A new nonprofit organization, the Collegiate Running Association, aims to provide college students opportunities to compete and earn prize money in national championships. The CRA will offer collegiate championships in the disciplines of road racing, trail racing and mountain racing, which are not contested by the NCAA.
The CRA will announce details of its inaugural road racing championship on Dec. 3, but the organization's founders have secured a $10,000 overall purse for the top 10 college students in the men's and women's races.
The organization will hold its championships at existing events that can accommodate large fields. They plan to announce the location and date of the trail and mountain running championships in January.
"Given limitations that college students and coaches face with roster limits and the elimination of track and field programs and others across the country, we felt like there was a need for this opportunity and to increase [opportunities for] college students," says Steve Taylor, president of the CRA and head cross country and track and field coach at the University of Richmond.
Unlike the NCAA, which has a 417-page manual that outlines its rules, the only eligibility requirement for earning prize money in a CRA championship is that participants be high school graduates who are currently enrolled in at least one college course of any type.
Taylor notes that at the same time it's becoming tougher to compete for athletic scholarship dollars, the cost of education is rising.
"The approach we took was to keep it simple and inclusive," says Taylor, who was the sixth finisher in the 1992 Olympic Marathon trials. "My goal was to see runners from these diverse backgrounds within colleges across the country come together in one place, run a race and determine a national champion, whether they'’re graduate, post-graduate, or undergraduate [students]."
Thanks to an NCAA rule change that became effective Aug. 1, Division I student-athletes can compete in CRA events while maintaining their NCAA eligibility.
Rules previously allowed student-athletes to accept prize money up to an amount covering their "actual and necessary" expenses at a given event. The new rule allows them to accept prize money up to an amount covering their actual and necessary expenses incurred over the course of one calendar year. Actual and necessary expenses, as defined by the NCAA, include items such as meals, lodging, apparel, transportation, health insurance, medical costs and entry fees.
Taylor says he recognizes that many college students have plenty of opportunities to compete during the cross country, indoor track, and outdoor track seasons, but he also points out that many do not.
"The reality of it is that there are other programs out there that don’t have [year-round competitive] opportunities. They may only have a cross country program, or they may only have an outdoor track program. The institution they’re attending may have really strict limits, from Title IX, on who can be on the team," he says.
"Road racing, trail running, and mountain running are not offered at the collegiate level, and we felt like there's a void there. There are college students who are passionate about cross country and may not be as passionate about the track season."
Taylor knows a thing or two about collegiate programs that lack year-round competitive opportunities. At the close of the 2013 outdoor season, Richmond's varsity men's track and field team was eliminated. Though the need for the CRA has been in the back of his mind for many years, Taylor admits that the elimination of the program provided an added incentive to get the CRA off the ground.
"We want to try to provide opportunities for our cross country athletes to have events that they can point toward in the spring. Certainly that's a consideration in all of this, and we hope that others will take advantage of that opportunity and go and run these races," he says.
Additionally, the University of Richmond has developed into somewhat of a mountain running powerhouse, producing 13 qualifiers for the World Mountain Running Championships since 2006. But according to CRA vice president Jon Molz, who is also an assistant cross country and track and field coach at Richmond, the opportunities for collegians to participate in mountain racing are currently limited.
"A national championship at the collegiate level gives us another large race that these kids will be able to compete in and maybe get hooked," he says. "The opportunities are extremely limited right now and almost nonexistent."
The race that will host the first CRA event has guaranteed to cover the $10,000 purse. After that, Taylor and Molz expect the CRA to be funded by donations.
They are also pursuing various sponsorship leads but "for the most part, we're a nonprofit organization, so we'll just be relying on help from the community that supports the idea," Molz says.