Sunday, December 18, 2011

Should you think about running in college?

As high school cross country finishes up, many juniors and seniors are turning their attention to college applications.  Some of the more serious runners are probably thinking about running competitively in college.  In talking to high schoolers and their parents, I find there are often a lot of misconceptions about what college distance running is like in the NCAA.  I just finished four years of competing in cross country and track at a Division III school, and I have several friends who are Division I and Division II athletes, so I'm in a good position to comment on college athletics as they are right now.  In this post, I'll try to key you in on what running in college is all about, the differences between the various divisions, and whether you ought to think about running in college yourself.

This time, we don't need a crash course in any kind of -ology, so we'll jump right in.  First off, there's a few things you should know.  College running is different in many respects to high school running, mostly because the bar is set higher.  In college, running is a year-round sport.  Long distance specialists compete in cross country in the fall, indoor track in the winter, and outdoor track in the spring.  Summer is the only real break from competition, and it's devoted to building base strength for cross country.  And even 800m specialists are usually expected to train for and compete in cross country in the fall.   The race distances are also further—most men's races are 8km (5mi) and most women's races are 6km (3.5mi).  At the Division I and Division II level, the regional and national championship races for men are 10km.  So when I say "running in college" I mean cross country and track.   Relatively few programs allow distance runner to compete exclusively in track or cross country, and rightfully so—those who do tend not to improve very much, if at all.

The Divisions
College athletics is dominated by the NCAA, which is itself divided up into three divisions (aptly named Division I, Division II, and Division III—or DI, DII, and DIII for short).  I'll go over the defining characteristics of each division and give you a "snapshot" of a few "typical" runners in that division.  Please note that these "snapshots" are not meant to stereotype the division, nor are they based on real people.  I'm writing them simply to give you a picture of the range of what is typical for each division—your own experience may be totally different.