Cross Country: A Unique and Unusual Monster

This is an article I wrote for Pure M Zine on the sport of Cross Country. The original article can be found here.

Back in February, journalist Jolyon Attwooll wrote a lovingly crafted piece for theTelegraph, titled ‘The greatest running race you have never heard of…’ He was referring to the English Cross Country Championships, a yearly event that is hosted in an array of interesting locations (read: muddy fields) around England, and in which over 5,000 runners take part.

Attwooll clearly has a grá for these Championships, and for cross country running in general. He describes a pack of runners crossing the field as “like a scene from medieval battlefield” and “one of the most magnificent sights you can watch in running, and arguably in all sport.” These are thousands of people, moving along in sync over hills and valleys, muddied and wheezy, competing for team prizes, individual medals, the chance to represent England at European Championships, to beat that arch enemy, improve on last year’s position, score on a winning team and many other varied prizes and feats.

The imagery he creates, and the enthusiasm of Attwooll’s tone stayed with me long after I’d read the article. It came to the front of my mind this weekend, as the County Cross Country Championships took place around Ireland, setting our own Senior Cross Country season into full swing.

The Dublin event took place in Tymon Park, on a day that recorded some of the hottest November temperatures ever. The course was fairly flat, with a few undulating hills. There was a puddle here and there and some tufty, uneven terrain in parts. Attwooll’s description of “The London skyline gleaming in the soft winter sunshine” paints a similar picture of this most idyllic of winter days. He imagines the awe and amazement of the unexpecting bystander as a large pack of humans flows across the sunny horizon as far as the eye can see; and indeed the gliding figures striding across Tymon Park were a marvellous sight for any unexpecting bystander – a lovely event to stumble upon on your Sunday walk, or even your Sunday drive down the M50, such is our typically Dublinese location, in comparison with the Parliament Hill of Attwooll’s piece.

The event as a whole was a successful one, with strong performances from Caroline Crowley, who led the Crusaders women’s team to victory. They totalled a team score of 23 (with an impressive 1, 3, 4, 14), ahead of Donore’s 52. On the men’s side, it was a close win for Mick Clohisey, who beat Freddy Sittuk to the post after a long 10k battle. Raheny took the team prize while Donore had to settle for second once again. It was a great day out for all involved: some strong senior races, some lively junior and juvenile races, lots of camaraderie, competitiveness, team spirit, optimism, ambition; all the things cross country is really about.

Cross country, as a whole, is a unique and unusual monster. From the very outset, it’s hard to say what it even really is. Last year’s European Cross Country Championships took place in below freezing temperatures in a snowy ski resort in Bulgaria. This year’s event will take place in the French Riviera. The Americans often host cross country races on golf courses, while other organisers prefer sandy beaches. You could be faced with hills, mud, uneven terrain, gravel, dirt, grass; even the odd jump isn’t unusual.Athletics Weekly say it “equally belongs to the star and to the scrubber” and indeed many an everyday plodder gets the opportunity to compete against the Paula Radcliffes of the world in large and competitive fields. Not only that, but the 100thrunner could in fact be battling for gold in the team prizes: everyone has a part to play.

All these wonderful factors are mentioned in Attwooll’s piece, and they are part of what the athletes in Tymon Park on this sunny Sunday know make a pure and wonderful sport. But we all know, too, that something about the Irish cross country scene in recent years has lost its lustre. The women’s race on Sunday, for example, only had 34 participants. Thirty, forty or fifty years ago, the numbers would’ve been double or triple what they are today. The London Cross Country had almost 200 finishers last year. So why only 34 on this lovely day in Dublin?

There are two things that stand out as explanations for the low turnout. The first is the drop in what’s at stake. In the past you needed to compete in County Championships in order to qualify for the National Senior Championships. Now everyone gets a bye into Nationals. Since races to a certain extent ‘dent’ a runner’s training plan, it’s understandable that the best runners want to save themselves for races where they’ll face their best competition, therefore get the most out of themselves. Or perhaps in some cases they wish to save themselves for a race where they can earn some money, or a race that qualifies them for important international competition.

