Cross country — covering races

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Sportswriter Gary Smith relies on the technique of in medias res to heighten the dramatic tension and create some mystery in his story about the struggles of a high school cross country team in southern California. In his article “Running For Their Lives,” Smith focuses on the story behind a California team’s success, a story that is certainly more feature than game coverage. But anybody who covers cross country needs to read this piece by White. Your race stories will be significantly shorter than Smith’s feature; however, you can still learn a great deal about covering races from his article.

Smith uses the technique of starting a story at the midway point instead of at the beginning, something that is familiar to those who have read Homer’s Iliad and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This technique allows the author to grab the reader’s attention immediately by focusing on some key actions, instead of on background.

After putting the reader into the middle of the action, writers can introduce characters, develop setting, and explain the primary conflict through a series of flashbacks or exposition. After the initial scene, readers are more likely to care about the characters they have just seen in action. Why is Achilles so angry? Why are the Greeks poised to attack Troy? This technique also allows writers to tease to future and past scenes as well – something Smith does exceptionally well in “Running For Their Lives,” an article first published in Sports Illustrated and considered one of The Best American Sports Writing articles published in 2005. I strongly recommend this piece – as well as anything else by Gary Smith, perhaps the finest sports reporter in the country.

You can also start your own race story in the middle of the action on a smaller scale, if you spend enough time researching the teams and runners and if you record the right information during the race. I have listed some tips and advice below to help you get to that point.

Covering sports can be daunting at first — watching the action, keeping score, writing effective notes and then talking with coaches and athletes. Then, you must organize and understand these notes before writing a story under deadline pressure. This entry is the fourth in a series created to help reporters focus on key information and statistics, both before and during sporting events.

LEAD ELEMENTS
(By lead elements, I mean the first several paragraphs.)
■ Start in the middle of the race action, as cited above.
■ Name of the event
■ Name the location of the race (park, school field, etc.)
■ Include the distance of the race
■ Can address individual performance
■ Can address course or weather conditions at the race, if they are significant
■ Include overall team winner in the first few paragraphs

THINGS TO KNOW
■ Cross country is scored by adding the finishes of the team’s top five runners against the total scores of the other teams. The lowest score wins. Compare the scores for the following two teams. In an Ohio Valley Conference meet, Eastern Illinois’ runners finish fourth, eleventh, eighteenth, twentieth and thirty-fourth. Murray State finishes first, second, third, twenty-ninth and fifty-fourth. Who wins? You need to add the numbers. Eastern’s score is 4+11+18+20+34, which equals 87 points. Murray State’s score is 1+2+3+29+54, which equals 89. Murray State swept the top three spots, but it’s next two runners finished much farther back. Even though no Eastern runner finished in the top 10, the team’s overall performances were more consistent. In this case, you would certainly want to investigate how Murray State could have the top three runners in the conference and still not win the title. You can also focus on the consistent performances of Eastern. The reasons might be compelling.
■ Cross country teams run seven runners in meets even though only the top five finishers count in the overall scores. But there is one exception. If two teams are tied, the sixth-place runner is used as the tiebreaker.
■ A 5K race is 3.1 miles and a 10K race is 6.2 miles. To calculate, multiply each 1 mile by 1.6 kilometers

ELEMENTS TO FOCUS ON
■ Terrain. Hills can affect performance. Determine where the hills are located. A hill late in the race can have a big impact on runners.)
■ Weather conditions (some runners do better in muddy, rainy conditions; others do better when the weather is very hot.)
■ The team’s fifth-place finisher. Remember that cross-country is a team sport. Often, the finish of the fifth runner can be more significant than the finish of the top few runners.
■ Elevation. Teams that train at higher elevations typically have an edge because their bodies are more accustomed to working with less oxygen. Colorado State, for example, will do much better running a race in Terre Haute, Indiana, than a team from the Plains would have running at their home course in Boulder. Indiana State’s runners might struggle to catch their breath by the end of a 10K race.
■ Walk the course before the race whenever possible. You’ll need to know the terrain before you can properly write about the race. Plus, this will enable you to determine where and how you want to watch the game. Perhaps, you can cut through some woods and watch the leaders at the first and fourth mile markers before heading to the finish line.
■Personal best times. Compare a runner’s performance to his/her previous best. Do not refer to these as “PR,” as runners do. Yes, these are personal records but they are not actual records. Use “personal best” instead.
■ Go out to mile markers to see how key runners are doing. This will enable you to describe the runners, which your coverage read more like a story than a recitation of times and finishes. This will help your readers see the story.

Example: “Steve Prefontaine breathed hard at the four-mile marker. His legs seemed to slow down and his body swayed to the side, unlike the six runners who ran effortlessly past him.”

■ Pace. This is the average time per mile, so someone who raced three miles in 15 minutes ran at a pace of five minutes per mile. (Time divided by miles.) You will have to change minutes to seconds for most calculations. Thus, you would multiply 15 minutes by 60 seconds before dividing by three miles.
■ Splits (typically mile splits for longer races.) By getting these, you can determine where, and when, a runner either faltered or took off. Coaches typically record their own splits during the race. You can ask coaches, or team managers, for these.
■ Teammates running in pairs or packs. (Often, certain runners will stay together for most of the race to pull each other along.)
■ Comparisons to previous meets. Check how this team, or individual runners, fared this year compared to past years at this meet.
■ Comparisons to previous performances on this trail.
■ Check how this team, or individual runners, fared compared to previous races in this trail.
■ Walk the course before the race whenever possible. You’ll need to know the terrain before you can properly write about the race. Plus, this will enable you to determine where and how you want to watch the game. Perhaps, you can cut through some woods and watch the leaders at the first and fourth mile markers before heading to the finish line.
■ If this is a postseason race, state how many teams advance to the next level. And also state the time and date of the next race.

QUESTIONS TO ASK RUNNERS
■ What were you thinking during the race (or during a certain section of the trail)?
■ Was there a point in the race where you felt particularly strong?
■ Was there a point in the race where you felt weaker?
■ Were you watching, or focusing on, any runners? Which ones and why?
■ How had you thought you would do before the race started? What were your goals entering the race?
■ How did you think the team was going to do?
■ What surprised you the most?

QUESTIONS TO ASK COACHES
■ What was your pre-race strategy?
■ Did runners follow your pre-race strategy?
■ What were your goals for the race? (This might be as simple as getting each runner to improve by 10 seconds, or to place fourth as a team. This goal might also be to pull the fifth-place runner up a few spots.)
■ What types of workouts had the team go through the past week to prepare for this race? Were these workouts different from training the previous few weeks?
■ Ask coaches to explain anything that you are not certain about, meaning anything you cannot write with an authoritative voice.
■ Did you notice anything different about your team during the race?

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3 Responses to “Cross country — covering races”

  1. O’Collegian, Daily Trojan offer solid follow-up football stories « ON SPORTS Says:

    […] love a good cross country story, perhaps because too many young writers believe such beats are not as worthy as football or […]

  2. Amazing insights from a compelling writer « ON SPORTS Says:

    […] of this blog know how much I admire Gary Smith, perhaps the most talented narrative sports writer in the universe. That’s why I […]

  3. Fans go crazy over ’second tier’ sports « ON SPORTS Says:

    […] who watched the cross country championships Monday, though, were even more fanatical. Winds, which gusted at least 20 mph, did […]

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