In order to celebrate the National Cross-country Championships taking place around the UK tomorrow, I thought it would be fun and appropriate to think about – and celebrate – some of the things that make cross-country so great: maybe even the greatest running discipline. I am highly biased, since cross-country has always been my first love in running. Moreover, the grass, mud and hills seem to suit me more than other surfaces (track, road, fell etc.). Nevertheless, I hope that both the initiated and the uninitiated in cross-country will find this interesting and insightful!
1. Race day atmosphere
The tented village is always a sight to behold at major cross-country events: different club colours flying; athletes making final adjustments to their spikes; team managers comparing notes on how their teams are looking. That’s just before the race. During the race, spectators and teammates are cheering you on, barking out current positions that may or may not be true. Everyone puts in a big shift during the race, battling with their opponents on the course, but afterwards, there is great camaraderie and you often cool down with your adversaries. Back at the tents, some kind souls may even have brought along some baked goodies to share. Race day atmosphere is special.
2. Diversity and the characters of people who are involved
I think this is true of most disciplines within athletics; but I would argue that it is most pronounced in cross-country. On the start line, you will find city workers alongside manual labourers, fully-fledged academics alongside people with few formal qualifications, veterans alongside comparative youths, those whose families have lived in this country for many generations alongside refugees. About as far as is possible, all are equal, and if you put yourself through a cross-country race, you are respected. This naturally produces some wonderfully diverse characters: from the quiet, determined and focused to the loud, eccentric and hilarious – as well as anywhere in between!
3. Time and distance don’t matter as much
Distances are usually advertised before major cross-country races; but they are often to be taken with a pinch of salt. Unlike the track and road, time does not really matter; it’s all about racing and position. This can be liberating in our performance-based culture and society.
4. The courses are seldom boring and differ from year to year
A good cross-country race should not have a boring course. It is true that in major races, particularly those which are televised, courses often consist of multiple laps on flat fields; but, in general, cross-country courses are not boring. You might run a few laps; but conditions can change as the laps go by. There are some classic cross-country courses, which somewhat like pilgrimage sites, are returned to year after year. Yet, these can change dramatically: the iconic Parliament Hill course over Hampstead Heath in London is an entirely proposition when there have been weeks of rain prior to the race compared to a dry winter. This makes it even more likely that anything can happen.
5. Cross-country brings together distance runners from across the disciplines
Although distance is sometimes only an indicator in cross-country, cross-country can represent a meeting point between various disciplines. It can be excellent preparation for those who focus on middle-distance on the track in the summer. It can also be suitable preparation for those targeting a spring half-marathon or marathon. Then, you also find a few pure cross-country specialists for whom this is the main event each year. The battles and, sometimes, surprise results and scalps often make for compelling and intriguing viewing.
6. Almost limitless numbers
Granted that compared to the major road races like the London Marathon, where thousands compete, the several hundred who will finish the Senior Men’s race in Wales and Scotland and the couple of thousand who will finish it in England do not represent too large a number. While, however, it takes a long time for all the competitors to cross the start-line in road races, in cross-country it is very quickly done, since generally, it is very wide and then the first few hundred metres narrow down. This results in the famous opening charge. I’m not sure there are many images quite like it in sport.
7. Cheap entry fees
In terms of value for money, cross-country is excellent. My two wonderful clubs (Newbury AC and Edinburgh Uni H&H) are even generous enough to cover the entry fee (£7-8) with the money generated from membership subs. The story is quite different though in other disciplines. Road races can be much dearer to enter, and track meetings can be surprisingly expensive as well (£15 for entering the South of England Champs!). I can understand the appeal of events like Tough Mudder, but compared to cross-country, where you can sometimes find just as much mud and even a few obstacles as well, the fees seem extortionate.
8. The main races are on Saturday afternoon
Although many local leagues are held on Sundays, it seems that the main championship races are held on Saturdays. For the Senior Men, it’s nearly a typical football 3pm kick-off. This could well be the most personal preference on here and reflect my stage of life, but Saturday afternoons seem most advantageous. There’s no need to be up too early on the Saturday morning after a busy week, you can race hard on a fully awakened body, relax in the evening, and then have the whole of Sunday open. From my Christian perspective, I feel that the special place of Sunday in the week for worship, rest, and time with family and friends is regrettably no longer really being preserved. Most major road races, conversely, take place on Sunday morning, which makes it harder to relax on the Saturday, and can be harder to get to by public transport. Saturday afternoon ftw.
9. The range of experiences is character-building
I have been running cross-country races now for fifteen years and it is fair to say that I have experienced most possible weather conditions: dry and warm conditions (as it looks like we’re in for this weekend!), snow, hail, rain, mud-baths, windy. It’s hard enough pushing yourself for 5-9 miles but when you’re coping with different terrain and different circumstances, I find it hard to think of something you can do as regularly which builds as much character.
10. Cross-country is an individual and a team sport
Cross-country is undoubtedly an individual sport. You might train with a squad but there comes a point where you adapt your training to suit your needs. You might occasionally try to run in a pack if you have a very solid team; but very often you simply have to run your own race. The performance over which you have the most control is your own. And yet, there is nearly always a vital team aspect to cross-country. As an example, in the Scottish Championships in which I’m running tomorrow, in the Senior Men’s race, six runners make up the scoring team. This is based on your finishing position in the race: e.g., if you finish 10th, you score 10 points for the team. The points of the scoring six are totalled and the team with the lowest number of points wins. While being an individual sport, you know that you will have team-mates out there who are hopefully giving it as much effort as you are. Very often the team prize comes down to the fifth or sixth scorer; every place matters!
Other athletics events have team aspects: it is similarly strong in track and field, where in league meetings, your placing can count for the team; in road races, too, there are often team prizes. Yet, save for thrilling final 4x400m relays, I don’t think the team aspect is as noticeable as it is in cross-country. Those people I mentioned in point one, who count your position, often tell you that you’re the team’s nth scorer.
I think there is something profound in this individual and team aspect. I know how tempting it can be to think mainly about my own performance and not care so much about other people’s, but the team aspect minimises this. It points us beyond ourselves to others. Along with other Christians in the world of sport, I often think about competing for an “audience of one” #ao1. To be your own audience wouldn’t make any sense; the audience of one is God. I believe that sport is a gift from God and matters to God. Moreover, like many runners, I can be my own worst critic; God, however, will remain constant and love me, no matter how well or badly I run. To say I won’t be running partly for myself tomorrow would be disingenuous, but I know that I can also run for others (hopefully a successful Edinburgh Uni team!) as well as a God who always wants me on His team.
So there’s the list: I wonder what you might add – or what you might take away from this list or turn on its head?
In any case, if you’re running tomorrow, enjoy and race well. If you’re supporting, coaching or volunteering tomorrow, thank you. If you’re injured and wish you were running, hang in there. If you’re not doing anything cross-country-related tomorrow, maybe you’re missing out or maybe you’re just very sensible!