By Andrew Boyd Hutchinson
The fall season for cross-country running in the United States has just passed, and unless you were one of the 492,310 American high schoolers who participated last season, the sport probably didn’t make much of a blip on your radar. It should have––because not only is the history rich within the sport with pertinent anecdotes galore––but a current corporate rivalry is transforming how high school athletes approach their season, and if history is any indication, the outcome might have major consequences that could fracture the sport for years to come.
The sport of cross-country running began almost exactly 200 years ago at Shrewsbury School in England (earliest documented year: 1819), and from the very beginning was an adolescent’s dream game. Rebellious youths took to the swampy moors and dark woods “out of bounds” to harness their adrenaline as they imitated equestrian fox hunts. It’s important to begin our story here, for no other reason than to note that this “hunt” was started for students, by students, and was never expected to develop globally the way it did.
Largely due to émigrés, the game expanded quickly beyond England, and within a generation (spurred by the popularity of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, a book that catalogued the sport at Rugby), landed in America as early as 1860. Once there it was ingrained in the East Coast Ivy Leagues, where Yale tried the sport for the first time in 1870, and Harvard followed suit in 1876. Gentlemen Amateur adult club teams sprouted up in New York (1878 in Harlem) and beyond soon after.
For high-schoolers, the sport first legitimized as a result of the New York Interscholastic Athletic Association “Interscholastic League” in the late 1890s. From there, major interscholastic cross-country meets, like the inaugural “American Interscholastic”, held by the University of Pennsylvania in the fall of 1903, sent invitations up and down the Eastern seaboard urging schoolboys to converge in Philadelphia on the first Saturday in December to compete for what was called a “national” prep championship.
However, while the sport expanded in the United States in fits and starts at the adolescent level, the first major controversy surrounding its implementation happened because of a corporate rivalry. The all-powerful New York Athletic Club had embraced cross-country running early on, and with a membership of over 1,500 men, felt rightfully inclined to host the inaugural “Amateur Individual Cross Country Championship of America” in 1883, the first national cross-country championship in the United States. The event was a resounding success, and subsequent cross-country championships were held every November for the next four years.
Across town, the Manhattan Athletic Club was watching with interest. Manhattan also reported a membership of 1,500 men and had joined the NYAC on the council of the National Association of Amateur Athletes of America––a governing body that had formed to legitimize a fleet of amateur sports; among them boxing, rowing, gymnastics, and track and field.
The National Association of Amateur Athletes of America didn’t last long (the NYAC only remained a member from 1880-1886), but the consequences of the NYAC’s departure formed a rift within the cross-country national championship. At the time, the NYAC hosted the only championship available: one intended to be run by individuals representing the various athletic clubs around the region. And as author E.H. Baynes wrote in Outing Magazine, the sport had begun to change: “As the number of clubs rapidly increased, a friendly rivalry sprang up, and the thoughts of those interested turned to interclub races….” Club teams like the Prospect Harriers (formed fall of 1886), and Suburban Harriers (formed March 1887) marked this shift from individual participation to “team” allegiance, and soon there was a movement to run a club team championship akin to what was being seen in England.
Invitations were issued by the Prospect Harriers in late spring 1887, and with the absence of leadership by the New York Athletic Club, four teams formed their own cross-country association. Predictably, the Manhattan Athletic Club was front and center. Six editions of the “Team and Individual Championship for the National Cross Country Association” occured before the event abruptly disappeared. By then, the team championship in the spring had replaced the New York Athletic Club’s “individual” offering in the fall. 1887 was the final (and only) year that both championships overlapped, and by 1889, the NYAC had joined to participate in the team championship as invitees by the association.
In fact, at its fourth holding, the NYAC and Manhattan Athletic Club were working in conjunction to time and administer the team championship, as reported by The New York Times, “C.C. Hughes and G.A. Avery, Manhattan Athletic Club, and Robert Stoll, New-York Athletic Club took the time of the various finishes from a small shed-like building at the finish.” But aside from the meet’s orchestration, all was not well behind the scenes.
The reality was that in November of 1888, Otto Ruhl of the New York Athletic Club filed a summons against Frederick Ware of the Manhattan Athletic Club in the Superior Court of the City of New York, which claimed that the Ware-led faction had illegally added members to the organization that went against the code of the Amateur Athletic Union. In doing this, Ruhl also maintained that he was the rightful president of the cross-country body, and that Ware had no business circumventing the group to produce a program of events for the subsequent year (1889), claiming there was “consequent damage and injury to the association,” of which Ruhl presided. All of this, of course, came at the dismay of Ware, who had been rightfully elected and had led the association to that point.
