By Jonathan Gault
November 17, 2020
On March 12, 2021, the NCAA will stage a national championship in cross country or track & field for the first time in 15 months.
Three days later, it will stage another one.
The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on the sporting calendar. The Olympics were postponed by a year. The NBA Finals were played in October. As I type this story on the morning of November 12, golfers are teeing off for the first round of the Masters, months after Augusta’s famous azaleas have bloomed.
But few sports have featured a stranger rejiggering than NCAA distance running. After coaches spent 2020 trying to keep their athletes fit and motivated without any NCAA championships, they are now faced with the opposite problem to begin 2021: trying to prepare their teams for two NCAA championships in four days. First comes the NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships in Fayetteville, Ark., on March 12-13, followed by the NCAA Cross Country Championships on March 15 in Stillwater, Okla.
While several top coaches admit the schedule is not ideal, the overwhelming feeling is gratefulness that they finally have a championship to prepare for.
“Sure, it sounds a little chaotic and challenging to consider attempting two NCAA meets in such a short period, but our athletes are just so excited to compete that the idea of two meets rather than zero couldn’t be more compelling,” says University of Washington coach Maurica Powell.
In particular, it was important for coaches at distance-oriented schools to keep the NCAA cross country meet on the calendar. While their top athletes may still get to compete at the NCAA indoor meet, the NCAA XC meet represents the only realistic chance for schools like Northern Arizona, BYU, or Colorado to win a team title.
“Asking for a cross country championship is more about the longstanding war in our sport to make sure cross country is recognized as its own unique sport,” says NAU coach Mike Smith. “Oftentimes, cross country is just kind of thrown in with track, and really cross country is its own thing…Fall sports are gonna compete in the spring — soccer, volleyball. Why would that be different for cross country? And the second we say, that oh, those guys (distance runners) also run track, we’re, I think, lessening the power that cross country coaches are always fighting to have.”
With both meets on the schedule, however, the challenges for a coach are numerous. Do you train your athletes to run a mile on the track or a 10k on grass? Do you try to perform well at both meets or go all-in on one? And where do you compete during the regular season?
There will likely be some form of cross country season this winter, but no one is sure about when or where the meets will take place, outside of conference championships (five conferences, including the SEC, ACC, and Big 12, held their conference championships this fall). The indoor season is very much up in the air as well, as administrators try to determine how to safely hold competitions in a sport predicated on a large number of athletes and coaches gathering under the same roof.
Few teams feature a bigger decision than the Notre Dame men. The Irish are the reigning NCAA champions in the distance medley relay and feature the country’s top miler in Yared Nuguse. Yet the ND men are also ranked #4 in the USTFCCCA XC poll with Nuguse, the ACC individual XC champion, a top-10 threat at NCAA XC. That leaves Notre Dame coach Sean Carlson in a tough spot, but he has embraced the challenge.
“I’m always of the philosophy, tell me the rules of the game, and I’ll figure out a way to play it to the best of our ability,” Carlson says.
Making the schedule
On the surface, condensing two championship meets into one long weekend seems nonsensical — other than scheduling the meets for the same day, it could hardly be worse for athletes. So how did we get here?
The dates for NCAA Indoors had been set years in advance, but once the NCAA announced in August it was postponing its fall championships, it fell to the NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Track & Field and Cross Country Committee (MWTFCCC) — a 12-person body consisting of collegiate coaches and administrators — to propose a date for the rescheduled cross country championships. That proposal was sent to the Division I Competition Oversight Committee and ultimately approved by the Division I Council and Division I Board of Directors.
When selecting a date for NCAA XC, the MWTFCCC had to consider what was already on the schedule. The NCAA wanted to run the meet in the winter and the MWTFCCC did not want the meet to interfere with the outdoor season, essentially eliminating any date beyond the end of March. But holding it early in the year was not an option either.
“[Because of the pandemic], some institutions might not bring their student-athletes back [after winter break] until February and they won’t be training until February,” says Milan Donley, meet director of the Kansas Relays and chair of the MWTFCCC. “So we felt like we needed to make sure the athletes had enough time to prepare.”
That meant some time in March. And given the NCAA indoor and XC meets would be taking place just 185 miles apart, Donley says that, logistically, holding the two meets close together made the most sense.
“With the proximity of the two sites, we felt at some level institutionally and with the NCAA, it might be easier on teams, easier on our sport committee as far as traveling,” Donley says. “…We tried to consider everything. You go back to the location and the time frame. The cost — if you run, and then you have a championship seven days later or 10 days later, do teams come home, [then] come back? The cost of travel, the cost of hotels, per diem, and all that. In the time frame of where we are today and budget cuts, we just felt like running them as close together that we thought we could set them might be best for those institutions and coaches that are running in both.”
While it’s true that travel costs would be reduced under that proposal, individual schools wouldn’t be saving massive amounts, since the NCAA pays for travel to its championships for athletes and a limited number of coaches.
“I don’t know that we were talking too much about saving the NCAA money as it was travel of all the members on the committee, having to go home, then come back and buy more tickets and things like that,” Donley says.
