What I Miss Most About the NCAA Cross Country Championships

By Jonathan Gault
November 20, 2020

I should be in Oklahoma right now.

As we navigate this cursed year, I’ve gotten pretty good at accepting the neverending wave of postponements and cancellations. World Indoors postponed? Well, I wasn’t going to China anyway. The Olympics delayed to 2021? Three out of four years don’t have an Olympics to begin with. But the NCAA Cross Country Championships, which were originally scheduled for Saturday at Oklahoma State’s gleaming course, featuring $4 million of renovations? This one hurts.

I know this sounds a little strange. After all, there is still supposed to be an NCAA XC championships this school year — we just have to wait until March for it. But it feels weird — it feels wrong — not to be at NCAAs right now. As a running journalist, I spend a good chunk of the year traveling to events. My year usually begins with the Millrose Games in New York in February, then the rest of indoor track, spring marathons, outdoor track, fall marathons, and, finally NCAA XC. It’s always the last trip of the year, the Saturday before Thanksgiving, and it’s one of the ones I look forward to the most. I was never good enough to qualify for the meet while I was in college (my team just missed out in 2010, and it still bugs me), so I savor each and every trip. It’s a special meet to be a part of, and I never forget that.

OSU’s cross country course. This view will have to wait until March.

So yeah, it feels like a part of me is absent as I type this from my apartment on a crisp New England afternoon instead of a hotel room in Stillwater. Consider this article a form of therapy, then — a reflection on what, exactly, I miss about what should have been one of the best weekends of the year. I hope I get the chance to make up for it four months from now.

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-I miss the craziness of regional Friday. Okay, I’m cheating here as this actually takes place the week before NCAAs. But this is my column, so my rules. This is especially painful because regionals have been cancelled entirely this season — instead, the NCAA will be using a committee to select the field. That means no nine meets in nine locations, no unranked teams springing the upset and getting pushed in after finishing fourth at regionals, no teams ending droughts or punching their ticket to the Big Dance for the first time.

I miss obsessively checking the weather in the leadup to race day. Actually I’ve been doing this anyway. Earlier this week, the forecast in Stillwater on Saturday called for sunny skies and a high of 72 degrees — which would have made it the warmest NCAA meet on record (per Track & Field News, the record is 65 degrees in Tucson in 1991). Now it’s down to a high of 55 and rainy…classic cross country weather.

-I miss landing in a new city, picking up my rental car, and immediately driving over to run the course (I always seem to run into either the Dartmouth women or Portland coach Rob Conner). You can’t play a game of touch football on the field two days before the Super Bowl, but anyone can run the course two days before NCAA XC.

The Wisconsin men were quite a sight in 2019

-I miss seeing what crazy ideas the teams can dream up to display on the blue carpet at the pre-race banquet. Highlights from 2019 included Harvard’s Kipchoge-esque pacing formation, complete with Vaporflys, and whatever the hell the Wisconsin men dressed up as.

*LRC NCAA XC banquet photos through the years

-I miss figuring out the best spot in town to grab a beer and watch Thursday Night Football, then inevitably bumping into a coach or former athlete and hearing war stories of NCAAs past.

-I miss seeing what decidedly non-school-branded attire Mark Wetmore wears to the pre-meet press conference.

-I miss gathering with LRC co-founder Robert Johnson, Race Results Weekly’s David Monti, and RRW alum Chris Lotsbom to trade stories over a meal the night before the race.

-I miss the buzz of anticipation in the air upon pulling up to the course on race day.

-I miss the fans. Few races in our sport have a better atmosphere, and it’s because of the thousands of fans that make the journey to the meet each year, from parents flying in to college kids driving 13 hours from Syracuse or New Rochelle to cheer on their teammates.

-I miss the start. The transition from perfect stillness as the starter raises his flag to absolute chaos as 255 runners sprint for position before the first turn is one of the greatest sights in all of sports.

– I miss sprinting from point to point on the course with thousands of others right next to me to see the runners as many times as possible. This is an integral part of the NCAA XC experience. The result is that most of the course is lined with spectators, often two or three deep. This might not be possible by March, but I’m holding out for next fall in Tallahassee…

-I miss the freshman phenom. No American true freshman has won NCAAs since Bob Kennedy in 1988, and only a select few have even come close. I would have loved seeing what NAU’s Nico Young could have done this weekend in Stillwater.

-I miss the unlikely leader. You know, the guy you see run by and think, what is that guy doing up there? Last year, it was 6-foot-3 Peter Seufer of Virginia Tech, who led by nine seconds at halfway and wound up a surprising fourth.

One of the most famous photos in the history of the NCAA XC meet. Schmaedick outkicks Phelan to deliver the NCAA title to Oregon by a point.

-I miss when a miler outkicks a 10k runner. NCAA XC is known as the hardest college race to win, and it’s true. The best runners in the NCAA, across all distances, all thrown together on the same course at the same time. New Mexico’s Weini Kelati may have been an aerobic monster in 2018, but she didn’t have the wheels to hold off ace Colorado miler Dani Jones on the final straight, and Jones won the NCAA title.

-I miss when a 10k runner outkicks a miler. Wheels only get you so far, though. In 2016, the women’s NCAA team title came down to a battle between Maggie Schmaedick and Jaimie Phelan, the fifth runners from Oregon and Michigan, respectively. Phelan, who would win the NCAA 1500 title that spring, was the smart bet to prevail in that battle. But it was Schmaedick who prevailed by one-tenth of a second to edge Phelan and seal the NCAA title for Oregon, 125 to 126.

-I miss staking out a spot by the finish chute and waiting for that first, glorious glimpse of the leader entering the final straightaway.

-I miss watching the scores update in real time on the video board as runners cross the finish line, and wondering which update is the last one.

-I miss the winning team losing their minds in the recovery tent when the scores are finally announced. There are always tears.

-I miss the podium team that never expected to be on the podium.

-I miss the first cup of hot chocolate in the media tent as I come inside to work on my race story.

-I miss poring over the race results on Saturday night, removing the seniors, seeing who the favorites are for next year.

What do you miss most about the meet? Tell us on our messageboard. MB: NCAA xc were supposed to be this weekend. What do you miss most about the meet? 

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