Opinion: Olathe Twilight is Short, and That's Okay

Let's be real. Olathe Twilight is fast. For a lot of people, it's unbelievably fast. Every year, it raises questions & controversy. Some argue that it's the long, flat straightaways that make it fast. Some argue it's the nice 9PM weather. Some argue that it's the 40-team depth of competition. Some delusional individuals think that Johnson County teams are simply that much better than everyone else. Wanting to set the record straight, I went down to Olathe on Saturday night to see for myself. I even brought my trusty measuring wheel.

Upon further inspection, the wheel produced 4894 meters. Olathe North has also wheeled the course to 4900m, but maintains that their GPS and tape-measurements of 3.08-3.09mi and 4968m are more accurate. I've done my fair share of measuring courses. I had to create a regional course for Chase County in 2021. I measured that one probably a half-dozen times, and found that measuring wheels, when used right, have an error range of about 30m. The manufacturer cites 0.2% error (10m per 5K) in ideal conditions.

For those of you wondering, measurements are made on the tangents, not down the middle. That is the only correct way to do it in Kansas. If you try to argue, KSHSAA says otherwise in their measurement guide. 

If the course was 100m longer, would Clay Shively have broken 15? Maybe, maybe not. 100m at XC pace is about 20 seconds, so it'd be really close. A similar story could be said for Anjali Hocker-Singh breaking 18. Likewise, their times would be even faster if the course was 100m shorter.

The real question is: Does that even matter?

I'd argue no.

Running fast is great, and a 16-year-old seeing a 16:XX on the clock for the first time as they finish has to be a great feeling. Olathe North isn't cheating anyone by running their meet the way that they do. A 4900-meter race plays out just the same as a 5000-meter one, and everywhere in between. If the course was 100m longer, Sage Wilde still would have led early, Micah Blomker still would have made a move at halfway, and Clay Shively still would have surged late for a thrilling victory. They raced it like a 5K, it had the same physical demands as a 5K, and in nearly every aspect felt like a 5K cross country race. Nobody was caught off-guard thinking the finish was 100m further down the homestretch (if anything, Twilight is easier to tell how much is left if you cover the course). 

Now, that's not to say we should accept a mile-short course, but as long as it covers those three points I mentioned above, close enough is close enough. The 'spirit of the sport' was not broken. If anything, it was amplified by the electric environment that Olathe North puts on. To be honest, I was among the doubters before attending this year's edition, but I'm a full believer now. That environment is what XC is all about. There's just one small detail that people point at, which has little to do with the meet itself: the clock says it's too fast.

That clock? We give it more credit than it deserves. It doesn't do anything but tell you how long it's been since you started.

Blue Valley West prepares for Olathe Twilight 2017
(Photo by James Shultz)

The thing is, no two cross country courses are alike. If there's one thing Olathe Twilight teaches us, it's that. Comparing times from ODAC to a course like Wamego is trivial at best. Wamego is significantly more difficult to navigate, and naturally produces different times, something I think everyone can accept & understand. Comparing your times from the Wamego Invitational to 4A State to see how much someone improved? Now, that's more like it. That's why the Wamego Invitational is this early in the season in the first place.

Now, should every meet try to push the limits of how fast a course can be? Absolutely not. The variance between courses is what makes cross country great, and what separates it from track. Many great college courses have gone by the wayside because coaches abandon them for meets that are blazing fast so they look good for recruits & contract extensions. If everyone starts trying to be Olathe Twilight, then we have a problem; but right now it's as unique as any other course out there. Just as cross country should be.

Hannah Gibson of Shawnee Mission South runs at last year's meet
(Photo by J Hobson)

Course records are also a noteworthy achievement. When you hold a course record, you have undisputedly run faster than anyone else who's ever done it. Track records are that way, too, we've just developed a standardized course (a 400m oval). If you're comparing times, you know everyone ran 1600 meters with 0 elevation gain while making a routine left turn every 200m. Essentially, track records are just course records, and we've duplicated the course and placed it all over the world. That's why we can have school/state/world records.

Clay Shively has that for ODAC, and that should be celebrated. All-time state record, though? That is inherently up for debate. SM South's Brent Steiner (class of '79) or Fredonia's Lane Boyer ('07) never ran at Olathe Twilight. The three have certainly never gone head-to-head, and who knows who would win if they did? It's a fun thought experiment, but applying the same standard of "5K PR" to all three seems rather silly. Despite differences in surface/apparel, we know for sure Alan Webb covered 1 mile on a 400m flat oval faster than Jim Ryun. We can never say that for sure about a 5K in cross country unless it's on the same course.

Fans line nearly the entire course
at this spectator-friendly venue
(Photo by Alycia Jiskra)

None of that is to put a knock on Clay Shively or his growing list of achievements. He's earned all that, and is just the most relevant example to use in this case. The point to take away is that cross country isn't about running 5K's, or setting records, or even times. Ultimately, those are variables that make every cross country meet unique. The sport itself is about racing, competing, and crossing the finish line ahead of the runner next to you.

To sum it all up, Olathe North puts on a fantastic meet. The environment is elite, and they bring in the competition to match it. They do something that nobody else does, and the spirit of cross country is alive and well. The runners, fans, and coaches all have a blast, so why change it? It's time we quit worrying about what the clock says and enjoy all the things that make our sport so special.