The date of the championships of the National Cross-Country Association, of which Mr. F. Ware is President, has been changed from April 27 to Oct. 5. The reason for this is that the athletes who are fond of cross-country running will be in better condition after their summer training….”
The article went on to mention that this fall date would anticipate a larger entry because of the “growing interest in this exercise,” and that numerous and elaborate prizes would be awarded of which the “athletes cannot complain of the inducements to run offered them.”
That very same article also mentioned how “the championships of the National Cross-Country Association, of which Mr. Otto Ruhl is President, will be held at Fleetwood Park April 27…” and that “the prospects for a settlement of the differences between the two National Cross-Country Associations are not as bright as they were two weeks ago.” Further explained was the mention that “members of the Manhattan Club are working to have the Amateur Athletic Union rescind its boycott resolution passed last August….” This was notable because the two athletic governing bodies (the NAAAA, of which the Manhattan Athletic Club governed, and the AAU, of which the NYAC controlled) refused to acknowledge the other and prevented athletes from competing against each other.
Conclusively, the corporate rivalry and the lawsuit was detrimental to the sport in America, for not only did the National Association of Amateur Athletes of America disband on August 1, 1889, but the Manhattan Athletic Club eventually filed for bankruptcy, too (in 1893). Cross-country running in America was the biggest victim, however. An article printed in Outing Magazine in January 1893 explained: “Time and again this fall a meeting of the National Cross Country Association has been called at the insistence of the various athletic clubs without producing a quorum…” The “national championships” were only held in two years of the decade following 1892, and all the momentum for the sport at the end of the 19th century disappeared overnight. Eventually, it would be the very same Amateur Athletic Union and New York Athletic Club who would revive the event annually in 1905.
But this otherwise forgotten footnote was not the end of corporate rivalry in American cross-country.
The 20th century saw the sport boom in America: first in the collegiate ranks, as the IC4A cross-country championships, and eventually the NCAA, managed impressive representation. High school teams, too, grew the sport. By the 1970s, every state had a high school cross-country “State Championship” (except for California, who were divided by regional sections), and girls were beginning to have unanimous recognition with the administration of Title IX. Historically, it was surprising how swift and unobtrusive the expansion of the sport was across the nation.
With this expansion, shoe companies like “Blue Ribbon Sports” (soon to be known as Nike) were raking in the sales of their popular running shoes because of a national boom with running and jogging. And specialty stores flourished, like those owned by the Kinney Shoe Corporation, who reached sales of $358 million a year by 1974. Dubbing itself “The Great American Shoe Store,” Kinney passed the $1 billion mark in sales by 1980, operating 2,115 stores. That same year, Nike reached a 50-percent market share in the U.S. athletic shoe market.
Most importantly, in 1979, Kinney shoes launched the “Kinney Shoes Cross-Country Championships,” the first national-caliber meet of its kind for high school runners.
This first “National Cross-Country Championship,” held in Balboa Park in San Diego, on December 8, 1979, promoted Kinney’s “Run to Be Fit” program, and the end result was a relatively small group of spectators turning out to watch 35 of the nation’s best individual high school cross-country runners. The top seven finishers for boys and girls had qualified through five regional meets: Houston and New York in October, Chicago in November, and San Francisco and Atlanta in December.
While the “Run to Be Fit” program was an intrinsic tie-in to market to a growing consumer base, Kinney conveyed a sense of seriousness with the event that distinguished it from previous attempts (such as those by the AAU) at instituting a “National Championship” for adolescents. Meet Directors like Bob Latham and Vern Gambetta were tasked with managing the qualifying regions, while PR company Rudder and Finn was hired to help market the occasion.
Instead of an offshoot connected with a senior national championship, Kinney made the high schoolers the stars. Accommodations were paid for, and runners were treated to a four-star hotel stay at Mission Bay, while Kinney rented the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Safari Park in 1979 and catered in a special banquet for the athletes, coaches, and dignitaries (future editions would see the high schoolers go to Sea World).
It was a major success. The regional qualifiers led to a new degree of ownership for the youths involved (unlike the AAU Junior National, which was an open event in which any individual could participate). In the ensuing two decades, the event would only get larger and more dynamic, and the Kinney name would eventually change to the “Foot Locker Cross Country Championships” in support of their national athletic shoe store.
Then, in August 2001, Foot Locker named Nike the presenting sponsor of the 23rd running of the championship, with a multi-year contract that gave Nike logo identification for race materials, uniforms, and television spots during network coverage from Fox Sports. “Nike has the largest and strongest prep running program in the industry which includes outreach to more than 100,000 young runners nationwide,” said Josh Rowe, the youth running manager at Nike. “This partnership with the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships is a perfect fit. There’s no better place to enhance our support of youth running.” The Foot Locker Cross Country Championships had grown to see more than 10,000 runners compete in their regional meets. It appeared to be an ideal corporate marriage.
