Dis­tance leg­end on why send­ing full teams to the World Cross Coun­try Cham­pi­onships is vi­tal

Athletics Weekly - - Contents -

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


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

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