The NCAA XC Championships are the Superbowl of autumnal running in the US. Irishman Ciaran O Lionaird experienced America's rich cross country tradition first hand when he spearheaded Florida State University’s men's team to an historic second place finish in 2010. He tells SPIKES why every athletics fan should be tuning in this weekend.

Ultimate team effort

“I had an idea of how big a deal the NCAAs were before I moved to the US, but I definitely didn’t think that I’d be in a bubble as much as I was. The way I approached it was that I singularly focused on NCAAs when I was in college; I didn’t try to look beyond that to races in Europe and stuff.

“The level of competition is so high in all sports in the NCAAs – Florida State gets 85,000 to see the football – you realise that it is big time, and that you’re running as a part of something. It almost closes you off to professional track and field a bit, I think; desensitises you to global sport because the competition in the NCAAs is so competitive and professional in terms of how it’s set up and run.

“Since I did the NCAAs I see cross country almost entirely as a team sport. That’s why I’m going back to Ireland to run cross country for my club – I want to run for more than just me. Where I finished in the NCAA meet was completely irrelevant, or relevant only to the point in that it helped the team. When I crossed the line my first thought was where my team was, not where I’d placed.

“Some of the teams that come into it, you may have some guys that toe the line and perform at nationals, but there’s upwards of 20-30 guys training together since August, all the way up to that November race. Even when those guys know that they’re not going to be competing at nationals, they don’t just turn it down, they keep training and helping as meeting reps, just contributing to the team.

“So there’s this huge backroom operation. You see the seven guys on the line, and it may look like it’s just them competing, but really it’s such a collective operation of 15, 20 guys at home who’ve really invested their training into helping the guys who are racing that day. It’s just a huge collective effort, so I definitely see it as being a team sport almost entirely.”

The best middlers

“There are no road races or marathons at NCAA level, so the cross country is pretty much the race that brings everyone together: your milers, steeplechasers, your 10k guys, 5k guys – pretty much anyone who’s running longer than an 800m; and even some of the 800 guys are running at cross country meets.

“You’re up against all the best distance runners, so if you can place highly in that, you know that you’ve definitely set yourself up with a good base, especially if you’re a 1500m runner. It’s as good a base as anyone can get heading into a track season, it reinforces your fitness. You can cross the NCAAs off and then when you take your break and you get ready for track you have in the back of the mind ‘I’m in a pretty good spot now, if I can just keep building on this. Not only have I competed against the best 1500m runners and done pretty well, I’ve also competed against the best 5 and 10,000m runners’.

 

#tbt NCAA XC 2010 helping my FSU Squad to 2nd place, our highest finish ever, making a dubious fashion statement with the crop top singlet and somehow looking 20 years older than I do today 👀 Go NOLES this weekend at NCAA #LENNYrustCOHLE #LenjaminButton

A photo posted by Ciarán ó Lionáird (@gociaran) on

 

“It gave me confidence to go to the track and double up at meets. I ran 1500m and 5000m a couple of times for FSU, and I ran a 10k. I don’t think I would have had the confidence to do that if I didn’t have the cross country to show that I can compete with those guys on that level.”

Groomed grandeur

“I think there is definitely a question of better groomed course. When I first went to Tallahassee they started building a cross country course, and we would help out as part of our community service, go in and literally slash away trees. Now it’s one of the nicest courses in the country. It’s crushed eggshell a lot of it, so it’s like a manicured golf fairway, almost like a soft version of a gravel path. And it’s super fast. I think I ran a 4:15 mile on it.

“You’re not running through puddles like in Europe. There are hills cross country courses in the US, but definitely they’re better manicured than in Europe. The other thing that distinguishes them is that the loops are way bigger. When we ran NCAA cross country it was a 5k loop, so we’d just be gone on this big loop, you know. The hills are much longer; you’re not doing really steep, short uphills, it’s a long gradual climb. And the straights are way longer, one was 1500m long. It looks easy in pictures, but I remember at NCAAs we had this huge headwind in that straight, and it was super exposed, no trees. So we were just flying head on into a wind for pretty much a mile straight. Twice.

“So you might look at the course and think ‘this is pretty easy’, but when you’re actually in the thick of it, especially at the pace these races go out at – like 4:20 for the mile – it’s challenging in a different way.”

Best day ever

“The cross country tradition at Florida State wasn’t as big as in other schools. I think there’s a bit of a myth, until we got second, that the South had more sprint schools than distance schools, so we had much fewer scholarships for distance than any other team in the top ten. 

Ciaran O'Lionaird NCAA 2010 FSU ()

 Silver for FSU in the race, but a gold for some of those facial hair efforts

“We had fewer than three scholarships of the 12 at FSU devoted to distance. It was the first time FSU had finished that high, for sure. It was really cool. Probably, still to this day, it’s my best day in athletics I think. That’s the day I’ll probably remember the most, regardless of what I do. The team were all friends, they were the guys I lived with, trained with, and it was a huge deal to finish that high.

“We came back and everyone in the school had been made aware of it. There was a huge party thrown for us when we got back. A lot of the athletes from all the sports came together and rallied around what we’d done, so it was definitely beyond just the cross country team. The good thing about FSU is the strong football community in Tallahassee, so the school really supports athletics, and cross country is included in that. So it was really cool to be part of something that got some attention around the campus and around the town.”