Guest Column: The Cross Country Course Conundrum

Written by Chris White

By Chris White

I have been heavily involved with the coaching and meet management aspect of cross country in our state for 21 years now, and I think it is safe to say that the most frustrating part of coaching cross country and running off meets is finding a quality location for a meet.  Not just a state level meet, although that is the topic of the day right now, but finding a location for any meet.  Think about it - there are no facilities in existence that their sole purpose is to be a cross country course.  If you want to host a football game, there a football fields with stadiums devoted to the one activity.  The same thing goes for track and field, soccer, lacrosse, basketball, swimming, tennis, golf, wrestling, etc. 

Virtually every activity that exists within the high school sports world has its own devoted venues.  But this is not true for cross country.  In order to host a meet, you have to approach someone who owns a large piece of property, and say "Hey, I'd like to bring in a bunch of people to your facility and run all over the place."  Keeping in mind that all of these facilities have some other purpose (people generally don't purchase enormous chunks of land just in case a group of high school kids want to come run around on it), so the property owner has to consider the risks of allowing an activity like this on their property.  If the property is privately owned, the owner is often very concerned about the possibility of someone getting hurt on their property.  

Some facilities are welcoming to cross country meets, often county parks and other recreational venues enjoy having cross country take place there.  Daniel High School runs their home meets at Nettles Park in Clemson.  It is a great course, and they do a great job hosting meets.  There are several facilities like this all over the state, but many of them are limited in the space they provide.  They are great for 10-15 team meets, but they don't possess the space to host a large-scale meet.  When it comes to hosting the state cross country meet, the facility must be able to accommodate 100+ teams at one time, the facility must be centrally located, and the facility has to be willing to allow us to use their facility without incurring significant damage to their property.  

Why does the state meet have to be centrally located?

The SCHSL often says the state cross country meet should be in the Midlands.  I have never gotten the impression that it is written in stone, but it seems to be that there would have to be a really good reason not to be in the Midlands.  People might say "golf has their state championship all over the went to Clemson for four plays games in upper and lower during the three game series."  All of these statements are true.  However, golf involves 16-18 teams per location; football involves 10 teams statewide, baseball and softball involve two teams at a time; cross country and track are the only two sports where 100+ teams all have to convene at the same location at the same time. 

"Our schools wouldn't mind going to the Upper or Lower State if it's what's best for the sport and for kids."  Last year, we hosted the Upper State A and AAA track meet at Seneca High School.  If you're not familiar with Seneca, we are right next to Clemson, and Oconee County borders both Georgia and North Carolina.  People coming to our facility from three hours away (or more) were not happy to be coming to Seneca, and they made that clear to us.  This was for a qualifying track meet, and there were some major grumblings because people had to drive that far.  If we think that wouldn't be the case for cross country, I think we're sorely mistaken.  However, it's not just about people complaining.  Financially, I can say that two years ago my cross country team traveled to Charleston for the Low Country Invitational. 

Paying for mileage for an activity bus, plus hotel rooms in Charleston for the night before, the cost of the trip was over $2,000 (and we didn't have to pay for a bus driver).  If the meet were in the Upstate, the Lower State schools would have to incur that cost.  Columbia is centrally located, and allows for schools to not lose a significant amount of money to compete for a state championship.  That's not to say that the SCHSL will never decide to move the meet out of Columbia, I can't read their minds and would never claim to know their intentions.  However, I am certain the logistics of moving the meet would be tough on a lot of schools (smaller public schools especially).  

Why can't we just stay in a location we have been in- why do we need to change?

Great question.  When I started coaching, we ran Coaches Classic and the State Meet at Fort Jackson.  It was an ideal location - plenty of parking, a great course to watch and to run, bleachers for awards. It was everything we needed.  Then our country beefed up security after 9/11, and that removed our ability to use that facility.  We moved to Sandhills (with a lot of grumbling), and it was a great facility.  Again, plenty of parking, a nice course that after a few adjustments was something kids enjoyed running.  One of the issues with using someone else's property is the fact that you can't control everyone's actions.  We might have 2,500 runners running on the facility, and 2,496 of them might be completely respectful, but those four who might not do everything right are the ones that are paid the most attention. 

