By Marc Bloom
It's set. Officials have finalized the course for the coming Nike Team Nationals, a unique national high school team cross-country meet on December 4 in Portland, Oregon. And like other aspects of the inaugural event, the racing trails will offer a new and exciting experience for the nation's top teams.
Athletes competing in the Nike Team Nationals will have the rare chance of running an innovative 5-k course at a horse racing track. The site, Portland Meadows, will feature man-made hills and enclosed stadium seating for 4,000 spectators. Meet officials also plan unique opportunities to follow race progress via large video screens and instantaneous team scoring at every kilometer.
The venue is comparable to sites used for the world cross-country meet, usually held in Europe, and considered the world's preeminent annual running event. The Nike Team Nationals, using the latest technology, will have additional touches of glamour and enhancement.
"We are excited about the ability to follow the competition from start to finish with complete team scoring seen by all spectators throughout the race," said Nike's Josh Rowe, the event's executive director, in announcing the race course. "For the first time anywhere, the exact placings of all teams and runners will be available as the race progresses, building great drama toward the finish."
This fall, drama is expected to build all season as top teams establish themselves nationwide, especially in inter-state meets that have been drawing increasing interest. At recent spring track meets, coaches and athletes were already looking ahead to summer cross-country training and calculating which distance runners were coming back to bolster teams that would be seeking nationals bids. The Nike Team Nationals will invite the nation's top 20 boys and 20 girls cross-country teams, to the first national high school team championship in any sport. The top 2 boys teams and 2 girls teams in each of 8 regions, plus at-large selections, will earn nationals bids. The selections will be based on a new Nike Team Nationals regional rankings system.
In determining the nationals site, meet officials sought a fair and challenging course with unique qualities, ample spectator viewing, spacious grounds and a central location near Nike headquarters in Beaverton, where many weekend activities will take place.
"We want to provide the athletes with a special experience in tribute to their commitment and accomplishments," said Rowe. "We hope that when they return to their communities they will talk about the thrill of competing at this exceptional site."
Meet organization will be managed by the National Scholastic Sports Foundation, which runs a number of national events including the Nike Indoor Championship in Landover, Maryland, in March, and the Great American Cross-Country Festival in Cary, North Carolina, in October. "When we looked at Portland
Meadows, we saw tremendous potential," said Jim Spier,
president of the NSSF. "We hope the setting will motivate runners that much more to run to their potential and have an enriching experience."
Nike Team Nationals is one of the few high school cross-country meets to be run on a horse racing course. As opposed to sites that send fields far from the start-and-finish areas, horse racing courses usually have repeated loops to facilitate spectator viewing, building a connection between athletes and fans. When the world cross-country meet was held for the first time in the U.S., in 1984, it was staged at the Meadowlands Racetrack in New Jersey.
Portland Meadows has a one-mile track composed of dirt and sand about 20 meters wide. Using the track and its large infield, an undulating 9-hole golf course, meet officials have fashioned a 2-k loop, to be covered twice, and a 1-k loop. The event will be contested in full view of spectators, and the start and finish will be in front of the grandstand. Hay bales serving as hurdles, plus man-made hills, will be included to challenge the runners. In addition, said Rowe, "The course is rain-proof. The surface absorbs water."
To enhance team spirit and identity, each squad will be given a customized team tent near the start and finish. Athletes will use the tents not only to secure gear, but also to rally one another and express team attributes and pride.
As team pride plays itself out in competition, two Jumbotrons--using footage from cameras on lead vehicles and signals beamed from helicopters--will show the entire race on video screens measuring 17 feet wide. In another innovation, the meet will use chip technology to generate immediate and complete team scoring every 1,000 meters. Once the runners (wearing chips on their shoes) pass each 1,000-meter point, team scores will come up on large scoreboard in a "rolling" tally; each team's individual times and placings will be also be shown.
To provide instantaneous scoring, the event is working with Lynx System Developers, makers of Finish Lynx Timing Systems, to create cutting edge software that will, in effect, present cross-country in a much more accessible way. Even ardent running fans have found it difficult in the past to consider cross-country much of a spectator sport. However, this system will enable spectators to keep close watch on race developments, and have a chance to enjoy a cross-country meet as never before.
"This is new technology, the first time this is being done," said Rowe. "Instead of team competition being hard to follow, the standings will be clear to all. And watching the race unfold will bring people much closer to the sport." Moreover, said Rowe, coaches and media will be given hand-held computers to track team progress on their own. The same immediate scoring updates shown on the Jumbotrons will also be available on the hand-held computers. A coach will be able to see where his or her team is positioned at several checkpoints, offering first-time information that can be used in giving pivotal instructions the rest of the race. This up-close-and-personal tracking process will also enable coaches to more accurately assess their athletes' performances, and whether they ran according to plan in terms of pacing and team strategy.
All spectators will have several viewing options: grandstand seating, moving from point to point on the course, watching the Jumbotrons. Spectators in the grandstand will have monitors to view the race video and results feed. It will be almost impossible to miss an important move or surge or lead change as the race progresses.
Portland Meadows, owned by Magnaent Corporation, the largest horse track owner in the country, is wired for simulcast presentation and meet officials are looking into the possibility of live telecasts of the meet on cable networks nationwide.
Athletes in the Nike Team Nationals will have access to the course for practice the day before the meet. The weekend festivities will begin on Thursday, December 2, and detailed information on the schedule, along with a course map, will be available at a later date.