First and foremost, cross-country must be safe. It is not the most sexy thing to talk about, but I want to thank the meet directors, course creators, and terrain groomers who put in countless hours to provide a safe environment for athletes and spectators. Without you, this sport would not exist. Nothing written in this article is meant to detract from the work that you have done for the benefit of all.
With that said, this article attempts to rate great XC courses primarily in terms of features that provide fairness and enjoyment. During summer 2019, Mocorunning collaborated with Run Washington to develop the inaugural DC Area XC Scorecard Survey. The purpose was to develop a rating system that incorporated the most important features of a cross-country course, but the rating system is admittedly not perfect. It is not intended to be a definitive and all-inclusive list of XC courses in the DC area, but it is a base that could be improved upon in the future. After reading the results of the survey, read on to learn how the survey was developed and conducted, and how the process might be improved in the future.
Part I - Survey Results
Part II - Scorecard and Survey Discussion
Part I - Survey Results
The aim of the survey was not to be a popularity contest or a top ten list compiled merely for clicks. I wanted to be able to extract useful information from the survey. The composite score of each XC course is derived from the average of nine categories. Through this scoring system, one can extract reasons for why each cross-country course may be highly or lowly regarded.
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All scores are on a scale of 0 to 100 where 100 is the most positive outcome except in the case of terrain (hilliness). A terrain score of 0 is flat and 100 is very hilly with neither end of the spectrum considered positive or negative.
1. Agricultural History Farm Park - Derwood, Maryland
The Agricultural Farm Park received remarkably high survey scores across all categories. In the OVERALL ENJOYMENT category, it received a 91% composite score, which was 16 percentage points higher than the next venue, Oatlands. It is clear from the ENJOYMENT score alone that athletes and coaches simply love this venue. Additionally, high marks in SURFACES, SETTING, and STIMULATION reinforce why some athletes and coaches think "the Ag Park" is XC heaven.
Many of you are probably thinking right now, "I've never heard of the place," so here is some history.
The Agricultural History Farm Park was first used by Magruder High School and Coach Nathan Timm for dual meets in 2007. By 2008, Coach Timm hosted the Magruder Invitational, and concurrently the DC-MD Private Schools State Championship made the Ag Farm Park its new home. In 2009, hundreds of elite athletes including Meb Keflezighi in his prime converged on the Ag Farm Park for the USA XC Championships. In 2011, the Magruder Invitational was canceled and never returned, but the IAC/ISL/MAC Championship made the Agricultural Farm Park its new home so that many of the DC Area private school athletes had two major appointments at the Ag Farm Park at the end of the fall. In 2017, the DC-MD State Championship ceased to exist, but the IAC/ISL/MAC Championship continues its tradition at the Ag Farm Park. In 2019, St. Albans and National Cathedral School will host the first Skip Grant Invitational at the Agricultural Farm Park.
2. Oatlands Plantation - Leesburg, Virginia
Receiving the highest relative survey scores for START, SURFACES, and GROOMING, and capable of hosting thousands upon thousands of athletes and spectators, the Oatlands Invitational is considered by many to be the ultimate XC experience in the DC Area. In this survey, Oatlands was dinged for having little protection from the sun and it also had one of the lower HAZARD scores. Justified or not, athletes and coaches probably had in mind two creek crossings when giving Oatlands a HAZARD score. The most surprising result of this entire survey was the split between athletes and coaches when it came to OVERALL ENJOYMENT: coaches gave Oatlands a composite ENJOYMENT score of 82 while athletes assessed it at 55. Possibly that could be linked to the aforementioned lack of SHADE and the composite TERRAIN (Hilliness) score of 76. Also surprising is that Oatlands only received a score of 80 out of 100 in PASSIBILITY. Physically, Oatlands dwarfs the other courses with respect to overall width throughout so a lower PASSIBILITY score may be more of a reflection of how many athletes are loaded onto the course in any given race. Lastly, it must be noted that last year's Oatlands Invitational was canceled so everyone who completed the survey did so from memory of the course from at least two years ago.
3. Bohrer Park - Gaithersburg, Maryland
The home of the Montgomery County Championship Meet received the highest relative survey score for HAZARDS, meaning it has very low hazards. The extended name of the venue - the Bohrer Park at Summit Hall Farm - is a setting of grassy fields and two ponds with sweeping curves and very gentle elevation changes that almost always leads to PR's for everyone in the final JV meet of the season. The survey results show a high OVERALL ENJOYMENT score even if the repeating loop course is dinged for lesser SHADE and STIMULATION.
