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Geeking Out Over XC Spreads
By: Kevin Milsted
webmaster@mocorunning.com
2015-10-04


The fifth best runner on a cross country team is just as important if not more important than the number one runner when it comes to team scoring, something that sets this sport apart from any other team sport. But what is this "team spread" analysis that you may hear tossed around from time to time? Is there really anything to it? Afterall, the objective in cross country is to get the fewest points which means the lowest possible places and fastest times. There are no medals awarded for having a small team spread.

This is not complicated sabermetrics as found in baseball analytics. The top five spread in cross country is simply the gap between the first and fifth runners on a team. To calculate it, subtract the time of the first runner from the time of the fifth runner.

I suspect that the "team spread" was an analysis point used by cross country pundits ever since the five man team scoring system was invented. The team spread as a lone data point is not useful at all - five runners crossing the finish line at the same time at the front of the race and five runners crossing at the same time in last place will have the same team spread. But with a little context, the spread becomes a somewhat useful tool in comparing teams that have not raced or maybe never will race. Averaging out team spreads from multiple performances with identical runners allows for even more meaningful analysis. For example, if you know the typical or average team spread and typical 5k times, you can begin to draw a conclusion about the strength of a team, even if they live on the other side of the world and you know nothing else about them or their opponents. You could also use this as a starting point to compare teams across different generations.

The term "spread" became standard lingo on running message boards, especially when debating the best high school teams in the nation before there was a Nike XC Nationals. It is by no means the only or the best metric to analyze cross country teams, but it is simple and readily understood by anyone with interest in the sport.

I'm not talking about a pasta dinner when I look at this year's Clarksburg girls team and say, "Wow, what an incredible spread." I am also not crowning them the greatest team in the area. I am, however, in awe of what seems to be an amazing statistical anomoly.

Here is a look at the Clarksburg girls top-5 spread in five meets this year (and because they have six similar girls, I extended this table to the top 6 runners).

Meet              Top-5 Spread     Top-6 Spread
==============================================================
Seahawk Invite   	21.6  		27.6
Mountain Run   		38.4  		45.2
Blazers Invite   	12.1  		19.6
Bull Run   		29.7  		49   (Missing 1 Girl)
@ Gaithersburg    	6  		26   (Missing 1 Girl)
A 12.1 second spread in a competitive 5k race at the Blazers Invite is incredible. A 29.7 second spread on a difficult course like Bull Run is almost as impressive. A six second spread in any competitive race just doesn't happen unless the competitors back off and intentionally all finish together.

So are the Clarksburg girls backing off just to finish together? According to Clarksburg Coach Rob Burke, both his boys and girls teams are intentionally practicing pack-running, but they certainly are not dogging it.

"We work on pack running in practice and pace work at least one day a week," said Burke. "We realize we don't have any superstars so we really do work on pack running. We tell the girls to find each other in the races and they've been really good at it."

Okay, so the girls are really, really good at finding each other in a crowd. That's useful when you are at an amusement park in July or a shopping mall in December. But statistically to have six girls finish within 10 or 20 seconds in a 5k race must mean that someone is not working their hardest, right?

Not according to Burke who directed all his girls to stick together throughout the race and also kick as hard as they could in the last quarter mile of the Gaithersburg dual meet.

"When you get down to it, our girls are very, very equal. If you want me to rank who the top three are, I couldn't tell you."

Burke also added, "We want the boys to do it, too, and they are getting a little bit better at it."

I was curious about two things.
1.) Is the top-5 spread by itself an indicator of team success? As mentioned above, five slow runners can all finish at the same time and have a miniscule spread, but in the real world, is there a correlation to a small spread and winning?
2.) What were some of the historically low top-5 spreads in recent Montgomery County history?

There is a 14 year history of the Montgomery County Championship Meet hosted at Gaithersburg High School so what better meet to use for comparison across the years than the meet where every team gathers at the same time every year? (while the county course changed significantly in 2011, variations in the course are insignificant for this analysis. The fact that Clarksburg's six- second spread occured on the county championship course at Gaithersburg is a favorable coincidence.)

