Even though the first day of fall isn't technically until the 23rd, students all over the U.S. are returning to school. Track season is a distant memory, and once again the national attention settles for cross country season. Cross country season must be stopped.
Cross country was developed by the English 200 years ago as a prep school hazing ritual. A few "hares" would be sent out laying a trail of shredded paper with several false leads in an attempt to divert pursuers before a group of "hounds"—think freshmen and sophomores—would take off in pursuit 10 minutes later. Finally, the juniors/seniors, or "huntsmen," would lope along behind, allowing the newbies to wear themselves out on the figurative rabbit trails. (The English are also responsible for another bad idea called the Imperial units system.) Though it has evolved from its roots, cross country remains a precursor to modern running, and there is not a single age group that could not benefit from an update to the antiquated and deeply flawed model.
On its flaws, one of the more serious is a lack of continuity. From region to region and state to state, cross country courses vary. Some are flat, while the definition of "hill" can have wildly disparate meanings. Even weather conditions like precipitation and temperature, which vary from year to year, affect the outcome of races dramatically. For this reason, the significance of cross country results is weakened. The track has been and always will be the great equalizer, a uniform, standardized surface on which to test an athlete and, like any other legitimate sport, to be evaluated. You can be one of the best cross country runners in the country, but if the times and results aren't there on the track, you might as well start looking into your preferred college's ultimate frisbee team.
Once the best runners in the world ran the annual World Cross Country Championships, but over the last 10 years fewer and fewer are doing it. Some of it has to do with money: competitive road races, with lucrative prize purses, leech away more quality athletes every year. But even with this letting of talent, cross country, which requires teams of seven, has become so saturated with Ethiopians and Kenyans that they've actually been blamed for "killing the sport." "The World Cross Country championships have become not only an African affair but an East African affair," said IAAF president Lamine Diack in 2009, just after a landslide of National Membership Federations voted to turn the annual event biennial. An African-born athlete has won every year since 1985, and either Ethiopia or Kenya has won the team title every year since 1981. True, there was talk of bringing cross country into the Winter Olympics. But sports are added because their growth cannot be ignored, i.e. snowboarding, and cross country is on life support.
The solution? Replacing cross country with a fall road racing season. Nothing will replace the importance of track, but a road racing season would accomplish more than cross country ever will.
One of the greatest arguments for switching prep and collegiate athletes to the roads is that it actually mirrors the culture of the United States and the world. While most Americans couldn't describe what a cross country race consists of, most are familiar with a 5K. Since 1990, domestic race finishers have increased more than 300% according to one national study. National interest is there, as is the money, and by introducing young athletes to the roads, more can discover non-track racing as a viable means to a career—an accurate reflection on the current state of worldwide running.
A scholastic road racing model could still incorporate the team aspect of cross country. Look no further than the Japanese model of Ekiden, where scholastic teams compete in distance relay races. The Japanese themselves are a case study for the end of cross country: at the 2014 University Half Marathon Championships, 200 collegians ran faster than 66 minutes for the half marathon. Contrast that with this year's U.S. Championships, open to any age group. Only 43 men ran faster than 66 minutes. One could even make the argument that the roads' effects translate all the way through the Japanese professional ranks. This year eight Japanese men are among the top 100 marathoners of the year. The U.S. doesn't have a single athlete on the list.
Cross country has become a tradition, synonymous with autumn and the return to school. But that doesn't mean there aren't better options. Fall running should both reflect the current culture of worldwide running and support its the future. Cross country no longer does this, and looking backward while running is a sure way to miss what's ahead.