The 43rd edition of the IAAF World Cross Country Championships was set to be a memorable one. 520 athletes from 63 countries were competing for titles in the Danish city of Aarhus last Saturday.
The course, a 2km lap repeated multiple times, consists of constant undulations, with short sections of mud, water and sand. But the 10% gradient of a hill near the end is the true punishing test of strength and stamina.
Be in it to Win it
Despite the huge numbers of athletes from East Africa, it was a shame to discover that Belgium and the Netherlands decided against sending a team. Some could argue that due to the dominance of three African nations (Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda) there was little opportunity for others to realistically vie for medals. Indeed, as it turned out, 25 of the 27 medals on offer were scooped up by those impressive countries (Morocco and Japan also each won a medal).
Still, the spirit of running, and especially cross country, is the rich tradition of mass participation. Running is not always about winning but competing amongst fellow athletes. Conversely, to even stand a chance of winning, you need to be on the start line. After all, once the starting pistol sounds, anything could happen.
Challenging Sections Separate the Best from the Rest
Even amongst the very best athletes, the repetition of steep hills can be both a leveller and provide a clear advantage to those who have trained to cope with the leg-sapping terrain.
Some athletes slowed, and others powered up the climbs. From a technical perspective, the most efficient and fastest athletes were those who did not bend forward at the hip and maintained quick arm swings. Often these were the athletes that won medals.
Looks can be Deceiving
As the downhill sections of the course were just as steep, these became just as difficult to navigate as the uphills. Some athletes kept their running technique similar to when running on the flat. Others had their arms out and away from their body. This is an effective strategy to ensure balance and control of speed.
Hellen Obiri, the senior women’s champion, also demonstrated an odd but ‘natural’ technique. Throughout the race her body swung and her head rocked. Usually this would not be an ideal strategy. But the multiple indoor and outdoor world champion showed her superior strength and endurance. Conversely, it could be used to fool her rivals, as her technique can be misconstrued as fatigue.
Finally, Jakob Ingebrigtsen was Europe’s best chance of a medal. But in the U20 men’s race he could only manage a 12th placed finish. His collapse at the end of the race summed up how the East Africans are still miles ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to running on uneven, grassy, mostly dry ground.