Here are the lowest top-5 spreads at the Montgomery County Championship Meet in that time span along with the team standing of that team in that given year.

Best Female Top-5 Runner Spreads       
Montgomery County Championship Meet at Gaithersburg (2000-2014 excluding 2002) 
=======================================================================
Rank 	Year 	Place 	School    		Spread
=======================================================================
1 	2011  	3 	Thomas S Wootton  	00:19.6
2 	2008  	3 	Damascus XC   		00:28.0
3 	2013  	4 	Walt Whitman   		00:31.0
4 	2012  	10 	Walter Johnson   	00:40.1
5 	2010  	2 	Northwest   		00:40.8
6 	2010  	12 	Col. Zadok Magruder  	00:47.3
7 	2012  	11 	Montgomery Blair  	00:48.5
8 	2013  	6 	Albert Einstein   	00:50.0
9 	2008  	9 	Montgomery Blair  	00:51.9
10 	2011  	1 	Bethesda-Chevy Chase  	00:54.9
11 	2004  	10 	Damascus   		00:55.5
12 	2000  	1 	Walter Johnson   	00:55.6
13 	2012  	3 	Thomas S Wootton  	00:57.4
14 	2013  	2 	Walter Johnson   	00:58.0
15 	2006  	3 	Richard Montgomery  	00:59.6
16 	2014  	5 	Richard Montgomery  	00:59.9
17 	2003  	6 	Walter Johnson   	01:00.9
18 	2009  	11 	Richard Montgomery  	01:03.0
19 	2012  	5 	Walt Whitman   		01:03.5
20 	2000  	6 	Wootton    		01:04.8
21 	2010  	3 	Thomas S Wootton  	01:06.4
22 	2010  	7 	Quince Orchard   	01:08.3
23 	2005 	4 	Whitman    		01:09.0
24 	2014 	4 	Albert Einstein   	01:09.6
25 	2010  	9 	Damascus   		01:10.3

Looking at the above chart, I think teams with small spreads are just as likely to take 10th place at the county championship as they are to take 1st place. But if you believe that a top 10 team finish at the county meet is a quality finish, then there does seem to be a correlation between low spreads and quality performances.

The corresponding chart for boys is twice as scattered as the girls. And in this compilation of teams with small spreads we see just as many teams in the bottom half of the county as we see in the top half. One must conclude, as we could have guessed with no analysis at all, that the top-5 spread in and of itself has no correlation to team success.

But no time spent filtering through stats is a total waste. These tables certainly provide a clearer picture of how often or how rare it is for teams to register 40, 30, or 20 second spreads in competitive 5k meets. The girls table above affirms that the Clarksburg girls clockings of under 13 seconds for a top-5 spread twice before we get to the midway point of the season is something rare and special indeed.

Best Male Top-5 Runner Spreads       
Montgomery County Championship Meet at Gaithersburg (2000-2014 excluding 2002)      
=======================================================================
Rank 	Year 	Place 	School    		Spread
=======================================================================
1 	2006  	3 	Gaithersburg   		00:19.2
2 	2006  	23 	John F. Kennedy   	00:21.0
3 	2009  	3 	Damascus   		00:22.0
4 	2012  	1 	Walter Johnson   	00:23.4
5 	2014  	25 	Seneca Valley   	00:25.9
6 	2010  	16 	Montgomery Blair  	00:26.5
7 	2007  	6 	Walter Johnson   	00:29.7
8 	2011  	8 	Richard Montgomery  	00:30.4
9 	2012  	20 	Springbrook   		00:31.3
10 	2008  	14 	Wootton    		00:32.4
11 	2008  	13 	Albert Einstein   	00:33.3
12 	2012  	4 	Sherwood   		00:33.6
13 	2006  	7 	Northwest   		00:33.8
14 	2001  	19 	Blake    		00:33.9
15 	2005  	4 	Richard Montgomery  	00:34.0
16 	2003  	4 	Wootton    		00:35.4
17 	2007  	10 	Winston Churchill  	00:36.5
18 	2008  	6 	Damascus   		00:36.9
19 	2001  	18 	Wheaton    		00:37.4
20 	2011  	1 	Winston Churchill  	00:37.8
21 	2013  	3 	Richard Montgomery  	00:39.0
22 	2013  	17 	Wheaton    		00:39.0
23 	2013  	15 	Albert Einstein   	00:39.0
24 	2005  	3 	Quince Orchard   	00:39.0
25 	2014  	9 	Albert Einstein   	00:39.1


Boys top-5 spreads seem to be much smaller than those of the girls. This makes sense simply from the notion that the longer the race, the larger the spread would be expected to be (think 100 meters versus 10 miles). Of course girls run the same distance as the boys, but they are racing for two to three minutes longer.

