Monday, December 3, 2012

Tough Mudder: The Deskilling of the Cross Country Runner?

Painted in mud, the best high school cross-country runners stumbled across the line. The exhausted pack ran their worst times all season. The painfulness of this fact was thrown into stark relief by the boorish slogan suspended across the course finish: "Run hungry. Taste victory."

Nike Cross Nationals is run every year in Oregon at the Portland Meadows Race Track. The December event is one of two cross-country races presented by corporate sponsors as national championships. Nike's event is team-centered (though individuals can and do enter). The December 8 Footlocker Cross Country National Championship (held in San Diego) is an individual competition. (The USA Track and Field Association also runs a national championship.)

Nike Cross is the strangest of cross-country meets: the course is not run on one of the region's fabled cross-country trails. It is staged instead on the infield of a horse race track. The runners get moguls and slippery avenues of mud. The course is slow: long stretches of it are covered in puddles of water. Race officials joke about picking shoes out of the field from races run in past years. The course is optimal when it is frozen. This is the one race for which the runner prays for frost. Last year temperatures hovered at 30. The boys' race was won by Futsum Zeinasellaissie in 15:03. This year was balmy: the course was not just muddy, it was gross. Sam Warton slugged it out for a 17:06 win.

Runners have to have tetanus shots to run this race. The air is lightly perfumed with manure. The race is, after all, run on horse pasture.

At the state-level no high school team would dare host an event with a course like it. It'd be considered dangerous and weird. Teams do train in harsh weather and on wet ground (this is the signature of coach Bill Aris's training regime and his girls have won the race seven years in a row no doubt because of their experience with mud). But the fastest runners want to run fast. Some courses are faster than others, but the idea is that a good race explores the limits of what is humanly possible on the day that course is run. 

The spirit of the cross-country trail is that it be a trail, not an obstacle course.  

At Nike Cross you see some runners cross the finish line painted in mud - not because it has been splashed on them, but because they've fallen into pools of it. Watching Nike's highlight reel, I was struck by how awful the pack looks. Frontrunners look tough, sure, but the rest of the field looks ruined. 

Of course there is something fun in the idea of making the best runners race against the worst conditions. But that is not how this race is presented to the teenagers running it. It is presented to them as the best team competition in the country. I got the distinct sense that even the winning athletes were disappointed.

Asked about the course, one athlete after another responded: "We don't run in mud like this in Virginia/Texas/Colorado/New Mexico/Minnesota." They sounded puzzled. When asked if he had anything good to say about the course, one wiseass looked up at the sky and said, "It's sunny." 

Nike's marketing folks assert that this mud is part of Oregon's "thing." But it isn't. When cross-country runners think of Oregon, they think of gorgeous trails along the coast, the Steve Prefountaine Memorial Running Trail. The University of Oregon (in Eugene) is one of the country's premier programs. Sure, a cross-country runner wants to "get her mud on," but even more, she wants her team to run well

From an elite runner's perspective, the logic of the event is a mystery. It is, in fact, something of a mystery when measured against Nike's claim on running, as a sport. It is ironic that the brand associated with the development of a lightweight shoe designed to reduce drag - to make your stride lighter - should sponsor a race in which the athlete's feet are sucked into mud. For much of the course, with each step the runner has to break the mud's suction. Imagine running with someone grasping onto your feet. That's what large parts of the course feel like. 

People seem to think that Nike stages the event this way so as to make cross-country "spectator friendly." The racetrack has covered stands, and it's easy to film the race on these grounds. But cross country spectators will choose to be by the trail - who wants to sit indoors at an outdoor event? The audience for the race was in the mud, with the runners. 

Nike stages this event this way not for people, but for cameras. 

Kids covered in mud make for fantastic photos. Or do they?

Antigone Archer fell early in the race. She picked herself up - with mud in her mouth and her eyes she helped her team to its impressive second place finish. Team Carroll finished (a weird) 140 points behind Manlius. Manlius has won this event seven years in a row. Thank you Antigone for letting me use this photo by Zackary Kaufman.
A little combing of the interweb turned up the above portrait in misery. And this is the expression I saw on much of the pack. A lot of runners looked upset - angry, frustrated, confused. 

Mud runs are a growing phenomenon - those courses are designed to make runners swim in mud, scale walls, crawl under barbed wire like G.I. Jane and Joe. They are fun. Crazy. But fun. That is not, however, what these athletes signed up for. 

Nike addressed them as elite runners all weekend. But did Nike stage an elite race? 

You learn a lot about yourself when you lose in good fashion. A good loss can be as inspiring as it is humbling. For many of these runners, this was their last race as a high school athlete. Some ended their high school career with the worst time they'd posted all season, in a race that felt pointless.

My sister coached the team that finished dead last. So I have a personal reason for thinking about this event. I've learned a lot from her over the years, and our conversations about this event have been illuminating. (My perspective here, it should be said, is entirely my own.)

Cross-country is a team sport. An individual might win the race, but a team can't win the race on an individual's performance. Nike's event is perhaps engineered to foreground that fact. This course is designed to handicap each individual runner as if they were horses. 
Second place finishers Carroll celebrate their victory. 
But cross-country is a curious team sport. A great team knows that its accomplishments are all the greater when that team allows each of its members to realize his or her potential to its fullest. I've always thought that this was where you found the spirit of the sport - in this chemistry. 

