An Introduction to High School Cross Country Running

  • Thank you to Tony Kwasnica for compiling this information:

    State College Area High School is a member of the PIAA District 6 and competes in the AAA division for cross country. The AAA division is made up of the largest sized schools in the State. District 6 is comprised of the counties in central PA. State College Area High School also competes in the Mid-Penn conference in the Commonwealth division. The Mid-Penn conference is comprised primarily of schools in the south central portion of the State (e.g. near Harrisburg). Most of the other Mid-Penn schools actually compete in PIAA District 3 (except Mifflin County which is also in District 6).

    Types of Meets: There are generally three types of meets during the season

    Dual or Tri Meets: These are smaller meets held during the week against one (dual) or two (tri) other teams.
    Invitationals: These are typically larger meets against more teams.
    Championships: These are meets that determine league, district championship or qualification for the next level of championship meets.

    Team makeup – A cross country team is usually made up of seven runners. The top five runners are the “scoring” members and the remaining two have the important job of displacing the scorers on opposing teams. Only the varsity level is limited to seven competitors in a race, the other levels usually have unlimited entries.

    Levels of competition – There are two levels (varsity and junior varsity) in most high school invitational cross country races. Each level competes in its own race and is scored separately. It is not uncommon for the junior varsity race to include both genders running simultaneously but competing for separate results/scores. In Dual or Tri meets, all athletes of the same gender compete in a single race.

    Scoring – Races are scored by assigning a point value for the place a runner finishes in. If a runner finishes first, he/she will earn 1 point. Finishing 55th would usually earn 55 points. Cross country is similar to golf in that the lowest score wins. A perfect score is 15 points, with the top five runners occupying the first five finishing positions. 

    While only the top 5 runners “score” for their team, the sixth and seventh placed runners also receive a score. Their points can be valuable since they may increase the score of an opposing team by placing in front of that team’s top five runners. The score of the sixth and seventh runners might also be used for tie breaking. 
    Runners who do not have a team of at least five runners are removed from the results for scoring purposes. 
    If a meet allows more than seven runners in a race, the runners that placed eight or higher within their team are removed from the results for scoring purposes.
    In the event of a tie between two or more teams, the place of the sixth place runners are compared. If only one team has a sixth runner then that team wins. If all teams have only five runners, then the score of the top 4 runners is used. 
    Race length – Almost all races in PA are 5 kilometers or approximately 3.1 miles. A race length of 3 miles is common in other locations. Not all courses are precisely measured. Courses are more or less difficult due to terrain differences.  A course that is possibly short or has a fairly easy profile is frequently known as a “PR course”. 

    Spectating at a Cross Country Race – The best way to watch a cross country race is largely a matter of personal preference but there are two predominant strategies. 

    Start/Finish. Since the start and finish lines are typically close to each other, spectators who prefer a less arduous spectating experience can watch the start of the race and then move over to the finish line to get a good view of the finish. 

    Multiple locations. Since many courses are on a circuit, it is usually possible to walk/jog/run between multiple viewing points on the course in order to see the runners as many times as possible. Since courses don’t change over the years, it is advisable to ask more experienced spectators about ideal viewing plans.
    A few other spectator related notes:

    Most cross country courses are dog friendly as long as your dog is reasonably well behaved. However, it is advisable to respect other people’s space with your pet. Many school campuses technically prohibit dogs but people tend to ignore that rule as long as the dog is not a disturbance. For example, a barking dog during the start of a race may be criticized by a race official. The Big Springs course (Mid-Penn championships) tends to have security guards who will (at times) enforce the school’s prohibition on dogs. Likewise, the States course is not particularly dog friendly although dogs are not technically prohibited.
    Pacing is not allowed. While I have never seen it enforced, running alongside an athlete (even if you are not on the course) could be considered pacing and result in a disqualification. 
    Team camp. The team usually sets up a base of operations with tents, food, etc. This is a good place to find your athlete during the meet. In the case of the State College team, the camp can be easily spotted by the SCXC flag. 


    XC Abbreviated form of Cross Country

    Harrier The original name for a cross country runner. 

    PIAA Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletics Association. The governing body of high school sports in PA.

    Districts The PIAA District 6 championships typically held one week before States. In District 6 AAA, the winning team and 

    States The PIAA State championships held the first weekend in November in Hershey, PA. You must qualify at District to compete at States. 

    Milesplit (or PennTrack) The best site for information related to high school cross country and track and field in Pennsylvania. Almost all meet results are posted to milesplit eventually. Visit

    NXN Nike Cross Nationals.  A prestigious national meet held in Portland, Oregon following the regular high school season. Teams and individuals that are invited to NXN receive an all-expense paid trip to Oregon.  Runners at this meet cannot utilize their scholastic uniforms etc. as it is outside the time period specified for cross country by PIAA. 

    NXR Nike Cross Regionals. The qualifying meet you must attend and do extremely well in to be invited to NXN. Runners at this meet cannot utilize their scholastic uniforms etc. as it is outside the time period specified for cross country by PIAA. 

    Footlocker A competing national meet held in San Diego, California following the regular high school season. Individuals qualify by placing highly in the regional Footlocker meet and receive an all-expense paid trip to California. Some older harriers might refer to this meet as Kinney as that was the original sponsor as this meet has been around for many years. Runners at this meet cannot utilize their scholastic uniforms etc. as it is outside the time period specified for cross country by PIAA. 

    PR Personal Record (time).

    PB Personal Best (time). 

    Splits Times associated with standard checkpoints in a race or workout. Ex: mile splits.

    Kick The sprint at the end of a race. Runners all have different abilities to kick.

    Strides Moderately fast runs lasting between 50-200m. The focus is on form during these runs. 

    Fartlek Swedish word for speed-play; workout includes faster running mixed with slower running

    Hills Workouts where a runner runs up a hill fast and jogs down then runs up again

    Intervals/Repeats Type of workout where a set distance is run repeatedly with a recovery jog between; for example 6 times 400 meters with 100 meters recovery jog

    Negative Split Running the second half of a race faster than the first half. This is generally considered to be a good thing and most PRs involve negative splits. 

    Taper Reducing your mileage several days to three weeks before an important race to ensure peak performance on race day.

    Cool-down Slow, easy running done after a workout or race to help you recover more quickly. No good racer fails to do a cool-down after a race.

    Recovery Run Slow to moderate running to recover from hard workouts or races and/or maintain aerobic conditioning.

    Wins At an invitational or tri meet, this is the number of teams that your team beats when excluding all other teams from the scoring (e.g. as if it was a dual meet). In a meet with X teams, the most number of wins available to a team is X-1. 

    Top 5 Spread the time difference between an team’s first place and their fifth place runner. A small Top 5 spread is taken to be a sign of team strength and cohesion.

    Pack up When a group of runners (often from the same team) run together for a portion of the race.

    Starting Box At invitational meets teams are usually assigned to a specified portion of the start line given by a box number. 

    Finish Chute The area immediately following the finish line. Depending upon the method of timing, the chute may be narrow and be cordoned off by flagging. This is also a place to meet/find your runner and to observe runners in various emotional and physical states. 

    Some of the material above came from the following websites:

Last Modified on September 8, 2020