A Primer of Colorado High School Cross Country

A Primer of Colorado High School Cross Country

In this article you will learn almost everything you need to know to be a knowledgeable fan of Colorado high school cross country. Some of the contents are elementary in nature; some border on the arcane. Some of you are new fans and want to understand more of the sport; others of you have been around since Bill Bowerman was inhaling lethal doses of contact cement while inventing and refining the waffle trainer and merely want to check to make sure I have my facts straight. Hopefully, there’s something here for everyone.

Most especially, I hope you find something that makes you smile. We typically remember better when we enjoy the process.


It’s difficult to enjoy a sport if you don’t understand the scoring. Cross country is no exception. That said, some sports are difficult to enjoy even when you do understand the scoring, but this is not the place to discuss the foul fests that characterize the last four minutes of high school basketball games.

The basics of scoring in Colorado are that you run seven in a varsity race (or six in some 3A meets, or five in some 2A meets—including state) and you arrive at a team score by adding the places of your first five runners (four in 3A, three in 2A) to finish the course. Low score wins. The non-scoring runners are sometimes called “displacers” or “pushers.” Despite the latter name, most are not involved in illicit drug activity. In case of a tie in the standings, the place of the first non-scoring runner (displacer) for each team involved in the tie breaks the tie. Generally speaking, tie-breakers go poorly for you if you do not have any non-scoring runners. In case you wondered, there is an alternate method of tie breaking when both teams involved have no non-scoring runners. Ask your high school coach to borrow his or her rulebook if you’re interested.

The state meet in Colorado, and many invitationals as well, employs a non-standard scoring system. It is neither good nor bad, it is simply non-standard. Conventional cross country scoring removes the places of all runners from incomplete teams for the purpose of team scoring. In Colorado, no runners from incomplete teams are removed from the scoring before places are tabulated.

To illustrate, if the third-place runner in a meet in Colorado is from an incomplete team (a team without enough runners to get a team score), the fourth-place runner scores four points for his or her team. Very clean and easy. In conventional cross country scoring, that third-place runner would be “removed” for the purposes of team scoring and the fourth-place runner would get three points for his or her team. Every subsequent runner in the standings would “move up” a place as well. Not as clean or as easy, but still highly functional.


Every sport has specialized terminology. Cross country is no exception, except that cross country has less specialized terminology than most sports.


Assistant Coach - a young, fast guy who can keep up with the kids the head coach can't keep up with any longer.

Carbo Loading – an excuse for the team to have a relatively inexpensive meal together. It’s highly doubtful that carbohydrate loading serves any useful purpose for a 5K race. In fact, it makes many people a little gaseous the following morning.

Chute – a place for runners to hurl while supported in the arms of an adult whose only sin was to volunteer to help out with the meet. It’s usually difficult to get help to volunteer for the chute more than once, especially more than once in the same season. For whatever reason(s), though, some volunteers forget this experience and can be duped into working the chute in subsequent years.

Core Strength – notoriously absent among individuals who have grown up consumed with eating, texting, and playing video games. The condition is addressed by doing a number of exercises that make athletes feel conspicuously self-conscious. “Okay, everybody, let’s get in the table position and do some fire hydrants!”

Course Map – a photocopied document typically in short supply at meets, worthy of a D+ in a third grade art class, and cleverly designed to confuse coaches and runners from visiting schools.

Cross Training – postponing the inevitable. Runners who are nursing an injury are often given some sort of non-impact aerobic workout to do for a day or two in hopes that stress reaction won’t turn into a stress fracture. Bicycling, elliptical, swimming, and water running are the workouts of choice. Most high schoolers are very poor water runners, all the more so when doing it without supervision. It takes some practice to do it even close to right. As an aside, never assign bicycling as a cross training workout for an athlete with patellar tendonitis.

Eligibility Check – a pointless exercise for nearly all cross country runners. Even having a team GPA of 4.0 is no guarantee that you’ll win the Academic Team Champions award for cross country. Contrast with ….

Games Committee – a group of coaches and school administrators with the unenviable task of arbitrating disputes arising out of meets. Much to the relief of all concerned, appeals are rarely filed or needed in cross country. Be suspicious, however, of anyone volunteering for a games committee assignment.

Hydrating – an activity crucial to a runner’s well-being, but dangerous to do during a school day where most teachers are reluctant to let students visit the restroom as a matter of routine. Life is cruel at times.

