How Long Is A Cross Country Race? A Detailed Explanation

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Certain races are defined by their distance. For example, every 5k is 3.1 miles. A marathon is always 26.2 miles or 42.195 km. A similar thing could be said for the mile, a 10k, or the half marathon.

However, there are also races that have more open-ended distance criteria.

For example, an ultramarathon race can be any distance that is longer than a standard 26.2-mile marathon, so a 50k counts as an ultramarathon just as much as a 100 miler or more.

Another prominent example is cross country. Many people ask, “How long is a cross country race?”

The short answer is: it depends.

This article will provide the basics of cross-country running and take a more in-depth approach to answer, “How long is a cross country race?”

We will cover: 

  • What Is Cross Country?
  • How Are Cross Country Races Scored?
  • How Long Is A Cross Country Race?
  • Gender Differences With Cross Country Race Distances

Let’s jump in!

A cross country race.

What Is Cross Country?

If you are a beginner runner who didn’t take up running in your youth, you may be unfamiliar with cross country running. It is a discipline of the sport of running that’s contested among youth, high school, and collegiate runners.

This is not to say that there aren’t open and master’s cross country races, but the sport of cross country is far more popular in younger demographics.

Cross country, sometimes written as XC running, is a type of running that involves racing on primarily off-road courses

Runners may have small sections of the route that are on paved roads or bike paths, but most of a cross-country course will take place on terrains such as open fields, trails, wooded areas, forests, wood-chipped or cinder paths, or even golf courses.

A cross country race.

There is a mass start, usually involving a very wide starting line with runners lining up side by side across the entire length of the starting line.

When the starting gun goes off, runners might quickly funnel into a narrow trail or path, depending on the particular cross-country course.

Cross country is usually a team event with five runners scoring for each team. The sixth and seventh runners serve as alternates in cases where two or more teams have a tied score.

However, there are certain individual cross-country races, particularly high-level events or open championships.

The sport of cross country has its roots in England, spanning back to 1883 when English rugby players sought a way to practice and train during the offseason.

Although unintentional at the time, the open foot races they developed over rough terrain began modern cross-country running.

A close-up of a shoe on rough terrain.

How Are Cross Country Races Scored?

When a cross-country race is a team event, the top five runners score points for the team.

The lower the score, the better the team placement. Runners earn the same number of points as the place they finish.

For example, the first-place winner scores one point for his or her team, the second runner to cross the line scores two points, the third runner scores three points, etc.

Therefore, the lowest possible team score in cross country is 15 points, representing the score of a team that “sweeps” the race, meaning all five runners have finished before the first runner of any other team.

Depending on the cross-country race, there may also be unattached runners who are not competing with a team. 

These runners will get an individual placement and finish time, but the points awarded for their finish place number will skip to the next runner.

A cross country race in progress.

For example, imagine that the first three runners to finish the race are from team A, so they score 1, 2, and 3 points for their team, respectively.

The fourth runner is running unattached, so he or she does not score any points. 

Thus, the runner who crosses the finish line in fifth place will earn 4 points for his or her team, and the runner who finishes in sixth will earn 5 points.

As mentioned, the top five runners from each team will score points for the team.

In varsity cross country races, only seven runners can compete in the race for any given team.

When the team scores are tied with five runners, the default is to move down to the score for the sixth runner and then seventh if need be.

Now let’s get into why you’re really here and answer, how long is a cross country race?

A cross country race.

How Long Is A Cross Country Race?

Now, we move on to the ever-important question, “How far is a cross country race?”

Cross country races are usually anywhere from 1.5-6.2 miles or 2-3k up to 12k or so.

The distance for a cross-country race primarily depends on the age of the runners competing in the event as well as the country or region where the race takes place.

With that in mind, we will compare cross-country race distances in the US vs. the UK.

How Long Is A Cross Country Race In the US?

Again, the length of a cross-country race in the US might be anywhere from a mile or so for young athletes up to 10k.

Even though the customary unit of distance in the US is miles, many cross-country race course distances are measured in kilometers, owing to the British roots of the sport.

Youth cross-country races are usually just a couple of kilometers. A 1k cross country race for the youngest runners is just 0.609 miles, and a 2k race is a little more than 1.2 miles.

Middle school cross-country races are usually 3k (1.8 miles) or 2 miles long.

High school cross country races are typically 5k (3.1 miles), though some might be shorter, such as 4k, or involve some random distance close to 3 miles based on the course layout where the race is run.

For example, local high schools that go head-to-head in cross country meets on their “home courses” (cross country courses at their school or nearby park) might compete on cross country courses that are 2.9 miles.

However, while odd distances are common for small informal dual meets, championship races at the high school level in the United States are almost always 5 km, save for a few states that may race 4 kilometers.

The length of cross-country races increases at the collegiate level. Women typically race 6 km, and men may race 8 km or 10 km, depending on the NCAA division and level of the race. NCAA Division I and II, men’s cross country championships, are 10k, whereas Division III men race 8k cross country courses.

A person running over a root.

How Long Is A Cross Country Race In the UK?

As is the case in the US, the distance for cross-country races in the UK is largely determined by the age and division of the runners. 

For example, at the English National, the length of the cross country races are as follows:

  • Under 13 – 3km boys, 3km girls
  • Under 15 – 4km boys, 4km girls
  • Under 17 – 6km men, 5km women
  • Under 20 – 10km men, 6km women
  • Senior – 12km men, 8km women

The current length of cross country races for the English Schools Championships are as follows: 

  • Under 15 – 4.4km boys, 3km girls
  • Under 17 – 5.5km men, 3.8km women
  • Under 19 – 6.7km men, 4.4km women
Cross country runners running on a trail.

Gender Differences With Cross Country Race Distances

As can be seen, there are some differences in cross-country race distances for men and women in the same age group, which is a point of contention in the sport.

Many argue that gender inequality with cross-country race distances is in poor form and is an antiquated practice that we must eradicate. 

In the United States, the motion is to make all collegiate cross country races for all divisions and both gender categories to be standardized at 8 kilometers.

Currently, women race 6k and men race 10k in DI and DII, and 8k in DIII. This represents a 4k difference for most divisions.

There is a petition on to standardize the cross country race distance to 8k for men and women, and on January 5, 2022, Run Equal submitted their first proposal to the NCAA to campaign for men and women in all three divisions to race the same distance (8k) in cross-country meets.

How long is a cross country race?

There are similar debates in the UK about the distance inequality for senior championship cross country races; however, results from an ECCA poll revealed that runners are split in their opinions, with actually a small majority preferring to keep the gender distance discrepancy. 

Although the survey population was 50.4% female and 49.6% male, when asked, “Do you think that Senior Men and Senior Women should run the same distance at the National Cross Country Championships” only 47.9% responded yes, and 52.1% said no.

Time will tell how cross-country race distances change, but for now, there is some variability between sexes and across age groups. 

Now that we’ve discussed the question how long is a cross country race, you may be intrigued and want more information on cross-country racing in general. To get into the nitty gritty of cross country racing and training, take a look at the following articles:

How To Train For A Cross Country Race

Cross Country Vs. Track, A Comparison

Runners running over trail.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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