever more incredible times, it doesn't seem like the greater mass of high school cross country girls is trending in the same direction. In fact, I've had the sense they were trending even or possibly even slower over this time period.

So, since I have all kinds of data at my fingertips, I decided to pose a very simple question: What is the current trend in girls running under 20 minutes?

Why 20 minutes? I picked 20 minutes because it's a kind of benchmark for girls. Rightfully so, most girls feel like they've accomplished something worthwhile when they break 20 minutes. Also, 20 minutes is not so far out there that I would really be asking a question only about the elites. I wanted to ask a question about a relatively large group of athletes more than I wanted to ask a question about a genetically empowered few. The former interests me a whole lot more and is much more likely to be useful to me as a coach.

Since I have essentially complete cross country results for Colorado high school meets (no out-of-state meets are included in the data below) from 2008 forward, I simply went through and found the number of girls running under 20 minutes at one or more points during each cross country season from 2008 forward. I also tapped into the CHSAA participation database and looked at those numbers as a percentage of the total number of girls out for cross country each fall. When I did all that, I got these results:

Year Girls Under 20:00 Total XC Girls % under 20:00
2008 150 3535 4.24%
2009 164 3293 4.98%
2010 151 3636 4.15%
2011 201 3763 5.34%
2012 252 3996 6.31%
2013 226 4221 5.35%
2014 218 3957 5.51%
2015 202 4178 4.83%
2016 197 4078 4.83%

As soon as I had those numbers, I realized I needed to gather another set of numbers--essentially the same data for boys under 17 (17 minutes for boys seems to be the rough equivalent of 20 minutes for girls):

Year Boys Under 17:00 Total XC Boys % under 17:00
2008 152 3773 4.03%
2009 168 4809 3.49%
2010 133 3897 3.41%
2011 184 4062 4.53%
2012 272 4182 6.50%
2013 237 4131 5.74%
2014 248 4068 6.10%
2015 228 4347 5.24%
2016 277 4434 6.25%

Any number of questions come jumping out of the woodwork as soon as I look at the two tables above. Here are a few:

  • Why was 2010 such a poor year for both boys and girls? I think I can answer this one. I believe it has a lot to do with the fact that it was very hot (and dry) that fall. To help some of you remember, that was the first year of the ill-fated Arapahoe County Fairgrounds state meet course. If you're a coach and recall complaining about course conditions (as opposed to the traffic conditions), all of that had a whole lot to do with how hot and dry it was that fall. The heat that fall may also have had a great deal to do with how few fast times we saw.
  • I'm suspicious of the 4809 participation figure for boys cross country in the fall of 2009. It is way out of line with the rest of the participation data and has not been approached since. Moreover, it asks us to believe that boys saw a rise nearly 30% in participation in the same year girls saw a drop (again, if the numbers are to be believed) of about 7%. Puzzling, to say the least. If it's just a typo and boys participation was 3809 that fall, then things seem to fall in line very nicely. But, I don't know it was just a typo.
  • Note that, apart from the troublesome year of 2009, trends in girls running sub-20 tend to align well with trends in boys running sub-17 until the last four years. Over the last four years, the percentage of boys running sub-17 has held close to steady with the high-water mark of 2012, while the percentage of girls running sub-20 has been falling off rather sharply. Why?

It's that last question above that is the reason for this article. Why is there a near-term trend of girls performances falling off (even as Cranny, Rainsberger, Gregory, and Oakley have been knocking balls out of the park) while boys performances are trending more or less even?

I don't have answers to offer you, but I am suggesting it's time to start tossing out some hypotheses.

  • Is it possible that the success of the big four listed above, plus a few more names we could add, has had an overall discouraging effect on the greater body of girls?
  • Is there something going on culturally that's encouraging a few into the stratosphere while exercising a dampening effect on the performances of the population as a whole?
  • Are the big four really just outliers we need to "ignore" while we take a closer look at what's going on with the rest?
  • Have we reached a tipping point in cross country training for girls where a few are excelling but the masses are unable to keep up the battle? If so, how much of that ability or inability to keep up the battle has to do with lifestyle issues that dominate the culture?

I do realize discussion of this topic can become a sensitive issue. But, the greater insensitivity here would be to simply ignore the data and continue rushing down the same path.

I may try viewing the data from some other angles as well. I'm certainly open to suggestions on that front. One thing I probably need to do soon is to take a similar view of the track and field data.

For now, though, feel free to start, or join, the conversation below or to make a parallel thread on the forum.