A Runner Compares X-Country and Track

Many non-runners often can’t conceive of the difference between track and cross-country is. You just run in both, right? That’s true, but as Quenton Cassidy, the hero of the classic novel about competitive running Once a Runner points out, there is a palpable difference between cross-country and track for a distance runner.

A cross-country race is almost always the same distance at the collegiate level: five or six kilometers for women and eight or 10 kilometers for men. Courses can be hilly or flat, and the surfaces can range anywhere from packed dirt to fields of mud. No two courses are the same, and even the same course can be completely different on different days. In a track race, the conditions are always predictable. A 400-meter track is a 400-meter track. Not every distance runner runs the same race on that 400-meter track, however. Cross country runners run anywhere from 800-meter to 10,000-meter races depending on their strengths. Some are even daring enough to run the steeplechase, a three-kilometer race with five barriers, one of which is a water pit, in each lap.

Pomona-Pitzer coaches see the track and cross country seasons as separate endeavors.

“They each have their own unique joys and surprises. Over the summer I eagerly anticipate fall cross-country and can’t imagine coaching track and field. Over semester break I look forward to spring track and field and can’t imagine coaching cross country again for a while,” said Kirk Reynolds, the women’s cross country and track and field coach.

Articulating exactly what it is about the two sports that make them so different is difficult, however, even for Pomona-Pitzer’s best runners.

Alicia Freese PO ’10, a two-time All-American in cross country and the school-record holder for both the five and 10 kilometer race in track, instantly identifies cross country as her preferred sport.

“I like the varied terrain. I think it suits my abilities to be able to push through different terrains, uphills and downhills in a cross country race. A track race is just so regulated.”

Rose Haag PO ’10, a Cross Country Nationals qualifier and the school-record holder for the steeplechase, finds appeal in the strict regulations of track races.

“I like the intensity that’s created by the regulation of the track,” she said. “There is nothing like the feeling of coming around the turn of the track or flying down the backstretch. It feels so fast.”

If it is difficult for runners to agree on exactly what makes a cross country race so different from a track race, one thing that can be agreed on is the difference in the team dynamic of a cross country and track. On a cross country team everyone is training together for the same event. In track many teammates will be training for completely different events. Having multiple races, however, can create unique opportunities to cheer on teammates.

“We have to work harder in track and field to foster a strong team dynamic,” Reynolds said. “You have more people, of course, and you have them training for all sorts of different events. Plus you often have team members working out at different times, so you may not even see a teammate for a few days. If we can get that groundswell of support among the distance runners and sprinters and throwers and jumpers, the team atmosphere explodes in a very positive way. In my various years coaching, I can recall examples like a distance runner developing a healthy respect for a hammer thrower spinning around and releasing, just as the hammer thrower respects someone who can run around and around the track forever like a machine.”

“I have so much respect for people who do events that seem impossible to me,” said distance runner Hannah McConnell PO ’12. “Throwing, jumping, hurdling, pole-vaulting…I could never do those events!”

As Annie Lydens PO’13 notes, the fact that there are multiple races at a track meet can create a unique team energy which rivals that of cross country.

“There is an amazing rush when you have the whole team cheering for you for an entire race,” she says. “That feeling can never happen in cross country.”

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