Note: This article on the RunningLane XC National Championships was published in October. We're republishing this story on the eve of the race on Saturday. For more information on race day, visit our RunningLane XC Championships hub.
* Robert DiDonato at the Paul Short Run in 2019
Photo Credit: William Shearn
- - -
By Cory Mull - MileSplit
The only small detail worrying Will Rodgers right now is the logo.
He needs the logo.
All good races -- no, all national championship races -- have iconography that separates them from the pack.
And when you're trying to shape an idea like the RunningLane National Cross Country Championships into a existence in a matter of a few weeks, like Rodgers and his company's co-founder Sean Allen are, no small detail can be overlooked.
"I know he's crazy busy doing stuff for other races," Rodgers said of RunningLane's independently contracted graphic designer, who has been tasked with an undeniably difficult mission over the last three weeks, "but I'm beating him like a hammer.
"Dag-gon-it, I still don't have that logo."
In the time since Rodgers and Allen have received approval from the city of Huntsville, Alabama, and its Sports Commission in the first week of October to use its public cross country course for a national championship-level race in November, life has come at them at warp speed.
Hundreds of entries. Race planning. Grassroots marketing. And of course, family obligations.
But sometimes risks pay off, and the duo's race has begun to fully take shape over that time, with six nationally-ranked boys athletes -- including MileSplit No. 1 athlete Parker Wolfe -- and two sub-18 minute girls athletes entered to compete at the 5K distance on Nov. 21 at John Hunt Running Park.
More may even still come.
"It's great that it came together how it did," said Germantown Academy senior Robert DiDonato, who is ranked No. 11 on the MileSplit50 and represents one of a handful of talented boys athletes entered in the meet, "and I'm excited to have some real competition."
So maybe the graphic designer can be forgiven for taking his time.
Because Rodgers and Allen both know you rarely get second chances to get things right.
And a lot has happened in three-plus weeks.
* Sean Allen (left) and Will Rodgers
It was only eight years ago when Rodgers, 32, and Allen, 36, turned their lifelong passion into a side-hustle, forming RunningLane, a run-coach company in Huntsville, Alabama, which also dipped its hand into event management and timing.
The pair had first met as teammates at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, an NCAA Division II program, before continuing on with their lives, each marrying in the years since to wives they met in college.
"Sean was a mentor to me at first when I joined the team, because obviously he was older," Rodgers joked of his college years, "but as we got older, we just kept in touch."
Both had aspirations of staying in the running industry, and each did so in the decade after their graduations, spending time working in specialty running shops while also coaching on the side.
For a time, Rodgers went to Birmingham as his wife completed a master's program. Allen, meanwhile, made an important step.
Seeing a lack of quality timing operations in the city, he bootstrapped materials together and began doing it himself.
"Before you knew it, it grew into a 'more than a once a quarter' type of thing," Allen said.
The first year of RunningLane, they said, Rodgers and Allen essentially worked word-of-mouth promotion to build their company's reputation. It truly was a side-hustle in every sense of the word.
"Sean had a full-time job," Will said, "And I was a manager at a running store and was coaching on the side."
In the years since, though, both consider RunningLane a full-time occupation. The company has four employees, including a trail runner in Bend, Oregon, and an Olympics Trials marathon qualifier, Alana Scarano.
"That's my 9-5 now," Rodgers said. "I coach full-time. I coach adults, I coach kids and I work with some sub-elite runners."
But when the world took an abrupt halt due to COVID-19, so did most businesses around the United States. RunningLane wasn't immune.
In 2020, the duo estimated the company will hold around 13 events. But in a normal year, they said, that number would have been closer to 30-35.
Still, neither wanted to remain stagnant.
And in September, their aha moment came.
* Ethan Strand after winnin The Southern Showcase in a US No. 2 time
It should be said that both men hold strong ties to the high school running community around the city.
In fact, Huntsville, the city's public high school, has a top 10, nationally-ranked program. The Panthers are ranked No. 6, to be exact.
Both Rodgers and Allen are closely familiar with Huntsville's runners and their recent successes.
In September, the duo worked The Southern Showcase, a mostly-Alabama based high school cross country race, and both watched as two of the nation's top runners, Ethan Strand and Crawford Hope, went mano-a-mano on a newly built course.
Just a year prior, Allen said, John Hunt Park had held its first competition after extensive work had been done to widen its pathways, flatten out its grass and make it more approachable for athletes -- in 2018, high school teams had also run there, though that was before work was completed.
The former Municipal golf course had over $100-thousand dollars worth of work done to it in recent years, which the city hopes will turn it into a revenue-driver for athletic events -- and not just cross country.
On that day in September, Strand finished with a US No. 2 time of 14:36.88, while Hope ran what is now a US No. 5 effort of 14:41.63.
And that's specifically when the lightbulb first went off for Rodgers and Allen.
'What if we had a national race on this course?'
"The venue is perfect," Rodgers said. "It's in the middle of the city. There are hotels and lodging and food. And kids want to run fast."
It just so happened, too, that as that idea was forming, a few more opportunities were being lost.
In July, months after the entire spring track and field season (at least officially through state associations) was eliminated out of fear for COVID-19, Team XC Nationals, a national championship race held by Nike, had been canceled due to precautions over the pandemic.
Then on October 2, after waiting as long as it could, Foot Locker Nationals couldn't figure out a way to safely hold its event, either. In a single tweet, the event crushed hopes for athletes hoping to qualify for the race.
