November 29, 2017
2017 has been an incredible year for high school cross country running. Two girls, one on each coast, have put together seasons for the ages. In New York, North Rockland High School sophomore Katelyn Tuohy has set course records on the Empire State’s two most hallowed courses. At the Manhattan Invitational on October 14, Tuohy ran 13:21.8 to break the 2.5-mile course record at Van Cortlandt Park by 32 seconds. Three weeks later, she ran 17:10.4 to break 2010 Foot Locker champion Aisling Cuffe‘s course record of 17:16.9 at Bowdoin Park (5k), a mark she has since lowered to a ridiculous 16:52.4.
2,800 miles west, Malibu High School junior Claudia Lane has been making history of her own. Just like Tuohy, Lane, the 2016 Foot Locker champion, has set records on California’s two most prestigious courses. On October 21, she ran 15:49 at the Mt. SAC XC Invitational to become the first girl to break 16 minutes on the 3-mile course. Last weekend, at the California state meet, Lane ran 16:30.3 for 5k, shaving almost 10 seconds off the previous mark of 16:40.0 held by two-time NXN champion Sarah Baxter.
Tuohy and Lane are the two best female high school runners in the country — by some margin — and on the messageboard, there’s been plenty of debate over who is better. Fortunately, we don’t have to debate for much longer. It’s national championship time in high school cross country, which means we’ll get a definitive answer sometime in the next two weeks.
Oh, wait. No, we won’t. Because the high school postseason is broken.
On Saturday morning, Lane will run the Foot Locker West Regional in Walnut, California. Ninety minutes later, Tuohy will run Nike Cross Nationals in Portland, Oregon. One of the best high school cross country matchups in years will have to wait until 2018, if it happens at all. This is a problem.
In a perfect world, the high school cross country national championships would mirror the NCAA Cross Country Championships, the best championship format around. In no other sport do you get all of the best individuals and the 31 best teams in the country competing at the same venue at the same time in the same competition. It’s one of the many reasons why the NCAA XC meet is awesome.
The problem is that in high school running, the goal of the people who organize the national championships — Nike and Foot Locker — is not to create the best possible championship but to ensure that their meet is as successful as possible. That means attracting as many runners as possible and making sure that the very best runners compete at your meet. In outdoor track, with adidas, Brooks, and New Balance all holding their own national meets, this has already splintered the talent to such a degree that it’s no longer possible to hold a single national championship. But cross country is not beyond saving.
From the inaugural Foot Locker (then Kinney) meet in 1979 until 2003, there was a clear individual national champion but no team national champion. Then, in 2004, Nike started the Nike Team Nationals to crown a team champion. And from 2004-2007, the two meets coexisted. The team champion was crowned at NTN, the individual champion at Foot Locker. But in 2008, Nike Team Nationals were rebranded as Nike Cross Nationals (NXN), with a new format that allowed individual qualifiers (previously, runners could only qualify as members of a team). And ever since then, the sport has been crowning two individual national champions: one at NXN, and one at Foot Locker a week later.
The obvious solution is for the two meets to merge. That’s not happening, and, if we’re being honest, part of us doesn’t want it to. Perhaps it is nostalgia for a meet that has featured athletes such as Meb Keflezighi, Jenny Simpson, Dathan Ritzenhein, and many more through the years, but there’s something special about ending the season with Foot Lockers in San Diego — 40 boys and 40 girls, the absolute best of the best (at least they used to be), battling it out for the national title.
Still, the sport can’t keep crowning two individual national champions every year. That’s absurd. But how do you crown just one national champion without merging the meets? Don’t worry, we have a solution.
The LetsRun.com solution is simple, and doesn’t require NXN or Foot Locker to reach any sort of a compromise. All Foot Locker has to do is wait until NXN is over on Saturday and invite the top five finishers in each race to run at FL finals next week. NXN doesn’t have to change anything, the FL fields improve, and Tuohy gets to race Lane. Everyone wins. If Tuohy — or whoever wins NXN — chooses not to compete at Foot Lockers, that means they forfeit their chance at the individual national title. There’s even a precedent for this: in 2005 and 2006, the top two finishers at NTN from the FL West region received auto bids to FL finals.
Yes, Tuohy would be at a disadvantage — unless her parents are okay with her missing a week of school, she’d have to make two separate trips to the West Coast in the span of a week. But would you prefer the alternative: Tuohy and Lane don’t race at all?
Give us one good reason why this policy should not be implemented immediately. Foot Locker, what are you waiting for?
Agree? Disagree? Have your own idea to fix FL/NXN? Let us know on our messageboard:
Note #1: If you’re wondering why Lane and Tuohy chose to race different races, it makes perfect sense for each of them. Lane is the reigning FL champion so it’s only natural that she’d want to defend her title. Meanwhile, Tuohy’s team, North Rockland, had a legitimate shot to qualify for NXN — they wound up 5th at regionals, just 18 points behind Saratoga Springs, who wound up receiving an at-large berth to NXN. It’s not Lane or Tuohy’s fault that they won’t race each other this year. It’s the system’s.
Note #2: While we’re talking changes to improve a broken system, we’ve got another one. How about scrapping the NXR NY regional meet? It’s the same teams running the same course as the NY Federation meet the week before. Scrap NXR NY and use the Federation results to qualify for NXN.