Way back in the 70s, Joe Henderson, the poet laureate of the first running boom, wrote that “Cross country is the meeting place of the miler and the marathoner.”
In 1975, at the World Cross Country, Ian Stewart won, the Euro and Commonwealth 5,000m champion, followed by John Walker, soon to be WR holder in mile and gold medalist at 1,500m and Bill Rodgers, soon to be AR holder in marathon. Anyone who was anyone competed in the World Cross Country.
Then, things changed. Courses became whimpy. I heard recently that meet managers of famous invitationals were being told by college coaches that teams were not coming to said events because the courses were not fast enough. In this day and age, NCAA cross country seems to be track on a smooth golf course, minus any hills, not a place to challenge one’s heart and soul with a few hills, muddy stretches, and chilling stretches to sprint to the finish.
NXN 2011, photos courtesy of Nike running
I went to the Stanford Invitational last weekend. I had run it first in 1974 as a high schooler, and then, ran in in college. Thirty-two years after my last race there, it was great to see how many cross country runners were there, with their parents, fans, coaches and meet management. Putting on a major invitational is no mean feat, and I am in awe of their selfless work. A day on the hot, warm course was a day to see old friends, meet new ones and share a day of cross country history.
I was so happy to see the US men’s team take second in the World Cross Country champs this year, as Ben True and gang took the challenge. What it showed was that, if one focuses, teams from around the world can actually compete with the Kenyan and Ethiopian teams.
For the past decade, World Cross Country, one of our great events, has been marginalized by lots of well meaning ideas that have made many believe that it is impossible to complete globally on cross country anymore. My modest concept: find a muddy course, pray for snow and let the world show up for the one day event, and tie it to a great road race, so there are fans. Celebrate the uniqueness of real cross country: the courses should be hilly, loops and tortuous and all about the teams.
Cross country is a great sport, with a great history. Cross country is about getting in shape running hills that made you gasp a few weeks before. Cross country means running on the paths and courses that runners have done for decades.
Truth is, if you want to be a good middle or long distance runner, then compete in cross country. But, you don’t have to listen to me, read Jason Henderson, the editor at Athletics Weekly’s feature on Mud, Glorious Mud! linked below!
Mud, Glorious Mud!
by Jason Henderson, Athletics Weekly
The stamina shown by Mo Farah to win major track titles has its origins in the mud and hills of the old-fashioned cross-country circuit. Long before she smashed the world record for the marathon, Paula Radcliffe’s famous endurance was forged in a similar fashion. It is perhaps no coincidence either that the most prolific 5000m and 10,000m competitors of the modern era, Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba, have 16 world cross-country titles between them.
Even track legends who are not famed for their ability to race well on rough ground, such as Haile Gebrselassie, Seb Coe and Hicham El Guerrouj, have a background in cross country. It is the common thread buried in the history of virtually every distance-running great.
Given this, for ordinary athletes who want to improve their performances on the track or road next year, getting stuck into a winter on the mud is surely a no brainer.
Despite this, runners in the Western world have been drifting away from this traditional training ground in recent years. Trail and road events currently attract the majority of entrants, with far too many runners not even possessing a proper pair of cross-country spikes. Then we have adventure and obstacle races – an appealing and trendy alternative for an increasing number of runners who are content to complete a challenge as opposed to competing in a more natural environment.
Read more at http://www.athleticsweekly.com/blog/mud-glorious-mud/#diYBhPojSLp0ksim.99