Editor's note: Alan Boraas is a former coach of the Skyview High School cross-country ski team and a frequent observer of both cross country and cross-country ski races. He offered to provide some insight into tactics cross country runners use during a race.
If you watch a cross country race from a single point on the trail it may seem like runners are just plodding along until they finish. Such is not the case.
For the better runners on the top teams, there is a constant jockeying for position throughout the race that has a direct effect on the team scores.
If a scoreboard could instantaneously measure team scores during a race it would look like a stock-market readout on a busy day. That's because of the unique way cross country running is scored.
The finishing places of the top five runners on each team are added together and the lowest total wins. Simple. But therein lies the strategy of the sport. Every time a runner from your team moves ahead of a runner from another team it is one more point for you and one less for them.
It doesn't matter if your first-place runner moves up a place or your fifth-place runner moves up -- it's still one more point for your team. Usually, championships are won or lost by the performance of the fifth runner.
ASAA/ First National Banks Alaska Corss country Running champioships, 2000. Hosted by Skyview High School at the Tsalteshi Ski Trails, Soldotna, Alaska.
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The strategy of each runner is to identify who they need to beat for their team to do well. To do that they need to know the course and they need to know some tactics. Here are ten of them.
n Run as hard as you can for as long as you can -- This strategy only works for elite runners so far ahead of the rest of the pack they belong in a college meet. Less experienced and less fit runners also generally run this way but for them it's more a matter of survival.
Skyview senior Erika Edwards, one of the favorites in Saturday's Class 4A race, used this tactic to win a Region III crown last weekend.
"I ran with Katherine Amen for the first half-kilometer or so, then I was in the lead the rest of the race," Edwards said. "That's the way I prefer it. It's where I'm most comfortable."
n Start in the middle of the pack and move up -- Since running is scored by place, not by time, it doesn't really matter what your time is. As a result, many experienced runners start slow, trying to run 10 to 20 places behind where they want to finish. Mentally, it is generally better to gradually move up during a race then to repeatedly be passed.
n Surge on the downhills -- It takes a lot of technique to run downhills well and many runners haven't developed this aspect of running. Those who have can pick up valuable places on the downhills. The state course favors strong downhill runners.
Better runners will tilt their body forward and pump their arms like a sprinter letting the momentum carry them down. But this technique takes practice. A runner leaning too far forward or not pumping hard enough will do a face plant in the dirt. It also takes extremely strong quadriceps muscles.
East senior Kikkan Randall, who has won the last two Class 4A state races at Tsalteshi, said after winning this year's Skyview Invitational that downhills were her strong suit.
"I think I gain an advantage on them," Randall said. "I just kind of let my legs fly."
n Surge on the uphills -- An uphill surge is more guts and fitness than technique. Hills are intimidating and if you can move up on a competitor on a hill it can devastate them.
Soldotna junior Brent Knight, who will be a key component in the Stars' attempt to repeat as Class 4A champion, said he must have good uphills because he often loses ground on the downhills.
"Downhills are the worst part of my race," Knight said. "I'll usually catch back up with people on the uphill."
n Surge at the top of an uphill -- Here the technique is to run up stride for stride with your competitors and then at the top, when they are at a physical and mental low point, put on a surge. You will have to back off the surge after 20 to 30 seconds, but by then you will have opened a nice interval. You are mentally in control while your competitor is filled with self doubt and tends to fall back.
n Surge on the curves -- It is an advantage to lose visual contact with someone you have been running with. The idea is to select a section of trail with a lot of turns and accelerate through the turns so when your competitor gets there, he or she can't see you.
n Play cat and mouse -- Highly skilled athletes of about the same ability will sometimes play cat and mouse. This tactic involves slowing down and allowing a competitor to pass. For a moment or two they gain confidence, then you burst by them with a surge. The runner who is passed becomes demoralized and tends to fall back.
n The final sprint -- Runners need to judge where on the course they can start their sprint to the finish. Less fit runners can only sprint the final 50 meters or so. Very fit runners can put on a finishing surge as much as 500 meters from the finish and still accelerate in the final meters. The trick, of course, is knowing how much energy you have left. If you sprint too early you can die in the homestretch and be passed.
Service's Justin Gardner used a sprint to win the Class 4A title in 1998.
"My problem is the middle 1,500 meters of a race," Gardner said. "When I finished that part of the race and I was still with the leaders, I knew I was going to win."
n Being tough in tough weather -- Fall weather can bring rain, sleet or snow in Alaska. Successful runners know it's the same course for everyone and deal with inclement weather by wearing proper clothing, not getting wet or chilled before the race, selecting the correct length spikes and not letting the weather or whiny teammates demoralize them.
n Warm up -- On any cross country course, but especially on the Tsalteshi Trails with a long hill in the first kilometer, a proper warm-up is critical. Most runners do various combinations of jogging, sprints and stretching for 20 to 30 minutes before the race start. An improperly warmed up runner can easily go into oxygen debt after the first hill and not recover until it is too late.
Clarion reporter Jeff Helminiak contributed to this story.
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