The second thing to consider is that certain training plans simply rule-out cross country. Some people speak of ‘cross country’ athletes and ‘track’ athletes as entirely different species. It is true that most people are better at one than the other, and that track is considered the more glamorous event. And so many athletes consider themselves ‘too precious’ for cross country. They argue a fear of injury or over-racing and spend their winter focusing soley on training for the track, hammering out lonely miles and avoiding cross country like the plague. This is something that baffles Sonia O’Sullivan, who has always maintained cross country was one of the things that conditioned her for a great track season.

Still, these are both valid diagnoses, and there are many more like them. But they are quite inward-looking, focusing on athletes who already race and asking why they don’t turn up to particular events.

There are other ways to look at the numbers problem. What if we ask ourselves why, for example, were there 6000 participants in first ever Tough Mudder in 2014 – a race that has most of the same core qualities as cross country, but isn’t half as well established. It had far more than the meagre hundred participants who took part in the National Interclubs Cross Country a few months later.

The same goes for road races around the country. This year, the Dublin Marathon had a record number of over 15,000 entrants. How many of these have ever, or will ever, know the joy Attwooll describes when he speaks of cross country? Very few, I imagine.

It seems to me that people, whether consciously or unconsciously, are more inspired by races that seek to commodify the world of health (hashtag fitspo) than by a sport, namely cross country, that has a rich legacy and purity at its heart. When I say ‘purity’ I’m talking about the sport in and of itself, the ancient impulse of putting one foot in front of another over our natural terrain and battling on for miles in a pack of people who are doing likewise. Some would argue it’s what human beings were born to do.

Maybe it’s partly that people don’t know what cross country is or that these races exist. This, of course, is what the very title of Attwooll’s article ‘The greatest running race you have never heard of…’ is getting at. Cross country doesn’t have much of a media following. It doesn’t have the same glamour of track races. It doesn’t even have a hashtag. (Okay, maybe it does, but still).

But I would love to at least see Irish cross country reach the same levels as English cross country. Their women’s race had 865 participants last year. Ours had 24.

And it’s not as if we Irish are ‘unsporty’ people. I mean, couldn’t our biggest sporting organisation, and old athletics compatriot, the GAA, get in on some of the cross country action? The winter season is the perfect time to condition the likes of the Dublin football team or the Kilkenny camogie team, and cross country would certainly have a positive effect on the rest of their training. If it was good enough for Sonia, it’s surely good enough for everyone else.

I’m not sure how this would be done. Cross country, as I’ve said is an unusual and unique monster. You have to be a member of a running club to compete (anyone can, of course, join a running club if they please). It’s not for the faint of heart and not really for the fun runner. No-one’s there to lose weight for that summer wardrobe, get fit for those Instagram pics, or get Snapchat stories of their interesting lives. (Though I’m not saying these things won’t happen by way of happy coincidence for those who do take part). But really, the athletes are there to compete. And this isn’t for everyone.

Not all of those 15,000 marathon runners will have an interest in getting into the gritty world of mud and muck and committing to training and teams and taking on competitors who are far beyond their experience level. But I think marrying our sports, fostering and interest in cross country and integrating those who are interested, would be a positive step, however we choose to navigate the red tape. Competing against ‘non-runners’ is likely to put the fear of god into a seasoned club athlete, and they will be better for it. Likewise, competing against club runners is likely to toughen athletes of other sports. And this isn’t a scary track with lanes and starting blocks and other intimidating specifics. This is cross country, with hundreds of people running in a pack with something more than time at stake. This is a flow of bodies and lungs panting across the horizon. It’s true competition. You can almost hear their wheezing breaths. It’s pure sport. Their strides make a rhythm on the ground. It’s the greatest competition you have never heard of. Listen.

Attwooll’s marvellous piece can be found here.

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