Let's just give you a little bit more food for thought by adding one more filter to the analysis. Let's only include boys teams with a #1 boy under 17:00 and a top-5 spread of less than 60 seconds. Let's limit the girls to 1:20 spreads and a #1 girl under 21:00.

Are we looking at a list of the greatest teams of the last fifteen years? Absolutely not! It excludes some of the very best teams led by oustanding front-runners. But I am confident that this is a list of the greatest pack-running teams of the last fifteen years. Afterall, how could you ever precisely define "the greatest pack-running team" when there is always a tradeoff between a small spread and the fastest possible times? Let the debate begin.

Male Top-5 Spreads Less Than 60 Seconds w/ #1 Runner Under 17:00      
Montgomery County Championship Meet at Gaithersburg (2000-2014 excluding 2002)      
=======================================================================
Year 	Place 	School    		#1 Boy		Spread
=======================================================================
2008	1	Walter Johnson		16:02.7		00:45.9
2013	1	Bethesda-Chevy Chase	16:08		00:57.0
2011	1	Winston Churchill	16:09.1		00:37.8
2006	1	Quince Orchard		16:09.2		00:55.1
2011	2	Walter Johnson		16:12.3		00:44.0
2009	1	Walter Johnson		16:18		00:58.0
2012	1	Walter Johnson		16:18.4		00:23.4
2008	3	Northwest		16:20.7		00:39.3
2010	7	Damascus		16:26.8		00:53.5
2014	4	Walter Johnson		16:29.0		00:57.3
2013	3	Richard Montgomery	16:30		00:39.0
2001	1	Northwest		16:31.6		00:46.3
2014	3	Bethesda-Che		16:33.0		00:43.9
2010	6	Thomas S Wootton	16:34.2		00:56.4
2014	2	Winston Churchill	16:36.4		00:42.0
2012	4	Sherwood		16:37.5		00:33.6
2011	5	Sherwood		16:37.6		00:54.2
2010	5	Albert Einstein		16:38.8		00:50.4
2013	5	Quince Orchard		16:40		00:59.0
2008	6	Damascus		16:43.3		00:36.9
2003	7	Magruder		16:43.6		00:54.4
2008	5	Richard Montgomery	16:44.7		00:44.1
2009	2	Winston Churchill	16:46		00:49.0
2004	3	Whitman			16:47.1		00:49.5
2006	6	Richard Montgomery	16:50.4		00:54.1
2013	12	Winston Churchill	16:51		00:54.0
2007	4	Northwest		16:51.6		00:45.6
2003	4	Wootton			16:51.7		00:35.4
2004	5	B-C C			16:53.1		00:57.5
2011	8	Richard Montgomery	16:57.5		00:30.4
2014	9	Albert Einstein		16:58.5		00:39.1
2012	6	Richard Montgomery	16:58.9		00:42.9
2006	3	Gaithersburg		16:59.4		00:19.2