Intervals – a type of workout typically done at or near race pace. Athletes run a fixed time or distance (usually five minutes or less or one mile or less), recover for a fixed period of time (the “interval”), and repeat until the coach wearies of the process or the sun goes down.

IT Band – the name of choice for a future rock group made up of former distance runners who experience hip or knee pain while walking down stairs, doing squats, and a few such similar activities.

Fartlek – nothing resembling what it sounds like. Fartlek means “speed play” in some Scandinavian tongue. Or at least that’s what we’re told. Trouble is, everyone who’s told me that was either winking or had a nervous tic in their eyelid. The term refers to a run in which runners go faster, then slower, faster, then slower, and usually mostly slower by the end (unless they’re really fit).

Flats – lighter weight racing shoes, but distinguishable from spikes (see below).

Pack Time – the interval of time between a team’s first and last scoring runners. In some cases, minimizing this time becomes a team's strategy for a meet, a version of “No Child Left Behind” as applied to cross country. It’s fine to have a short pack time if your fifth runner can beat most teams' first runner. Of course, almost any strategy works well in that case. Opinion differs on whether a minimal pack time is good when your fifth runner isn’t that fast. The idea behind focusing on pack time is to “pull along” your last scoring runner. Sometimes it works and more frequently it doesn’t. Sixth and seventh runners are generally left to fend for themselves.

Recovery Day – a day where you get strength back for an upcoming harder workout. Typically, this means a 30 to 45 minute run. You should be impressed that people can do this much work and still call it “recovery.”

Rules Meeting – the annual convocation of coaches for the purpose of being informed about changes to rules that nobody knew were rules and arguing over interpretations of the uniform rule.

Spikes – lighter weight racing shoes with nasty metal protrusions on the bottom of the shoe. Spikes are rarely worn in Colorado as totally grass surfaces (where the nasty metal protrusions are actually useful for something besides shredding the lower leg of the runner in front of or behind you) are rare in our state. Spikes make an irritating “skritch, skritch, skritch…” sound when running over the hard surfaces that occur at some point on most Colorado cross country courses.

Stress Fracture – a season-ending injury and an excuse to purchase the fashion accessory of choice for distance runners—a black boot.

Tempo (or Threshold) Run – a run at a comfortably hard pace for a fixed duration of time, usually about 20 minutes. Most high school runners are perceptive enough to realize that “comfortably hard” is an oxymoron and therefore struggle with settling into the proper pace.

Trainer - meaning depends on context. Can refer either to the all-purpose running shoe that keeps entities like Nike, Adidas, Asics, etc. in the black or to the quasi-medical person seen by the person hoping for a waiver from the day’s workout.

Training Through – an all-purpose excuse for running poorly in a race, as in “I was just training through this race.” Sometimes, it is true, but the rationale is invoked more often than that.

Schools and Meets

Denver Lutheran/Prairie View/Horizon/Whatever Runners Roost Invitational – the meet that follows Bill Stahl around. It’s also the meet you go to to get wet. Hosted at Addenbrooke Park in Lakewood. I get asked a lot about "the meet that has the big water pit." Now you know which one it is.

Fort Collins – a school that has won an extraordinary number of state titles in the running sports. Whether or not this is related to their mascot is uncertain, but the schools with “unusual” mascots (Fort Collins, Rocky Ford, and Brush) seem to have strong traditions in track and cross country. Maybe taking grief over your school’s mascot makes you faster?

Lake County – the dynasty by which all other high school cross country programs in Colorado must be measured. Lake County has won 29 state championships in cross country (the next school on the list has 10). Most, but not quite all, of these titles came under coaches Dick Anderson and Frank Mencin. The Lake County girls once won seven consecutive state championships. It’s getting more difficult to find people who were part of these programs, but Tim Mondragon (girls cross country coach at Pueblo Centennial) is one. If you twist his arm long enough, he will spill a story or two.

Liberty Bell – THE invitational cross country meet each year in Colorado, and also the fountainhead of most of the really good arguments about high school cross country in the state. Is it really a cross country course? Is the course short? Should a coach take his or her team to the meet? If he/she doesn’t, will he/she survive the mutiny of team members that ensues? The meet is run mostly along the Highline Canal in Littleton and is hosted by Heritage High School. Schools come from multiple states to take part in this meet.


Tim Flamer - the colorful, effusive cross country coach at Peak to Peak. If you know how to pronounce his last name, you a good idea of how to pronounce "primer."