Racing for the dream: competing on a national level
For the vast majority of more than 470,000 high school cross country runners across the country, the season begins in August and ends with a conference, district or regional race in October.
A smaller number qualify for a state championship meet and fewer still persist even longer with dreams of making it to a national championship.
The elite high school runners typically plan their training to peak in early December at Nike Cross Nationals (NXN) in Portland, OR or the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships in San Diego, CA. In some cases, runners can do both.
These two events are the culmination of the season, along with the USATF Junior Olympic Championships which are open to a much larger pool of athletes (age divisions range from 7 to 18 ).
For younger runners in grade school, participation in these Championships can often be a dream come true, particularly NXN and Footlocker. Even though they are all national cross country championships, each event's emphasis is different. Here is a closer look at all three:
Foot Locker has a long tradition of crowning the individual high school national champion, beginning in 1979. Back then it was known as the Kinney Cross Country Championships. Despite seven years (1981-82, 1997-2001) at Orlando, Fla., the event has remained remarklably consistent over the years.
photo credit: footlockercc.com
Four regional championships -- Midwest, Northeast, South, and West -- are held to identify the national finalists (10 from each region). And the top 40 girls and boys then travel to San Diego and the beautiful Hotel Del Coronado for an unforgettable weekend that culminates with the championship races at Balboa Park. (This year's races are Dec. 13, 2014).
Making the field at Foot Locker nationals virtually guarantees college recruiting interest and scholarships offers. It's prestige spans decades. Victory here can springboard an athlete to a pro career or even the Olympics. Historically, this has been more common for the boys' champion than the girls.
In 2004, Nike began the first high school national championship for teams. Cross country, after all, is a team sport. And for the decades the only way to tell which team was the best in the U.S. was to compare times on paper, an inexact science.
photo credit: nxn.runnerspace.com
Nike Team Nationals changed that and figured out a way to select the best teams across nine regions of the country and bring them to the corporate headquarters in Oregon. State associations do not permit their schools to function officially past their championships, so for the purposes of the Nike championships, the teams shed their school name and uniform and run as "clubs" while maintaing the same lineups that they've used all season.
In 2007, Nike changed its format and began a regional qualifying system (and changed its name from Nike Team Nationals to Nike Cross Nationals). The top two teams from nine regions -- Northwest, Heartland, Midwest, Northeast, New York, Southeast, South, Southwest and California -- all qualify automatically for NXN. A selection committee rounds out the 22-team fields by meeting and choosing four at-large qualifiers.
Also in 2007, NXN added an individual component that was controversial because it pushed into Foot Locker's turf.
Depending on what part of the country an athlete lives in, and how the schedule is arranged, it's possible to qualify for both national events and receive the royal treatment from both organizations on back to back weeks.
Top athletes frequently have choices to make about which event to focus on, however, and the strongest individual fields can change from year to year. In 2013, three of the greatest female high school runners of all-time -- Alexa Efraimson, Sarah Baxter and Elise Cranny -- all squared off at NXN. None of the three ever ran at Foot Locker.
This year, the best girls in the country are split by the two events, while the best boys field is at Foot Locker.
After 10 years on a European-style cross country course on the infield of Portland Meadows horse racing track, Nike moved its championships to Glendoveer Golf Course in Portland. Fayetteville-Manlius High School from the Syracuse, N.Y. area swept this year's team titles on Dec. 6, becoming the first to do. (Officially, though, it's Manlius XC Club).
A third alternative for high school athletes -- or younger -- is the USATF Junior Olympic Championships. That event typically doesn't lure the top high school talent but it is the place where younger athletes get can experience a national-caliber event and begin to discover how they stack up with their peers. This year's event (Dec. 13) is in Myrtle Beach, S.C. and is expected to include 3,000 runners. It moves to a different location every year.
photo credit: usatf.org
Advancement to the J.O. national championships also is predicated on qualifying at a regional meet (there are 16 of them). There are six age groups: 8-and-under, 9-10, 11-12, 13-14, 15-16, 17-18 with separate races for boys and girls.
It is typical that some of the Foot Locker or NXN finalists got their start running in an age-group J.O. championship before they entered high school. Early success in running often leads to increased dedication to the sport and the ongoing process of setting goals higher and higher.