How to Spectate at a Cross Country Meet

The official symbol of fall!
The official symbol of fall!

We’re right in the middle of October, which means it’s time for pumpkin spice cross country everything! If you’ve never ventured off the roads, cross-country will wow you. The scenery, the toughness and the team work all make cross country a very special form of running.

And for those of you Salty readers who first began your running career as a member of a cross country team, going back out and being a spectator is a must do! Now’s the time to check out a meet and relive those days!  Already running cross country this fall? Then pass this guide along to your friends and family! And away we go…

club xc 2012
Here I am with my Columbus Running Company teammates shedding some layers at the starting line of the USATF Club National Cross Country Championship 2012. Photo credit Dustin Whitehair.

Scope out the course. Most cross country courses are laid out in loops, making it easy to zip from one location to another to view the runners.  Corners or out and back sections will allow for easier spectating. Avoid narrow stretches so you won’t impede the runners. Check to see if there’s any interesting features (i.e., a hill with its own name, a mud pit) you’d like to witness.  My dad suggests viewing the start from a distance fully appreciate the colorful mass of uniforms converging under fall foliage.

Be aware that this is not a typical sporting event. No stadium, no bleachers, no sitting! In order to have the best spectating experience you’re going to have to move around a lot. And quickly. I’ve heard rumors of some coaches clocking more than 5k while coaching! You will probably earn that pumpkin spice latte after all — after you leave the meet. Races will usually not have a concession stand. Restroom facilities may or may not have plumbing so BYO sanitizer and TP.

Wear all the clothes. Fall weather is unpredictable, so dress in layers. The course may be muddy so carefully consider footwear options. I strongly recommend wool socks because they will keep your feet warm even when wet. Running shoes are the best option if you’re going to be hustling around the course, but bring a spare pair of shoes for after.

usatf ohio 2011
A team photo op after winning the USATF-Ohio association cross country championship in 2011 with a perfect score of 15.

Do a little homework. If you’re going to cheer for a specific person or team, find out their expected finish time. However, in cross country, competition matters more than time, so learn the rivalries and how to identify their uniforms. The places of the first five runners on a team are added together and the lowest score wins, so pay special attention to your team’s fifth runner.  Finally, knowing what’s at stake — a conference championship, a berth to NCAA nationals — will make the race more meaningful to witness.

Offer to help. If you have ties to a team, ask if they need anything in particular — collecting runners’ warm-up clothing at the start,  shouting split times at a certain location, etc. Otherwise, you can passively help by keeping an eye on obstacles on the race course, reminding spectators to stay back, and cheering on the racers. You might notice runners bleeding due to a fall or a cut from a competitor’s spiked shoe, but avoid assisting anyone during competition unless he or she is in clear distress as it will result in disqualification. Verbal encouragement is always welcome.

How to find a race? High school teams are closing in on conference and state championship tournaments which will be listed on your state’s high school athletic association website. Check the athletics website of nearby universities for their schedule. Midwesterners, we are in luck — NCAA Championships are all nearby this year: Division I in Terre Haute, Indiana, Division II in Louisville, and Division III in Mason, Ohio. For adults, there’s USATF association championships and then the national club championships in Pennsylvania — see you there!

Any plans for running or watching a cross country meet this fall? Did you run cross country in school? Are you a parent of a cross country runner? 

I'm a 20-year veteran of competitive running, USATF certified coach, mom of a toddler -- and still trying to set PRs. I write about training from 5k to marathon, motherhood and competitive running, and the elite side of the sport. The 5k is my favorite race (16:56 PR) but I've got a score to settle with the marathon.

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  1. Fun! I ran my first cross country race ever this weekend at the Stumptown Cross Series in Portland and had a great time! It’s such a different atmosphere from road races and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants a new running challenge or just a change in pace!

    1. Glad you had a good time! Seems like the Portland/NW area of the US has a pretty strong xc presence for adults. I’m jealous.