The production of a national championship as a runner's version of Wipeout is a sporting version of what social theorists describe as "deskilling." A race is here turned into a spectacle, the talent and experience on the field is made secondary to the moving of merchandise - the question is not who won, how or why, but who was entertained and how much they - we - are willing to buy. 


  1. One of my twitter friends remarked that Ohio's HS championship used to be staged at a horse race track. He said he hated it because it was too flat - also true of Portland Meadows. There are no hills.

  2. Question I would ask of x-country folks: what would be the ideal course? For a x-country race testing the best athletes in the country? Might be cool if the people organizing these races asked coaches across the country what they would most like to see.

  3. I disagree with this article for a few major reasons. Before I get into them I will start by saying that I am a college cross country runner who competed a NXN in highschool. Despite running in sunny California we prepared for every condition possible (we had workouts where our coaches would soak us with hoses to emulate rain) and the definition of a cross country runner includes being able to run under any condition. Because every runner at NXN endured the same conditions, the only teams that had advantages were ones that had trained in that area. This however, doesn't make the race unfair by any means. It is similar to how a soccer team that practices set pieces more than any other team isn't considered to have an advantage just because there happens to be many set pieces during a game.

    With regards to the part where you state " And this is the expression I saw on much of the pack. A lot of runners looked upset - angry, frustrated, confused. " I do not know if you have ever watched any other high school or collegiate cross country races, but every athlete that is trying their best looks like they are in pain. That is because that is literally what a cross country race is. A test of who can handle the most pain. The mud and conditions only add to change how they feel the pain, but at it's core the competition is still the same as any other race. Albeit this race determined who were the National Champions.

    Your statement "I got the distinct sense that even the winning athletes were disappointed." also seems inaccurate to me. Look at any of the top athletes interviews and try to say they weren't ecstatic about their performances.

    I also disagree with your statement "Some ended their high school career with the worst time they'd posted all season, in a race that felt pointless." The way cross country runners look at their results is not purely based on times. It is scrutinized by comparing your time to those of the other 200 runners in your race. The girl who ran the slowest time she had all season by 50 seconds but placed in the top 20 will still be exuberant about her success. A slow time due to a challenging course does not equate to feelings of a pointless race. This race featured the best high school teams in the nation, which being said by itself will cause a serious athlete to respect the importance of such a race.

    Finally, there are historically famous courses known for producing great performances, however, what ultimately determines who cross the line first or which team's top 5 does the best is how much heart the athletes have. It is a mix of pain tolerance and pure desire. The ones who desire success the most and practice the hardest to put make their bodies as fast as possible won't allow bad conditions to be the deciding factor. They will meet any course head on and push until theirs nothing left, whether there's mud, snow, hay bales, or hills in their path.

  4. Your picture of someone in misery happens to be my daughter right after she took a fall and was getting up on the course. It was definitely a hard course and I know she would tell you she loved it and had a lot of fun (her team took second). While it is fun to do this race in the mud I think it would be cool to see how these teams really stack up against each other in a real race under normal running circumstances.

  5. Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment.

    My remarks about the worst time all season were taken from a couple runners - not winners, but people deep in the pack. My thoughts are, in fact, more about the pack than the winners - I wouldn't want to take anything away from what it would feel like to win that race. I imagine that would be a great feeling. I guess I'm interested in what makes a race honorable, ethical, good - even if you finish, say, 50th.

    I was on the sidelines and I swear some of the runners looked close to tears. Sure, that happens at every race - I mean, people run so hard they vomit! - but something about this one felt worse to me. Purely subjective perspective.

    Of course the pleasure of x-country running is the encounter with nature - snow, rain, mud, dry dirt, you name it. But this meet was different. There isn't anything remotely natural about that course - no hills! - and the mud this year was just hard to fathom if you weren't there this year. (Maybe you were.) Nike officials were surely alarmed - they'd been trying to pump water out of the field before the meet.

    I've been reading running forums and am not alone in my perspective. Nor are you. Some of the points you make are absolutely right - x-country isn't track and the variability of the trail is at the essence of the sport. And I make a big point at the end that the spirit of x-country is the balance of individual talent and team-work. It isn't about having the fastest time ever. It is about being the fastest team.

    I think the Nike thing is designed to erase the individual factor completely while making for a good photo opp. That just isn't the sport I recognize. It feels a little like the lowest common denominator. Like in soccer - the way that a crappy pitch is a great leveler but it makes for an ugly match. Sure that happens - but why MAKE it happen?

    I should say, by "winning athletes" I meant the teams interviewed by Nike media immediately after the race. Not the individual winners who were rightly joyous. And the teams were happy. But most of the post-race comments were about the mud. It was striking. A couple of the guys teams in particular. They were, in fact, really funny on this point.

  6. Amanda - wow, thanks for writing in. Let me know if you don't/she doesn't want to use the picture and I'll take it down. It's a crazy (and great) photo. You can email me directly at fromaleftwing [at] gmail

    All the runners were so tough. I was really moved by that. And they have a great attitude. Nike could do a lot more to honor that. Been really enjoying reading the discussions on track sites. Interesting to read people debate what makes x-country x-country. It's a fantastic sport.


  7. Thank you to Amanda and Antigone Archer for letting me use their photos!


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