Maybe we have some athletes in the restricted experimental areas messing up some of the experimental trees or bamboo.  Maybe some athletes show up when they weren't supposed to be there, and maybe some officials from the facility are working to remove an unwanted animal, and the athletes distract them and a couple hours' worth of work is rendered useless because the animal gets away.   Maybe the large field required for the start and finish needs to be plowed up to plant corn as a part of the everyday operation of the facility.  Once again this property was purchased as a research facility, not to be a cross country course. 

We were guests at this facility, and we were at their mercy.  The changes made to the course made it impossible to host a large-scale meet, so we moved to a new facility.  Again, we are guests at this new facility - it was purchased to be a horse racing track.  The primary use of the facility should be the first consideration for any decisions made about the facility, because that's the right thing to do.  It might not be the popular thing to do, but it's the right thing to do.  Maybe the facility owners had some concerns about athletes taking care of the facility after some athletes kicked in a locked bathroom door and used the bathroom even though it was clearly closed, leading to a significant plumbing bill.  Maybe the facility owners had a bad taste in their mouth after 10-15 cars who were frustrated because of the long line waiting to get in at Coaches Classic took matters into their own hands, and drove around a sign and out onto the race track where they were not supposed to be driving.  Again, 2,496 kids and almost all parents probably did everything right, but it's unfortunate that we are not viewed based on the percentage of people that do things correctly.

Isn't there some other location we can go to?

I promise, we have looked and looked within the Midlands.  We are planning to discuss as a board whether or not we need to keep Coaches Classic in the same location as the state meet.  However, it is not best for our kids for us to lose money on Coaches Classic.  Coaches Classic Cross Country is the largest fundraiser for our association, and money goes directly back to students and athletes (I promised I'd send out information about the financial aspects of Coaches Classic - it's coming sometime soon after State).  Moving the meet out of the Midlands, especially if it's not the state meet course, will likely reduce our numbers and therefore our fundraising.  

In order to run a meet the size of the state meet, we can estimate approximately 1,200 cars will show up and need to be parked.  The standard seems to be about 150 cars per acre, which means we'll need 8-10 acres just to park spectator cars.  Add to that another 5-8 acres for bus parking- meaning we'd need 15-20 acres for parking alone.  Add to that a large field for start and finish, and a course wide enough for 20 teams to race at a time.  Sandhills was 600 acres, and Carolina Cup is about the same size.  Why couldn't we just purchase a plot of land and make that into a course?  A quick look at land for sale in Richland and Lexington County, any plot of land bigger than 50 acres is at least $250,000, I don't see anyone donating this land to the SCHSL to make a permanent cross-country course, and I am certain the League can't afford to purchase a location like this.  

So what do we do?

Easy answer - we stay patient and know that the people working to make cross country a great experience for athletes are doing their best to be good stewards of their responsibility to make decisions regarding locations of meets, and to honor their agreements with the facilities to make sure we leave everything like we found it.  By the looks of things on social media, there are plenty of experts in this area, however none of them have been tasked with making decisions that are good for kids considering all of the factors involved. 

Sometimes we live life inside our own bubble, and we don't consider what it's like outside our bubble.  Sometimes our bubble is just our family and our own kids.  Sometimes our bubble is just our team, who is a very accomplished cross-country team who devotes significant resources to our program.  Sometimes our bubble is the facility hosting the event, and we have to consider the possible effects of multiple large vehicles driving over a race track after two inches of rain in a 36-hour period.  Wherever your bubble is, I would invite you to be patient.  Your bubble is important, but so are the bubbles of every other person involved. 

I would invite parents to use your coach as a liaison to make your voice heard.  Your coach has a relationship with both the Coaches Association and the High School League, and your coach will be significantly more effective at initiating change than an angry parent will, and so I would invite you to go through the proper channels.  If you feel it is more important and must be addressed right away, I would invite you to contact your athletic director and have them contact the S.C. High School League, again because they have a relationship which will allow for a productive discussion. 

I hope every athlete has a great race on Tuesday, and I look forward to seeing them at their best.