Cross Country Isn’t Just For Kids

Many cross country races, such as the 7-mile Living History Farms Off-Road Race near Des Moines, Iowa, are a mix between road racing and trail running. Photo: Doug Wells

The are plenty of opportunities for adults to spike up and take part in off-road races. 

Saturdays in the fall are a big deal for high school runners. While they may not have the mass appeal of Friday Night Lights on the gridiron, Saturday-morning cross country invitationals bring schools from across the state together to compete in 2- and 3-mile off-road races through parks and forest preserves. Most adults who ran cross country in school look back fondly on the mix of drama, pain and dirt that make the sport so unique—not to mention the team element of the competitions, which isn’t often found in running.

Yet once high school is over—or college for those speedy high school alums—cross country meets seem to disappear. However, more adults are finding that the camaraderie and competition of cross country can still be enjoyed after graduation. Taking the best elements from road racing and trail running, cross country races focus on fast, short races and running over natural elements. Sometimes they veer into the realm of adventure races with a more muddy, obstacle-filled experience.

“It’s just fun to get a team organized,” says Scott Ebeling, 43, who was part of a group from the Evanston (Ill.) Running Club that competed at the U.S. cross country club championships in Lexington, Ky., last year. “The competition is tough, but it’s still a fun race. I think it’s just the time of the year and the team element that make it different from any of the other races that we’ve done.”

More than 100 teams from across the country typically compete at cross country club nationals, which is organized by USA Track and Field (and held this year on Dec. 14 in Bend, Ore.). The competition is often fierce, attracting some of the best age-group runners in the country. (The open U.S. cross country championships (which focuses more on an individual race) will be held Feb. 15 in Boulder, Colo. and will have masters, junior and open divisions from 6K to 12K, plus a 4K community cross country race.)

“I’m usually in the top two to three in my age group at a race [in the Chicago area],” Ebeling says of his club nationals experience. “I go out there, and I finish 90th. And I think, wow, I’m not as good as I thought.”

But the experience was so positive, it inspired the Evanston team to come back for more. “We got a taste of it and want to do better,” Ebeling says. The team plans on competing again in 2014 when club nationals are within driving distance in Pennsylvania. “We thought, ‘Next year, let’s peak for it and see what we can do.’”

But cross country opportunities aren’t just limited to those hoping to compete at the national level. Closer to home, the Evanston Running Club organized the Illinois Club Cross Country Invitational at Harms Woods in Skokie, Ill., on Nov. 9. The event included an all-comers meet as well as team competitions for men and women in open and Masters categories. The cost was just $15—and included post-race beer from the local Off-Color Brewery.

“It’s become a great event for us, with lots of the local running stores sending a team,” Ebeling says.

Des Moines, Iowa, is home to the Living History Farms Off-Road Race, which celebrates its 35th anniversary on Nov. 23. The 7-mile run bills itself as the largest cross country race in North America, with a limited field of 7,500 runners. And the event, which sold out in about 36 hours in 2012, draws all kinds of runners interested in varying levels of competition.

“A third of our runners are high school and college-aged kids. Their season is over, and they’re in shape,” says Steven Bobenhouse, the race director. “A third are people who love the idea of trail racing but may not want to do it in the middle of the season. If they get hurt in this one, they have the winter to heal. And a third are here for the event—8,000 zany people crammed on the course in costumes, and many of them started partying around 7 in the morning. The energy in the air is fantastic. Plus they get to be on teams. Crazy, crazy teams.”

For runners looking to recapture memories of high school glory—or just looking for a team event that brings people together outside when the weather tends to keep people inside—it’s tough to beat a cross country race.

“There’s a world out there besides marathons,” Ebeling says. “I think people will find it’s a whole lot of fun.”

A version of this story appears in the Midwest edition of the November issue of Competitor magazine.

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