Tips on ways to improve cross country coverage

Cross country is not nearly as popular as football, but that doesn’t mean writers should cover this sport any less rigorously or creatively.

And there’s no reason this beat can’t be the most interesting.

In order to make it so, writers will need to find storylines before these races begin, to keenly observe the races, and to better understand strategy – in other words: to approach cross country like every other beat.

Let’s look at A few cross country event stories to better understand.

Leads can immediately address results, or they can introduce compelling storylines, offer necessary context, and focus on individual performances. No matter the angle, insert the event’s key results in a few sentences fairly high in the story, which serves as a nut graph.

Here is how not to write a lead for, really, any sport: simply stating that a team opened its season (or played a game or is scheduled to play a game or is looking to compete hard – or anything equally general and uninteresting).

The Tennessee men’s and women’s cross country teams opened the 2016 season at the Tennessee Dual on Saturday. The men won but the women lost against UT Martin in the first race run at the Tennessee Cross Country Course at Cherokee Farm.

The lead in the above story could have initially addressed how Tennessee sophomore Zach Long found a way to finish second or how UT-Martin’s Wesley Robinson slipped back from first to third during the final mile or even addressed how UT-Martin’s women team ran in a pack to take the top four spots.

This story appears to be based upon a news release from a university, but that’s no excuse – particularly for the sports information department that probably sent this. SIDs need to work even harder to place cross country stories in publications. The more compelling the story, the more likely to run, to be read and to further promote one’s athletic team.

Position yourself at key markers during a race. Agility certainly helps in covering cross country as does scouting a course. In a 3-mile high school race, head to the 1- and/or 2-mile spots, where you can often record the times being called out as runners pass by. Later, you can assess physical aspects such as runners’ paces, positions and strides.

This description from a recent cross country event attempts to put readers in the moment.

Krupa came from behind in the final mile, passing Wheeling senior Matt Hoffman with 300 meters remaining in taking first in 15:37.1 at the 46th annual Fenton Earlybird Invitational in Bensenville.

Make sure you do not confuse pace with overall time. In this story last week, the following sentence was published.

Cruz, a sophomore, crossed the finish line of the two-mile race in 5:37.9.

That remarkable time is more than two minutes faster than the world record set on a track by Daniel Komen 20 years ago. Likely, this was Cruz’s mile pace for two miles, meaning he ultimately clocked 11 minutes, 15.8 seconds in the Texas race.

Make sure you also ask follow-up questions in order to supply more specific details and insights.

“Both teams opened up with some positive things. With individual and team wins both groups were able to pack it up well. This race was meant to introduce many of the new Longhorns to collegiate racing,” said Cross Country Coach Brad Herbster.

A few possible follow-up questions: Coach, can you cite a few specific positives? How did your team run in a pack so well? (Further, how does pack running work? This is a topic that could be addressed in a game story or could be a mid-week feature.) Also: What are the biggest challenges runners face in their first meets, and how did these runners overcome them?

In the Tennessee story, Beth Alford-Sullivan, the Vols’ director of track & field and cross country coach, offered a quote that needed further clarification – and which could also lead to a weekly feature.

“They have done a great job; our groundskeepers have done a tremendous job of building out this course,” Alford-Sullivan said.

Follow-up questions: So, coach, how specifically did the groundskeepers build the course? What are some of the specific elements that help the runners?

Here’s a solid, straightforward lead from MLive, which offers key news and context:

Hope College’s Erin Herrmann set a Bill Vanderbilt cross country meet record in style on Saturday, beating the old mark by nearly minute for the nationally ranked Flying Dutch.

The senior from Wheaton, Illinois (Wheaton-Warrenville South HS) clocked a winning time of 17 minutes, 39 seconds at Ridge Point Community Church in the Hope’s annual season opener.

If you are writing a preview for any sport, avoid focusing on the fact that a team will play or host a game or meet (see below). Do some reporting to find a storyline or theme.

PROVO, Utah – The BYU men’s and women’s cross country teams open up the 2016 season by hosting the Autumn Classic Saturday morning at Clarence F. Robison Track in Provo.

The Field Guide To Covering Sports‘ chapter on cross country offers significantly more on approaches to covering cross country, but here are a few quick style reminders:

  • Spell out times in first reference: Maria Baldwin finished in 16 minutes, 23.4 seconds. Then use numerals for future time references: Lillian Ciurcovich took second in 16:34.
  • Unlike other sports, cite the lower score first: Cypress Lake defeated Fort Myers, 21-32, in a dual meet. In cross country, of course, the lower points total wins. A team’s overall score is based upon where its top five runners finish in the race. That means a team that sweeps the top five spots earns 15 points (1+2+3+4+5)

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About jgisondi

I covered sports and worked as a sports copy editor for more than 20 years at several newspapers in Florida, including the Fort Myers News-Press, Clearwater Sun, Florida Today and Orlando Sentinel. I started writing for a weekly sports publication in Coral Springs, Fla., at age 15. I have been hooked on sports journalism ever since. I was fortunate to have worked with some amazing editors along the way, journalists who took the time to help me even when my copy was not top-notch. Now, I teach journalism at Eastern Illinois University and work as an editor for Landof10.com, a vertical that focuses on Big Ten athletics. A second edition of the "Field Guide To Covering Sports" will be available sometime in February 2017. The book is a practical guide to preparing, observing, interviewing and writing about 20 different sports, from auto racing to wrestling. Chapters also address ways to cover high school sports, fantasy sports, to develop sports blogs. You can also learn how to cover games, to write features and to interview better. Fans can also learn basic rules of these sports, along with ways to better observe the action. New chapters in the second edition will address social media, advanced analytics, fantasy sports coverage and revised, expanded chapters address game coverage, features and columns, among other new sections.
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