But like the Manhattan-NYAC rivalry of a hundred years previously, Foot Locker and Nike were about to form a rift.
In 1999, Nike hosted BorderClash, one of the first high school interstate cross-country championships, which pitted the top-20 male finishers and top-20 female finishers of the Oregon and Washington state cross-country meets against each other on Nike’s campus. The brainchild of Josh Rowe and John Truax, the meet was designed to create a fun weekend of events that focused on the finest prep harriers from the Pacific Northwest, including campus tours, free Nike merchandise, and a fun format for the event that saw the two starting teams face each other (jousting style) with a cannon blast to mark the start of the race.
And after the success of BorderClash, Rowe and Truax pined for a larger scale event that would lure the nation’s top high school harriers to Nike: a true “Team” National Cross-Country Championship. While Foot Locker hosted the top individuals, Rowe and Truax weren’t satisfied that students had a fair opportunity to compete nationally with their local school team. Under Rowe’s guidance, a top expert committee was assembled, and a qualifying structure was developed. The winter of 2004 unveiled this new event. As their press release explained:
Teams will be chosen based a new and expanded regional ranking system produced by high school cross country expert Marc Bloom, editor of The Harrier magazine who has been ranking high school cross country teams for 15 years. All 40 teams, including an adult representative for each team, will receive expenses paid by Nike. In the spirit of team cross-country, all 7 runners plus an alternate will be awarded an expenses-paid trip to the nationals.
The top 2 boys and girls teams in the end-of-season rankings from each of 8 regions, plus 4 at-large selections each for boys and girls, will make up the 20-team fields for the Nationals. The event executive committee will contribute expertise to The Harrier rankings throughout the season, and the committee will choose the at-large teams once the state meets are over. At-large berths will be weighted on end-of-season performances.
With USA Track and Field’s convention being held in Portland in December of 2004 (along with the winter club cross-country national championships), the partnership with the official administration of the sport was forged, and recognition was given to this upstart endeavor:
The program will be sanctioned by USA Track and Field, running’s national governing body, and be held in concert with the club cross-country nationals, a post-collegiate event, and the USATF convention, both scheduled for that same December 4 weekend in Portland. USATF will also help facilitate the Nike Team Nationals entry process. Teams will compete as USATF-affiliated clubs. Entries will be done on the Nike Team Nationals meet website, in conjunction with the USATF. Nike will provide team racing uniforms. “We look forward to working with Nike on this exciting new program,” said Bill Roe, president of USA Track and Field. “Here is a chance for cross country to be showcased and the spotlight put on high school teams. More high school runners will be touched by this event than by any other national program, perhaps convincing many more athletes to continue their running in college and beyond.”
The first Nike Team Nationals Cross-Country Championship in 2004 was highly successful, with nationally-ranked high school teams flown in from all corners of the United States to Nike’s campus in Beaverton. Additionally, there was even incentive to compete in both Nike Team Nationals and Foot Locker, as journalist John Dye explained: “The first two finishers at NTN from Foot Locker regions will be awarded a slot at Foot Locker national finals . . . As you may have figured out by now, the Foot Locker finals field expands from 32 to 40, with 10 from each region.” But despite the publicity generated for the new event, and with praiseworthy experiences from all involved, there remained criticism around the selection process for Nike’s event.
In 2004 and 2005, teams were chosen based on a ranking system determined by the expert panel. In 2006, everything changed with the addition of one qualifier in-between the state championship level and the national stage: the Rocky Mountain Region XC Championships.
Twenty-two state champions from five states took part in the Rocky Mountain Regional, an event conceived by Rowe and Truax while attending the 2006 University of Washington Husky Invitational in Seattle. High school runners from Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah met to compete for trophies that were awarded to the top three teams and top three individuals.
Following the Rocky Mountain Regional, Josh Rowe addressed the Nike Board with the intention of bridging a regional system based on a potential Foot Locker/ Nike cross-country merger. But Foot Locker management quickly shot down the tournament idea, claiming the team concept was not important. As a result, the Foot Locker/ Nike relationship fractured, and Rowe met with Jim Spier and employee AJ Holzherr to find locations for Nike’s own regional championships. Holzherr and Spier traversed the country, ultimately deciding upon locations, while Rowe convinced Nike to put up the funding. In coming years these regions were expanded upon, but 2007 marked the first opportunity high school teams across America were given to earn their trip to Portland Meadows—a major step in elevating the Nike Team Nationals Championship to the status of a legitimate national proving ground.
