Distance legend on why sending full teams to the World Cross Country Championships is vital
AS WE start to hit our stride in 2019, there is so much to look forward to in the coming year and the IAAF World Cross Country Championships (WCC) in Aarhus at the end of March is heavily circled in my calendar.
The Danish federation has done a great job in promoting it and they’re trying to do something traditional yet innovative with the circuit – a short 2km lap with the athletes running up and down a museum roof, passing through a cheering tent and negotiating changes in surface and many corners. In short, they’ve tried to make the course properly testing and I understand there’s hardly a flat metre on it. They’re making it more dynamic, more spectator friendly and a genuine test of cross country skills as opposed to some of the flatter circuits of the last 25 years.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think cross country has to involve ploughing through eight-inch deep mud but I do think having some decent hills on a course should be a pre-requisite to calling something a proper cross country race.
What they’re doing in Aarhus looks to be really positive for the sport. Seb Coe has got behind it and there’s the renewed talk of course about cross country becoming an Olympic discipline (News, p6).
There are still a few question marks about how it would sit in the Olympic cycle, but while the IAAF continue to take cross country seriously then I think it’s almost beholden on national federations to take it seriously. And that’s why I’m frustrated by British Athletics’ (BA) apparent attitude towards the WCC.
There’s a generation of coaches and administrators developing in the UK who just don’t take cross country seriously enough. It’s like it’s almost an inconvenience to them and they don’t quite seem to realise this is a world championships in its own right and so legitimately an end in its own right.
Of course there are the other major championships to consider in 2019 but, with a 26-week gap between the WCC and the World Championships in Doha at the end of September, there is plenty of time for athletes to contest both and to make the turnaround between disciplines.
I’d suggest there is nothing wrong with looking back at what has worked for previous generations of athletes in years gone by, and what’s clear is that running the WCC didn’t hurt Kenenisa Bekele’s best years on the track, for example, and that’s just the tip of that particular iceberg!
My frustration stems from BA’s announced criteria that they will only pick the first two seniors at the trials and then the rest will get selected if they think the team has a chance of placing in the top six. It is an absurdly unrealistic aim when you look at results from the last 10 WCC editions. If they are going to adopt that attitude then we are never going to send anyone to the WCC again.
There’s a lot to be said for giving people recognition for being among the top athletes in the country, giving them a British vest, giving them an incentive, giving them pride and giving kids something to look up to and to aspire to.
I don’t think the mindset in regard to the WCC is right from the decision-makers at UK Athletics – and that has filtered through to the athletes. There is a general lack of understanding of the connection between cross country and what it can bring to you both during the winter months and its relationship to one’s ability to endure a long summer.
Cross country is tough – why else do so many avoid it? – and it toughens you up. I also think that if you do a cross country season, while it might delay the start of your summer, so you won’t be running fast in May, most years you want to be at your peak in July and August, not in April and May. More than ever before, that’s true for the way the calendar is structured in 2019.
Linked to this is that there’s a generation of endurance athletes now whose default setting is to repeatedly try and get away to spend time in warm weather and at altitude. As a result, they tend to turn their backs on whatever a winter in the UK might offer, which is perfectly good training conditions for 98% of the time.
There is real logic to saying that training in tough conditions is a good thing – it toughens you up, it’s effectively resistance training and equivalent to doing your winter distance training on a 1% incline. It gives you a harder edge.
In particular, I don’t think it’s invalid to say it was good enough for us lot back in the 60s, 70s and 80s and so there’s nothing wrong with it for this current generation; show me better results and I’ll accept the current model. I know the talent pool perhaps isn’t as big as it used to be and of course we should protect our best, but that doesn’t mean that everything from the last 30-40 years should be changed.
I believe the athletes and the coaches should be putting pressure on BA to send full teams to the world cross country. If enough pressure is applied – and unfortunately there isn’t an athletes’ union any more – then they could be persuaded to look at decisions again.
The last WCC was in the sweltering heat and altitude of Kampala in Uganda, and before that it was in a spectator-free and anonymous corner of China, but this year it’s Denmark, on our doorstep, it’s proper cross country again and it’s going to be high profile. Sending full teams to these championships gives hundreds of athletes something to aspire to and fight for.
At the same time, we also need to be going to our top athletes and saying “you need to support this too”. They should be encouraged and guided more towards representing Britain at the WCC.
Cross country competition has served generation after generation of great UK runners very well and it’s time the WCC was given due respect.
Tim Hutchings won silver at the World Cross Country Championships behind Carlos Lopes in 1984 and
John Ngugi in 1989, took two English National cross-country titles and today works as a television commentator
“THERE IS REAL LOGIC TO SAYING TRAINING IN TOUGH CONDITIONS IS A GOOD THING – IT TOUGHENS YOU UP, IT’S EFFECTIVELY RESISTANCE TRAINING AND EQUIVALENT TO DOING YOUR WINTER DISTANCE TRAINING ON A 1% INCLINE. IT GIVES YOU A HARDER EDGE”
Aarhus is set to stage the 2019 IAAF World Cross Country Championships in the undulating grounds of a Viking museum
Kenenisa Bekele: world 5000m and 10,000m recordholder was a World Cross regular
In 2017 the World Cross Country Championships took place in Kampala in Uganda but no GB senior men took part