4. Bull Run Regional Park - Centreville, Virginia
Susceptible to flooding, the Bull Run Regional Park XC course has, on occasion, been modified to keep runners on higher ground. Such was the case at last year's Glory Days Invitational. That points to a major flaw in this survey: which version of the course did voters assess? 2018 Glory Days, 2018 WCAC Championship, or previous years' versions of Glory Days? It is a flaw that will be addressed if this survey continues in the future.
Aknowledging that voters may have assessed different versions of the Bull Run Regional Course, it still received very good marks across the board including PASSIBILITY, SURFACES, HAZARDS, and GROOMING. The course may always get dinged for having little SHADE, but in a good weather year, Bull Run Regional may have the potential to climb higher on this list. The course received a very surprising split between athletes and coaches on the START: coaches scored the start a composite 77 while athletes only scored the start a 49. That curiously suggests that athletes feel bottlenecked in the first half mile and perhaps coaches are unaware.
5. Georgetown Prep School - North Bethesda, Maryland
More than 25 years before there was a DCXC Invitational or an Oatlands Invitational, the Georgetown Prep Invitational served as the final battleground of the season where Maryland, DC, and Virginia athletes could duke it out for All-Met honors and DC area supremacy. The Georgetown Prep campus looks very different from the way it did in the 80's and 90's, but the XC course still features a grassy double loop around a golf course and athletic fields on challenging terrain of rolling hills.
Survey results put the Georgetown Prep XC course right in the middle of the pack relative to other major XC courses in the DC area thanks to high scores in GROOMING and SURFACES. Georgetown Prep received the lowest relative survey score in the START category. Coaches actually rated the bottleneck start with a pavement crossing lower than athletes did. The lowest relative score from athletes in PASSIBILITY is surprising. Athletes will have to explain that to me. Is Georgetown Prep really the most difficult course to pass opponents?
Tie-6. Kenilworth Park - Washington D.C. and Watkins Mill - Gaithersburg, Maryland
This writer is tickled that Kenilworth Park and Watkins Mill tied for sixth place using this scoring system. There could not be two more opposite XC courses than Kenilworth Park and Watkins Mill, and yet the two courses ended up deadlocked.
Watkins Mill received the highest TERRAIN (hilliness) score from coaches (meaning very hilly) while Kenilworth Park received the lowest relative TERRAIN (hilliness) score. Watkins Mill received the highest SHADE score and Kenilworth Park received the lowest SHADE score. Whereas Kenilworth Park received high marks for START, PASSIBILITY, SURFACES, and HAZARDS, those same categories detracted from Watkins Mill's composite score due to a bottleneck start and elements of wooded trail running. On the otherhand, while Watkins Mill is scenic and stimulating, Kenilworth Park was marked lowly for SETTING and STIMULATION.
8. Burke Lake Park - Springfield, Virginia
Home of the Monroe Parker Invitational, Northern Virginia district meets, other smaller meets, and countless workouts, Burke Lake Park may be the most heavily used XC venue on this list. It was the focus of a feature article by Run Washington a year ago. That article dove deeply into the features and tradition of the course. While the course with all its tradition is beloved by the NoVa XC community, even those most passionate about it acknowledged its shortcomings. That passion was revealed in this survey with a relatively high OVERALL ENJOYMENT score. In the slightly more objective categories of START, PASSILBILITY, SURFACES, and HAZARDS, Burke Lake did not score as highly.
9. Lake Fairfax Park - Reston, Virginia
As with Bull Run Regional Park, this survey had different people assessing different versions of Lake Fairfax XC courses. In that way, this survey was admittedly invalid, and that will be corrected if this survey is conducted in the future. The majority of folks who completed this survey were past WCAC athletes and coaches, but there were also those from NoVa public schools who have run smaller meets at the park.
Lake Fairfax is a little dicey as a cross-country venue in more ways than one. The course itself is only one reason why the venue fell out of favor with the WCAC, but if you ask past WCAC athletes, they have a love-hate relationship with Lake Fairfax. WCAC coaches mostly just hated it.
The traditional WCAC XC Championship course for more than 15 years had a pretty deep creek crossing in the first half mile in addition to uneven footing on horse trails. Hence: the lowest relative score in the HAZARD category (meaning high hazards). The 2016 and final version of the WCAC course hit runners with giant hills right from the start and included an exceptionally long journey through maze-like, narrow trails that were not marked well by some accounts. Hence: the lowest composite score in GROOMING, although more than one coach noted that it depended on who was in charge during a given year. Feedback from public school runners was not much better. An OVERALL ENJOYMENT score of 46 out of 100 speaks for itself.
Read Part II for a deeper discussion of the Scorecard and Survey including potential improvements for future.