Nike spared no expense putting on an international-type event for American high school athletes, and only a year later the standards rose again: 2008 saw Nike Team Nationals become Nike Cross Nationals with opportunities for both individual cross-country standouts to run alongside eligible teams. As Nike wrote in their press release in May 2008:
Nike today announced that its Nike Team Nationals (NTN) team cross-country championship will expand this year to include individuals, becoming Nike Cross Nationals (NXN). . . . This year, the top 22 teams will be joined by the 90 fastest individuals from non-qualifying teams. Nike Cross Nationals is the only national cross-country championship for both teams and individuals.
Long gone were the days of qualifying for Foot Locker through the Nike Cross Country event. Now, with certain qualifying events on the same day in December, students had to make the choice as to which event they wanted to attend.
As the rivalry wore on, each “national championship” pulled the top national talent in two directions; and it appeared that even simple compromises were out of the question. As writer Cory Mull shared in a recent piece:
In 2015, when Loudoun Valley (VA) High graduate Drew Hunter tried to pursue racing in both events, he was shut down by an NXN meet director who wouldn’t move his race––both qualifiers were on the same day. . . . Think about that for a moment. Hunter was willing to race twice in one day to make sure he had the chance to compete in both events. He was willing to travel 120-plus miles to make it work. And he needed an hour of wiggle room to make it happen. NXN didn’t budge with Hunter, who ultimately won Foot Locker Nationals in 2015 and later signed with Adidas when he turned pro.
In a game of tug-of-war, each organization claimed to have the top talent in attendance.
A sliver of hope emerged this past fall, when mention was made of a “golden ticket”––a free pass that would allow a top athlete the chance of competing in both events without having to qualify (namely, run in a regional to properly land in Foot Locker, despite an overlap conflict with a Nike event). Katelyn Tuohy, a sophomore from North Rockland, New York , was the only name in contention. “Late on Sunday,” wrote Mull,
We confirmed this news with North Rockland head coach Brian Diglio, who said Foot Locker wanted to gauge the interest of Tuohy at Foot Locker Nationals and offered the chance at a golden ticket. Tuohy and Diglio thanked Foot Locker for the thought, but they turned it down, saying it was too late in the process and they were already focused on NXN.
It was confirmed Monday by Foot Locker Director of Events and Publicity Gabriella Citrin that there was no “Golden Ticket” offered to North Rockland NY sophomore Katelyn Tuohy to run Saturday at the 39th Foot Locker Cross Country Championships at Balboa Park’s Morley Field in San Diego. “With nearly 40 years of history and heritage in running, Foot Locker and the athletes who run our races each year pride themselves on earning their spot on the starting line by placing top 10 in one of our four Regional Qualifiers,” Citrin said. “To be clear, Foot Locker did not offer any runner a spot at Nationals who did not qualify as part of the current qualifying procedure.” . . . [in response] North Rockland coach Brian Diglio said he was contacted in October by a Foot Locker representative at the regional level to inquire about Tuohy’s interest in competing at an additional national championship. During the conversation, the idea of a “Golden Ticket” was expressed for her to gain entry. Diglio stated Tuohy’s focus remained on finishing at NXN. “It was a quick conversation, probably five minutes and the idea was just kind of floated out there. It 100 percent wasn’t a formal offer and even if it was, we would have politely declined because since August, we had set up her season schedule to end Dec. 2 at NXN,” Diglio said. “It was not a definite offer. It was just to gauge our interest if such a thing were to occur.”
With the opportunity gone for a compromise between these two events, only time will tell whether Nike and Foot Locker find a way to reconcile their differences, and give athletes the chance at competing at both events instead of having to compromise. Luckily, through learning from history, perhaps disaster can be averted if it comes to a one-or-done deal with these two corporate giants.
Andrew Boyd Hutchinson has written for Track and Field News, METER Magazine, the Adventure Projects Network, and Educated Running. His anthology on the The Complete History of Cross-Country Running debuts in January 2018, through Carrel Books (Skyhorse Publishing). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @Real_XC.
 2016-17 High School Athletics Participation Survey, Conducted By The National Federation Of State High School Associations.
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 “Qualifying for Foot Locker at NTN, The Meet Within The Meet”. Published by DyeStat.com, November 30, 2004. By John Dye.
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 “Nike Team Nationals To Become Nike Cross Nationals in 2008”. Published by Nike News, May 13, 2008.
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 “Who’s No. 1? We Won’t Know Unless Foot Locker Nationals, NXN Work Together”. Published by MileSplitUSA, October 24, 2017. By Cory Mull.
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 “Foot Locker Confirms Protocol Remains Athletes Must Qualify For Nationals Through Regional Meets, Thus No ‘Golden Tickets’ Offered”. Published by DyeStat.com, December 4, 2017. By Erik Boal, DyeStat Editor.