COMMENTARY: As Real As It Gets

COMMENTARY: As Real As It Gets

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the USTFCCCA National Office.

Last week, Jon Gugala wrote a scathing obituary for cross country, lamenting its wonky inconsistencies and calling for the sport to be completely replaced by a Japanese-style road racing circuit. The central thesis of Gugala’s piece is that the “lack of continuity” between surfaces and courses (think of the enormous differences between, say, Terre Haute and Van Cortlandt) removes the formulaic objectivity that makes track and road racing great.

It’s really nice to see an outlet as prominent and smart as Deadspin giving our sport increased coverage, and I actually agree that an increased emphasis on road races would “mirror the [running] culture of the United States and the world.” 

But I could not be more diametrically opposed to the call for cross country to roll over and die. In four parts, here’s why:

1. Let’s talk about why cross country is so great.  I already did this a little bit two weeks ago, but it got the people going. Anyway, can you ever have enough words slobbering over how great cross country is? Here are some reasons cross country is great:

A. Its unbelievable simplicity.  I’ll race you from here to there, times and distances don’t matter. (Last year’s Division I national championship was 9890 meters; no one batted an eye about splits) No million dollar surface or police shutdown of the streets required.
B. Everybody’s in one race—no ducking your rivals in a separate meet or heat.
C. Collegiately and professionally, it’s the most team-centric time of the year.
D. It’s the only time of year that the proletariat (relatively speaking) of elite athletes matters. The 100th place finisher at nationals can have a decisive impact on who wins in the championship.
E. The combination of subjectivity and objectivity— we get to spend three months arguing about the polls, then we determine who’s really the best in the fairest way possible, with 31 teams getting the same shot at the title.
1)It took big-time college football literally a century to figure out that E. is a good thing. We’ve had that on lock since 1938.
F. It’s the only time of year when bad weather enhances enjoyment of meets.

Yeah, some of these points are applicable to road racing.  But ultimately, cross country results are so inscrutable that no amount of data is sufficient for formulating predictions. You just don’t know. That simply isn’t true on the roads.

2. Let’s talk about track. I deeply love the super-data-driven ovular end of our sport, but I don’t think that it should take up all twelve months of the running calendar.  I decided to double check this opinion with Vin Lananna, the USTFCCCA Hall of Famer who’s now the president of TrackTown USA/Oregon associate AD and won many national titles as the head coach at Stanford and Oregon.  Vin is the most tireless and competent advocate for track in the United States and maybe the world; here’s what he wrote back:

As a coach, I’ve always valued cross country as a tremendous way to build fitness and promote team bonding prior to the outdoor track and field season. The combination of individual ambition and team goals that cross country runners experience is unique. Besides providing a platform to develop mental toughness and leadership, it is inclusive and accessible to all, and we should encourage as many people as possible to participate in the sport.

I agree, Vin[1]! This is not to say that cross country is better that track, or, indeed, that track is not better than cross country.  It’s just that cross country is the perfect two month palate cleanser after ten months of obsessing over records, qualifying standards, splits, conversions, and performance lists.

3. Let’s talk about "Not-Knowing." I first encountered the term in the kerfuffle over a certain fictional character’s fade to black, where television critic Matt Zoller Seitz concluded that the internet food fight was missing the point: “That’s what ambiguous art is about: bringing you into contact with Not-Knowing and saying, ‘Look at this. Live with this. Feel this.’”

From there, it seems like Seitz copped the term from the late, great postmodern fiction writer Donald Barthelme, who described the writer as the professional not-knower. Its most beautiful use I’ve found comes in essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Acting French:

I was a boy haunted by questions: Why do the lilies close at night? Why does my father always say, “I can dig it"? And who really killed the dinosaurs? And why is my life so unlike everything I see on TV? That feeling—the not knowing, the longing for knowing, and the eventual answer—is love and youth to me…I wanted to be reminded of who I was. I wanted to be young again, to feel that old thrill of not knowing. It is the same feeling I had as a boy, wondering about the lilies and dinosaurs, listening to “The Bridge Is Over,” wondering where in the world was Queens.

Where in the world is Queens? What in the world does this have to do with cross country?

Courtesy Edwin Einbender-Luks

Better question: as these dudes[2] stare alternatively at their feet and five miles of mud, what did they know, and when did they know it?

They know nothing[3], and that’s a beautiful thing.  They can’t check TFRRS to get a rough idea of the splits they need to run to beat the other guys.  Yeah, they have a rough idea of what they need to do, but the lack of data that defines the fall makes sure that even their most educated guesses are just guesses.  They are cross country runners, professional not-knowers; they have to look at it, live with it, feel it; the only way they can find out who killed the dinosaurs is by running right into the crater.

4. So, keeping the above three points in mind, let’s talk about why Jon Gugala[4] is very, very off-track[5] when he writes that cross country must die so that running can live.  Putting aside the ridiculous titular premise that running would be doing just fine without that scourge of cross country, Gugala’s argument in a nutshell is that cross country is too weird and wonky and needs to be replaced with a much tighter and more track-like fall road racing season. 

I think that this is utter insanity, but I wanted to check with Mary Wittenberg, the president and CEO of New York Road Runners.  Mary is the most tireless and competent advocate for road racing in the United States and maybe the world; here’s what she said:

Cross country is arguably the purest form of running. It’s gritty, and the elements are a big factor.  The trails bring runners close to nature and the racing is as real as it gets. It’s better on the bodies of growing kids than running on the roads.  People have a lifetime to run on the roads. Many fall in love with running by running cross country.

Repeated, for emphasis: “As real as it gets.” This is not to say that road, trail, and track racers are, as Once a Runner’s fictional coach/gold medallist Bruce Denton would have it, “a bunch of folks looking to avoid real confrontation.”  Far from it. It’s just that cross country’s unpredictability and ferocity are features, not bugs. Colorado head coach Mark Wetmore encapsulated the sport’s uniquely confrontational nature when talking about recruiting last month:

If somebody comes on a visit and sits in a room and their mother and father ask all the questions and the candidate looks at their feet we think, ‘How is this person going to stand in shorts and a singlet in 10 degrees on a starting line with 300 people who want to kill them?’

Marty Liquori has famously said that track races are to road races as Carnegie Hall symphonies are to rock ’n’ roll concerts.  When the New York Times caught up with him two years ago for the 100th anniversary of Van Cortlandt Park, he added a corollary to the Liquori Doctrine: cross country is like jazz, “unpredictable, always changing, demanding adaptability and quick decisions.” Rock is great. Classical music is great.  But jazz is more of an American original than either.

No one in his or her right mind would write that jazz must die so that music can live.


1. Three words that people who run the sport in the U.S. need to say more often. (Back to story)
2. I’m one of them, right before a race where I beat like 11 out of 130 people. (Back to story)
3. All apologies to Jon Snow. (Back to story)

4. TNC again: You gotta name your interlocutors. (Back to story)

5. Though, if Gugala had his way, everything would be ON the track. Thank you, thank you. (Back to story)