A Look At How XC Could Look This Fall: Duals & Flight Races

In a typical summer, the chatter among coaches might sound like:

"She's having a great summer and might just earn herself a spot in the top 7."

"Where's what's-his-face this week? He was doing so good and then..."

"Wow, it's hot."

But summer 2020 has not been a typical summer.

You'll still hear coaches talking training, mulling the missing, and harping on the heat. But, especially in the last week, the dominant topics of summer 2020 revolve around:

"Will we really have a cross country season?"

"How can we provide safe competitive opportunities for all of our runners?"

What will cross country look like this fall?

The coaches I've talked with know how important running and racing are for their student athletes. We're confident that running and racing outside can be kept safe.

How do we make it happen?

Let's take a look...

Dual Meets: Bring Back the Popsicle Sticks

Remember when we used to hold dual meets? While we won't line up 300 kids for an invitational this fall, we could certainly roll back the clocks and hold competitions between two cross country teams. Divvy up 50 spots per race (per gender) between the dueling dual participants, split the start into two 25-runner waves, and get racing. 

To accommodate larger rosters and opportunities for more runners, what about trading off? 

Peak View hosts Range Vista on Tuesday, and Range Vista welcomes Peak View back to their place on Wednesday. 

The close cousins to the dual meet are triangular and quadrangular meets. Same deal, but just...you guessed it, three or four teams. Complete varsity squads of six or seven harriers still make for uncrowded start lines. 

Loading a full team on a bus and traveling to an invitational can be tough on bus drivers and coaches in the best of times, but during a pandemic, those rides have the potential to be more problematic. 

A small, local competition can be pulled off with minimal transportation and costs. If additional travel is OK, communication between coaches could offer one-on-one matches between rival programs we rarely experience in a typical season. This could include intra-class duals (3A vs 3A) or inter-class (think 4A vs. 5A) duals. 

Another advantage of smaller race fields is the decreased real estate necessary to put on a cross country meet. Sure, a start line that allows us to spread out teams and athletes is certainly a priority. However, fall 2020 could bring us sites once deemed too small for a cross country race. That option could be important, too, if obtaining permits for events becomes difficult.

Dual meets bring head-to-head competition and drama. Unlike a large invitational where it's often difficult to sense how each team is performing, a dual meet is much easier to follow for spectators, coaches, and athletes.

What's this about popsicle sticks? Long before chip timing arrived on the scene, races were scored using a simple system:

  • Each runner is handed a numbered popsicle stick after finishing.

  • A team representative collects each team member's stick in a team envelope and turns it into the meet director.

  • The race director quickly adds up the four or five lowest-numbered sticks in each team's envelope and they can quickly announce the team scores.

Flight/Stage Racing: Where 7 and 1 are Equal

I found my love of cross country running in Chicago's south suburbs. Every autumn, one invitational stood out from the rest: the Crete-Monee Pow-Wow. Back in the day, 60 to 70 teams showed up for serious competition within an atypical race format. This wild card of a meet offered a unique opportunity for individuals, and 7 runners would leave the meet crowned as race winners!

The Pow-Wow was broken up into seven races, or flights. Flight 7 kicked off the meet, and each school's number-7 runners battled it out for individual glory normally not tasted by those holding down the final varsity spot. Flight 6 was a match-up of the sixes, and the meet proceeded that way until the final "Championship" flight.

Team scoring is simple. As usual, your place is your score, so 12th place earned 12 points. Add up all seven runners' scores to get your team score. A perfect Pow-Wow score equals 7 points. 

Most coaches wouldn't want to regularly compete in flight-racing meets. Cross country is a team sport. Pack running is valued, coached, and rewarded. 

On the flip side, think of the opportunity provided to a runner who normally doesn't sniff the front pack. A solid 7th may have an opportunity to win or place high in their flight. Suddenly, they're just as important as the team's low-stick number-one in the Championship Flight. 

An interesting strategic wrinkle-coaches control their team's order. A crafty coach might load up the early-to-middle flights with their faster runners in an effort to snag some low scores, and then take their chances in later flights with less-speedy runners.

With a limit of one race per gender, we'd modify the flight-style format to meet CHSAA's rules by running a single race with long staggers (5 minutes) between starts. Coaches/meet organizers would need to eliminate any problematic course looping. The reward? Significantly reduced crowds at the start line, plus less crowding for the course, finish area, and even bathroom lines.

We can play with the number of flights as well:

  • Score 7 with 7 teams x 7 flights (49 runners)

  • Score 6 with 8 teams x 6 flights (48 runners)

  • Score 5 with 10 teams x 5 flights (50 runners)

Editor's Note: Back in the day there was a race in Georgia with a similar format called the "Stage Races" -- and in agreement with Tim, it was always a highly anticipated meet.