Cross country is a team sport like no other. While every meet has an individual male and female winner, team scoring is the primary goal. Cross country coaches stress the importance of “bunching” runners and having a close spread, specifically the gap between the #1 and the #7 runners. Usually, the tighter the spread, the better the team effort and place. The strategy involved in creating a tight group is known as “pack running.”
Pack running makes the sport of cross country unique and very exciting for runners and spectators. Because of how cross country is scored, with the places added up and low score winning, every runner counts equally. If a runner finishes 40th in a meet, he/she can contribute just as much to the team result as the overall 1st place champion. This mentality should be stressed not only on meet days but beginning at practice throughout the season. Understanding how cross country is scored and the importance of each runner’s place is key in building a solid program. A cross country team with a great frontrunner who is followed by teammates that finish towards the back of a race will usually always be beaten by the team that has that “pack mentality.” A team that runs in a pack and finishes toward the upper half of all the competitors will have a greater chance to achieve a team victory.
Here are a few course rules guidelines of a pack mentality in a race to pay attention to as a high school cross country runner:
1. Try to run with your teammates according to your coach’s instructions. He or she will have a game plan for the day, so listen and trust in your coach. Coaches will know what is best for you and the team to have success. Trust in your coach can go a long way during the season and throughout your high school career.
2. Talk or use gestures to encourage to your team to stay together during the race. On race day, there can be a lot of distractions, so focus on the task at hand.
3. Don’t let opposing runners break into your team pack. Sometimes your team may not have one large pack but a few smaller packs running. Take pride in your pack and remember there is strength in numbers.
4. If you fall back some, key off your teammates’ uniforms to move back up to that team pack.
5. Knowing the course well is also a key. Warming up properly and knowing the course before the meet will help. Knowing the locations of the hills, sharp turns, and bad footing will help in maintaining your rhythm.
6. If you’re having a good day, move up, but don’t compromise your team’s goal and strategy of that day.
7. If you’re having a bad day, don’t drag your teammates down with you.
8. Remember that a place or two either way can have a huge impact on your team scoring. Every runner you beat is important!
9. At times you may have to sacrifice individual goals for team success.
10. Have fun and enjoy running and racing with your teammates.
Matt Musiel is head coach of the boys and girls cross country and track and field programs at Lincoln North Star High School.