And that was big, because both races had carved out prestigious places in the high school running scene, with thousands of high school athletes each year vying for qualification and awards.
Foot Locker had been operating for over four decades. Team Nationals had come into existence in 2004.
But the issue wasn't why these races were being canceled -- after all, both entities were underwritten for much larger companies.
As the fall season unfolded, many states were still running. What were athletes going to do after their state championships ended in limited capacities?
Both Rodgers and Allen knew a season without a national championship would be a major disappointment.
"Once Foot Locker pulled the plug, we knew this was a great opportunity," Rodgers said.
But most of their events typically have six-months lead time. This pop-up race literally would be new territory, and it would require an all-hands on deck approach.
Allen said the broad strokes of forming a new race are sometimes easy enough -- picking a date that works, making a name and getting approvals for the course.
But the little things, like making sure there are enough porta-potties for athletes and fans, are harder questions to answer, especially if there are vast fluctuations in entries in the days leading up to race day.
And yet, the opportunity outweighed all the risk factors.
So that same week, on October 5, a meeting was set up with the city and its sports commission.
"They gave us the green light," he added.
But just as RunningLane was beginning to form its first announcement, another big one came.
The rush of being first was guiding Rodgers and Allen like a beating heart.
But on October 5, they learned they would be second.
The National Scholastic Athletics Foundation, an organization that also holds national indoor and outdoor championships, was the first to announce a new national race out of the ashes of two canceled ones.
The XC Town Meet of Champions, a race to be held in Indiana, came to fruition on November 15.
"Ah man, they beat us to it," Rodgers remembered thinking.
A little over a week later, on October 14, RunningLane officially followed suit, announcing their company's National Championship race on November 21 at John Hunt Park.
However, that certainly wasn't the end of things.
On October 20, Lubbock Sports stepped to the stage and released information about the High School Cross Country National Invite on December 5 in Texas.
Then, on October 23, 12thRock Sports in New York entered into the fray, listing November 28 as the date for its Northeast HS Club Cross Country Championships.
Even before all of this, AAU had long offered its National Cross Country Championships on December 5 in Florida.
And weirdly enough, there's a second national race set to take place in Alabama, with the Chick-Fil-A Cross Country National Championships to be held on December 5 in Decatur.
"You ever see that episode of Oprah where she gives out all those prizes to the audience?" Allen said. "It's like that. You get a national championship race! And you get a national championship race!"
"The funny thing," Allen added, "is that we hadn't even heard about that race in Decatur. That caught us off guard."
* Kamari Miller at the Carrollton Orthpaedic Inviatioanl on Sept. 12
If nothing else, the additional races have added a little more urgency to Rodgers and Allen's quest.
"We don't want to leave any stone unturned," Rodgers said. "This has to be the absolute best experience possible for the kids."
Grassroots marketing has largely created the buzz the duo was seeking. With several big-time athletes already entered, social media posts on Instagram and Facebook by the Olympic Trials qualifier Scarano has yielded some important word-of-mouth.
But the company is also going about the management of the race a little differently, too.
RunningLane hasn't entertained sponsors.
Outside of the Huntsville Sports Commission, which is waiving the rental fee for usage of the course, Rodgers and Allen say -- they wouldn't disclose how much they're spending -- they're investing the company's resources to make the event a reality.
The goal is, they said, that with success comes more opportunities in 2021, and potentially more buy-in from the community.
"We want to make this fun and memorable," Will said, "but we also don't want this to be the last time we hold this kind of event."
Along with finisher's medals and fun t-shirts, the team is also going to give individual winners an award "we haven't seen before."
What's helped so far has been the entries from elite competition.
While Rodgers and Allen are hoping to ramp up marketing through social media to try and get a bigger and better female field, the national championship boys race is turning into a centerpiece.
Talent is in spades.
Marietta's Kamari Miller, Germantown Academy's DiDonato, Cherry Creek's Wolfe, Mary Person's Justin Wachtel and Catawba's Sam Rich have all entered. So too are Harrison's Sully Shelton and Philip Simmon's Noah Ward. All are in the national rankings -- or honorable mention -- on MileSplit.
So too have Strand and Hope -- ranked US No. 15 and 18 -- the two runners who absolutely hammered their career best times in September.
"I can't wait to go head-to-head with the other top guys in the country," DiDonato said, "especially since I am particularly close witih Parker, Ethan, Sully (Shelton), Justin and Noah. This would be my first chance to race competition of this caliber this year, and I've always been a racer rather than a time trialer, so there's no limit to how I feel I can perform."
While overall entries are relatively low at this point, Rodgers says he expects them to potentially move upwards of 400 to 500 by the week of the race. The pair says they will not cap the race.
Rodgers also said he wouldn't be surprised if entries rose up to 1,000 athletes, either. That would include open races and multiple divisions.
Just three weeks and a little over 21-days into planning, though, both Rodgers and Allen know there's four crucial weeks to go. And while in some ways that's a lot of time, in other ways it's not.
The two friends know they'll be spending a lot of time in the near future making sure they get things right.
"I was on the phone with Will the other day," Allen said, "And my wife says, 'Who are you talking to? And I go, 'Will.' She says, 'I'm getting a little jealous.' And that basically lets you know how much we're working on this. We have to make sure we have all the little things in place."
Next up, the logo.
How To Sign Up
For entry guidelines, visit this link.
Where: Huntsville, Alabama
Site: John Hunt Park
Date: Nov. 21