Ultimately, the MWTFCCC felt those logistical concerns outweighed delaying NCAA XC by a week or two and affording top athletes extra time to recover from the NCAA indoor meet.
“We try to look at the big picture of what’s best for all,” Donley says. “For the majority of the athletes, we felt like there was enough time to recover and come back and run.”
Not everyone agrees.
“I think the idea of putting two championships in a four-day period seems to be not a well-devised decision,” says Arkansas women’s coach Lance Harter. “[I’m] a bit concerned that there are gonna be people doubling kids that, eventually it’s gotta take its toll…I think there’s gonna be a lot of discussion post-race of, Did we do the right thing for each and every athlete?”
Ed Eyestone, who coached the BYU men to the national title in cross country last fall, would like to see a slightly bigger gap between the two meets. His proposal: move NCAA XC, currently scheduled for Monday, March 15, back to Saturday, March 20.
“When I was in college, back in the day, all four years I ran a very brief cross country season in the wintertime in the midst of indoors and right before outdoors started,” Eyestone says. “Because I ran the trials race for World Cross, and then the week after the NCAA meet, I would jump on a plane on a Monday or Tuesday, fly to Europe, and race the World Cross Championships. So it’s definitely doable. The fact that they placed it on the Monday following the indoor championships rather than the Saturday kind of surprised me…I would love it if they would reconsider, reconvene, and push it back another five days because then I think we wouldn’t have to make decisions and possibly compromise our indoor nationals or our cross country championship…Am I gonna let my guys run a hard 3k two days out? Well maybe a couple of my athletes could handle it. But if I feel like I have a shot to win the [XC] championship, maybe not.”
Most NCAA coaches I spoke to for this article support Eyestone’s proposal. But any change to the schedule would have to go through the MWTFCCC — and that appears unlikely.
“I think the dates are locked in,” Donley says.
Some coaches are on board with that approach.
“Every year I watch distance runners double in the 5k and 10k at the outdoor national championships,” says Oklahoma State coach Dave Smith, whose school will host NCAA XC in March. “They’re two days apart. I also see the 5k and 3k double at the indoor meet all the time. And those are back-to-back days. And I don’t see people saying, Oh, this can’t be done, it’s impossible.”
But it’s important to face facts here: the short gap between the two meets is likely to have a major effect on the quality of competition.
In 2019-20, a total of 35 men and 40 women competed at NCAA XC and went on to qualify for NCAA Indoors (if you subtract the DMR, those numbers drop to 29 and 32; you can find the full list here). Those 75 athletes comprised just 15% of the 510-person NCAA XC field. But they comprised 75% of the athletes entered in the mile, 3k, or 5k at NCAA Indoors — and of that number, 27 athletes were already slated to double at NCAA Indoors.
Entries at 2020 NCAA Indoor Championships
|Event||Athletes who ran at ’19 NCAA XC|
All of this means the quality of the distance races at NCAA Indoors likely will drop — perhaps significantly.
Some coaches at distance-oriented schools told LetsRun it’s likely their top distance runners skip NCAA Indoors entirely, in part to protect them from being overworked. Alternatively, athletes who would previously have doubled at NCAA Indoors may drop their second race so they can recover in time for NCAA XC.
“[If you want to run NCAA indoors and XC, you need to] get an indoor national mark, then go run a cross country meet to get them good standing with the board who’s gonna select the NCAA teams in cross country, then go run a conference meet indoors, then go run a conference cross country meet, [then two NCAA meets],” Carlson says. “That just sounds like a lot. You’re trying to hit really, really good six times in a two-month span if you’re trying to do all of it…I’m hoping people do that, to be honest, because it just makes it easier for us to be competitive.”
“You could have a diluted field in particular events,” Mike Smith says. “…It’s a logistical scheduling challenge that comes at some cost for the meets.”
Conversely, the great track schools that also have good distance programs — like NCAA indoor host Arkansas — may very well go all-in on track.
But ultimately, Mike Smith says, it’s better to slightly dilute both meets than cancel NCAA XC entirely.
What are the top programs’ plans?
With the dates for both meets unlikely to change, coaches must decide soon how to approach the winter season, and whether to target one championship or both.
Dave Smith says that if he has an athlete qualify for both meets, he will allow the athlete to decide what meet(s) they want to compete in. But he suspects XC will be their focus, particularly for his men’s team, currently ranked #7 in the country.
“They all feel like it’s their best shot to finish really well and maybe chase a trophy of some kind,” Smith says. “I think they’re really dialed in on cross country.”
He expects the traditional XC powers will follow suit.
“I think the top 10 teams will be [at NCAA XC] in full force,” Smith says. “…Because most good cross country programs that feel they’ve got a shot to be top 10 are not going to be top 10 in indoor track. We’ve become so specialized — you’re either a track program or a cross country program.”
Mike Smith says that while NAU could race both cross country and indoor races during the winter season, he will not have athletes run both championships.
“I already have a few that [run] indoor track, we really pay the price for indoor track every June [at NCAA Outdoors],” Mike Smith says. “Trying to do both [NCAA Indoors and NCAA XC], I think would maybe be an issue.”
