Stories about the University of Wisconsin men’s and women’s cross country teams are like tall tales.
Badgers fans boast of their accomplishments (“The men have won 49 Big Ten Championships! And 33 individual titles!”) and nod their heads in agreement at the mention of various superlatives (“The women won six consecutive conference titles! Twice!”).
And like lumberjacks trying to top each other with campfire myths of Paul Bunyan or the elusive hodag, very few fans have actually laid eyes on Wisconsin cross country legends like three-time All-American Mohammed Ahmed or 1995 national champion Kathy Butler. Fewer still have ever seen a race.
Imagine if only a few thousand fans saw Ron Dayne set the NCAA rushing record in 1999. That’s how many were on hand to see Badger Morgan McDonald win the 2018 NCAA cross country meet in Madison last November. McDonald went on to win national titles in the 3,000 and 5,000 meters at the NCAA indoor track meet in March and the 5,000 meters at the NCAA outdoor meet in June, one of the great feats in Wisconsin athletics history.
During a cross country race, dozens of stories can play out over an eight-kilometer course as teams attempt to adhere to their tactics while individual runners calculate and recalculate their odds of topping their personal records, all while trying to hold off pain and fatigue.
“I like to remind my teammates, you’re going to be uncomfortable and you’ve got to be comfortable with being uncomfortable,” said Oliver Hoare, a senior All-American from Sydney, Australia.
Hoare will lead the Wisconsin men’s team at Friday’s Nuttycombe Invitational, one of the most prestigious college cross country meets in the United States. In its 11th year, the Nuttycombe will bring 36 teams of each gender to the Zimmer Championship Cross Country Course, located at University Ridge. Among them will be 17 of the top 30 women’s teams and 19 of the top 30 men’s teams. The top-ranked men’s (Northern Arizona) and women’s (Arkansas) squads will be running.
The large field means 300 athletes line up for each championship race (there are also “B” races for each gender), making for a thrilling, high-stakes sprint over the first kilometer.
“There’s a lot of anxiety at the start,” Hoare said. “It definitely gets to a lot of guys. For us this year, as a team, we’re trying to work on getting off that line fast. A cross country race is obviously eight to 10 K. It’s long, but that first mile is gonna be fast. You’ve got 300 guys and all of them are going to be at the same fitness, or even sometimes better than you, and if you’re not off that line and in good position, the race is already sort of said and done. That stresses boys out.”
Alicia Monson, a senior from Amery, won the women’s race a year ago, setting a record of 19:33.3 on the 6-kilometer course (men will run 8 kilometers).
“I kind of surprised myself when I won it,” Monson said. “Any cross country race is hugely tactics. You have to be able to put yourself in the correct spot both for yourself and for the team in the first K. But you also have to be looking up and match whatever moves are made, but also expect that if moves are made too early, you might just have to wait on that and know you can reel them in at the end. You definitely have to have your wits about you.”
In addition to competing against the best in the country, both teams are looking to move past a disappointing effort at Notre Dame on Oct. 4, where the women finished sixth and the men finished eighth.
“We had a silly mistake, an amateur mistake at Notre Dame. We came off the line as if we were at a practice session, not in a pretty good meet. And the course was pretty narrow and we got caught at the back and that was it, you can’t make it up,” said Mick Byrne, Wisconsin director of cross country and track & field. “It sounds like an excuse, but we addressed that in practice on our own course, so there are things you can change. But part of it is changing the mentality. We were very lackadaisical and I don’t quite understand it, but we changed that attitude.”
All of that will play out on what many consider to be one of the best cross country courses in the nation, largely because of the views afforded spectators.
“High school parents are always talking about how they see their kids at the start and they see their kids in the home stretch,” Byrne said. “Our course is designed so you can see a lot of the race. After the first 2K loop, you go into the inner loops and you can see a lot of the race.”
And then maybe adjourn to a backyard bonfire where you can regale your friends with the feats you witnessed from the legendary Badgers harriers.
The Nuttycombe Invitational “B” races begin on Friday morning at 11 a.m. (women’s 6K) and 11:40 a.m. (men’s 8K) with championship races starting at 12:20 p.m. (women’s 6K) and 1 p.m. (men’s 8K). See the Cross Country sections at uwbadgers.com for information about parking and shuttle buses to the course from Blackhawk Church. No spectator parking is allowed at University Ridge.