Female Top-5 Spreads Less Than 1:20 w/ #1 Runner Under 21:00      
Montgomery County Championship Meet at Gaithersburg (2000-2014 excluding 2002)      
=======================================================================
Year 	Place 	School    		#1 Girl		Spread
=======================================================================
2011	1	Bethesda-Chevy Chase	19:17.7		00:54.9
2004	1	Northwest		19:20.1		01:19.3
2013	2	Walter Johnson		19:21		00:58.0
2004	2	Quince Orchard		19:26.0		01:19.1
2010	2	Northwest		19:44.9		00:40.8
2010	3	Thomas S Wootton	19:50.6		01:06.4
2014	4	Albert Einstein		19:52.4		01:09.6
2012	3	Thomas S Wootton	19:58.6		00:57.4
2010	6	Richard Montgomery	19:59.5		01:15.2
2013	4	Walt Whitman		20:02		00:31.0
2008	3	Damascus		20:05.8		00:28.0
2011	3	Thomas S Wootton	20:08.0		00:19.6
2013	6	Albert Einstein		20:08		00:50.0
2014	5	Richard Montgomery	20:08.4		00:59.9
2006	3	Richard Montgomery	20:10.5		00:59.6
2012	5	Walt Whitman		20:10.9		01:03.5
2003	6	Walter Johnson		20:26.9		01:00.9
2000	1	Walter Johnson		20:27.5		00:55.6
2010	7	Quince Orchard		20:38.4		01:08.3
2009	5	Damascus		20:39		01:17.0
2005	4	Whitman			20:40.0		01:09.0
2012	10	Walter Johnson		20:43.4		00:40.1
2012	11	Montgomery Blair	20:46.3		00:48.5
2010	9	Damascus		20:52.5		01:10.3
2000	6	Wootton			20:53.5		01:04.8
2008	9	Blair			20:59.1		00:51.9





Article Comments - Add A Comment

NameComment


2015-10-04 23:13:43

Great article!

hey gurl
2015-10-05 15:08:08

cool topic, well-written, nice way to make the historical stats relevant!

westner
2016-01-29 14:31:08

I did not see this when you wrote it last fall and just saw it now. Great article. I don’t have access to full records for every season going back to the 60’s or 70’s, but I have seen most results starting from when I was in high school to current. The spreads of teams lately is far off what seems to be a “golden era” of incredible spreads which was in the late 90’s to early 00’s. You wrote that the 12.1 spread by the Clarksburg girls was incredible. It is indeed very good. I am even more impressed though by the spread of just under 30 seconds at Bull Run (assuming you are referring to Bull Run at Hereford and not the Bull Run Invite that used to be/maybe still is in Virginia). Why do I say the late 90’s to early 00’s was a “golden era” of xc spreads in our county/state? Here is some data that you may find interesting:

The lowest time spread that I have ever seen/know of was one that I am very proud to say I was part of. At the 1998 4A West Regional, Gaithersburg had their top 5 runners within an 11 second span. From Mike Murray’s 4th place finish in 15:37 to Marcus Hershberger’s 10th place finish in 15:48, we won the regional title. Whitman had a 39 second spread in that meet and lost.

If I told you that a team had a 21 second spread at the County Championships, most everyone would think that team would almost certainly win, right? WRONG. That same year, 1998, at the same course (Blake), Gaithersburg had just a 21 second spread (15:43-16:04) and lost to Whitman. This is despite the fact that Whitman had a slightly larger spread (23 seconds from 15:19-15:52).

Those Whitman teams in the late 90’s, especially in 97 and 98, were probably the best a pack running in MoCo history. In 97 Whitman won the county xc title at Watkins Mill with just a 22 second spread (16:50-17:12) and won the regional 4a west with just a 20 second spread (16:46-17:06).

Crazy right? So in just 1998 at the County Meet, two teams had spreads of 23 seconds or less and a team with a 21 second spread did not win the county title. In the Region meet that year two teams had spreads of 39 seconds or less.

I’ve looked and I cannot find anything that even comes close to that. You know what impresses me the most though? In 2001, CM Wright (I know it’s not MoCo, but it’s still Maryland), had a spread of just 30 seconds (16:38-17:08) at the 4A state meet at Hereford.

My response to your questions that you asked in your article is that as great as xc spreads are, the scoring spread is what matters the most. Teams that have an elite runner or two, usually is not the team that will have tight spreads time wise. That may not matter though if their first runner wins the race with a super low time but their 5th guy is a top 15 or so guy in the county then you could have a spread of maybe 90 seconds but the scoring spread could see all 5 scoring runners in the top 10. Case in point is how Gaithersburg had a 21 second spread and lost the county meet to a team with a spread of 23 seconds.

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