Like Dave Smith, Notre Dame’s Carlson says he will let his athletes decide, but says right now “we are strongly leaning towards cross country…most of our guys believe that we should be in the hunt and I think trying to change who the blue bloods of cross country are.”
The toughest choice belongs to Nuguse, Notre Dame’s star miler. Individually, Nuguse’s best chance of success is on the track. But should he opt for the track over XC, he’d be depriving a potential podium team of their #1 runner. Carlson suspects Nuguse will lean toward what’s best for the team. In 2019, Nuguse opted out of the mile at NCAA Indoors to focus on the DMR. That worked out pretty well.
“The most difficult thing for him is, he lost out an opportunity to win one, maybe two national titles last indoor season, a national title possibly during the outdoor season, and now he might be passing up two more possibilities indoors,” Carlson says.
But in some ways, Carlson says, the opportunity to train for a 10k during the winter could prepare Nuguse better for an outdoor season that will include the Olympic Trials — and possibly the Olympic Games.
“Training for a 10k is gonna require a lot more strength-based focus,” Carlson says. “And the hope is that his outdoor track season goes pretty long beyond NCAAs. It would be pretty hard to go track from January all the way until July, August.”
Arkansas is one of the few schools that tries to be nationally competitive in track and XC — something its women mastered in 2019 in winning all three national titles on offer. But that dual focus is almost impossible to maintain when the indoor and XC champs are one day apart.
Harter says running athletes at both meets would be “tough” and is currently planning on focusing on track — despite the fact that his XC women are currently ranked #1 in the USTFCCCA poll.
“Because we host and because we’ve already lost an indoor championship last year, I think we that we owe it to the non-distance runners, that part of our team, that we need to do a good job and prioritize our indoor championship,” Harter says. “Philosophically at Arkansas for distance running, cross country is a preparation for indoor, indoor is a preparation for outdoor.”
Coach Chris Bucknam, whose Razorback men are ranked #3 in the USTFCCCA poll, says he plans to focus on indoor track and will make a decision about which of his guys (if any) double back to NCAA XC closer to the time. Bucknam points out that Arkansas doesn’t just host the NCAA Indoor meet, but SECs as well. Arkansas is in the midst of a $25 million renovation to the Tyson Center, installing a new track, scoreboard, lights, and sound system.
“There’s a huge investment in track & field here, we host the two meets,” Bucknam says. “So that does enter into it.”
And then there are some coaches who want to have it all.
“In a perfect world, far from which we’re currently positioned, I’d like to run indoor meets and cross country meets with our distance runners and to have a great competitive lineup at both the NCAA Indoor Championships and the NCAA Cross Country Championship,” says Washington’s Powell. “I realize this sounds lofty and that it’s hard to plan for all of it, but I can’t think of any more fun and exciting challenge after being latent the last eight months.”
Will indoor track happen at all?
The preceding 2,800 words make one big assumption: that indoor track will actually happen. The United States just hit a new daily high in coronavirus cases on Friday — over 180,000 — and it is hard to think of a sport more inclined to spread the virus than indoor track. Teams are large, even the most efficient meets can be all-day affairs, and banning spectators accomplishes little since the majority of people at most meets are athletes, coaches, or officials.
Some think the event will go on, however.
“If they’re gonna play basketball, they’re gonna have indoor track,” Bucknam said, pointing out that the NCAA is moving forward with plans to play basketball this winter, in part because it needs the hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue generated by the NCAA tournament.
However, we could still see a scenario similar to what played out in cross country — if enough conferences elect not to compete in indoor track, the NCAA could cancel the championships. On Thursday, the Ivy League became the first conference to entirely cancel its indoor season.
For programs still looking to compete this winter indoors, it will be harder than ever to find competition opportunities. Some states’ current COVID-19 guidelines make hosting indoor meets virtually impossible. Indoor gatherings at event venues in Massachusetts are currently limited to 25 people — so good luck to any schools hoping to compete at Boston University anytime soon.
The Big Sky has moved its football season to the winter/spring (the season starts February 27), so two of the three schools with indoor tracks (NAU and Idaho State) will be unable to host meets — their indoor track buildings double as their football stadiums and will be hosting games and practices. The final Big Sky track, Montana State’s Brick Breeden Fieldhouse, has a 25-person capacity limit.
Even in states with looser COVID restrictions, field sizes will be greatly reduced. Powell believes Washington, home to the West Coast’s premier indoor facility, will be able to host small meets but admits “if we’re able to host meets, they’re going to look a lot different.”
To say the road to Fayetteville (and Stillwater) is messy doesn’t do it justice; given the current status of the winter schedule, it’s more accurate to say that the road has not even been built yet. Yet Bucknam, who says he was glad the SEC didn’t cancel cross country this fall, feels confident there will be some form of indoor track this year. And if there is, he will be happy to welcome the NCAA to Fayetteville.
“If I had to bet money, I’d bet that we’re gonna have an SEC indoor meet,” Bucknam says. “But I can’t speak for the NCAA. We’re gonna have that indoor SEC meet, and we’re gonna compete in it.”
Talk about this article on the LRC fan forum/messageboard. MB: Several top NCAA XC coaches indicate they are likely to blow off one of the winter champs entirely