Iowa cross country runner DQed for helping ailing rival

October 30, 2015 / Cross country
An Iowa high school cross country runner was stripped of his district championship after helping a rival competitor who had collapsed on the course.

Zach Hougland of the Davis County High School cross country team had already crossed the finish line when minutes later he saw another runner struggling to complete the last 15 meters of the race. He screamed for others to help, nobody responded, so he took matters into his own hands.

Hougland said the runner had collapsed and wasn’t getting medical attention. He ran back on the course and helped him for about 7 meters, letting the runner finish the remaining 8 meters.


While hero to some, a national cross country rule calls it illegal and disqualified both runners.  Zach was heartbroken, saying, ” I didn’t want anyone to see me break down because I couldn’t take it.  I did all that hard work for nothing.”

A statement from Bud Legg with the Iowa High School Athletic Association read, “An athlete who receives or gives assistance to another runner in the same race is disqualified.   While it was a sportsmanlike act to help someone in distress it remained a violation and the official had no choice but to enforce the rule.”

When asked if he would change his actions if he could, Zach replied, “If I could do it all again I wouldn’t change a thing because I did what I thought was right.”

Something similar happened in Wisconsin one year ago, and the result was the same. A Shawano High School junior was disqualified after carrying a competitor across the finish line.

The National Federation of State High School Associations has rules that prevent runners from assisting their competitors during a race. Anyone who violates that rule is immediately disqualified.

While unfortunate, the rule is in place to discourage cheating or giving an unfair advantage to runners. Nearly everyone would like to see the decision in this case reversed, but that might open a can of worms that state associations are not prepared to deal with.

Hougland did the right thing, and he doesn’t need a medal to tell him that. We all insist that the primary goal of education-based athletics is to teach life lessons — not win championships — and Hougland is an example of how all competitors should act in situations like these.

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