British Athletics Cross Challenge 2020 Race Review

The British Athletics Cross Challenge attracts quality athletes from the home countries. On Saturday 11 January 2020, Stirling’s Kings Park hosted a very wet and muddy series of cross country races. In this post, I’ll answer the question “What happened during the 2020 British Athletics Cross Challenge senior events?” and what lessons all runners can learn from this race.

What happened in the elite women’s race?

The senior women ran four laps of Kings Park. They navigated both flat and hilly sections throughout. A few athletes chose to break early, but no move was decisive. It took until eleven minutes before England’s Kate Avery ran at the front of the pack. There, several athletes hung onto her.

Avery kept her arms wider than normally to help her balance. Her gaze was also lowered in order to ensure her footing was stable enough to run. She also threw her headband away during the race, in order to keep focused. 

It was in the second half of the race that Kate Avery’s efforts were rewarded. Only Bronwen Owen and Abbie Donnelly could stay with her. 24 minutes into the race, Avery and Donnelly had dropped Owen. They charged up the hills together, and Donnelly would not fall back. 

It was only in the final three minutes that Avery opened up a lead of a few metres. Avery’s victory over her countrywoman was eleven seconds. But credit to the two under-23 athletes who pushed the England International to her limits. England won the team title.

What happened in the elite men’s race?

The senior men ran the same course as the women. Five men, two Welshmen, two Scotsmen and England’s Adam Hickey didn’t take long to open up a sizeable gap on the rest of the field. Kristian Jones lead for a long period, as Hickey clung on to the back of the pack.

At twelve minutes, Jones slipped in the mud whilst turning a corner. This gave Andrew Butchart an opportunity to surge forward. He did so, and the pre-race favourite tore away from the pack. But whilst navigating a corner at two minutes later, Buthchart fell. Although he got back up seemingly unharmed, his lead had dwindled.

Three minutes later Jones surprisingly retook the lead. Butchart had no response. Although Jones’ eventual victory was only ten seconds, he ran the second half of the race alone. Butchart could only manage fourth place. Nonetheless, it was fitting that Scotland claimed the team title.

Running lessons from the race

This major cross country race revealed two important lessons for all runners: 1. Falling over doesn’t have to ruin your race, and 2. Tough conditions require more patience when pacing.

Falling over doesn’t have to be devastating

Although it’s important to avoid falling in the mud during a race, as long as it’s not just before the end, you don’t have to panic. Find a moment to safely get back on your feet and focus on returning to your running rhythm. As Kristian Jones demonstrated, even when you lose your position in the race, you always have time to make up the ground you lost. Likewise, it wasn’t Andrew Butchart’s fall that ended his individual medal hopes; his strength, especially uphill, wasn’t as fans would have expected.

Don’t surge too soon

Cross country races are known for their competitive, close-bunched fields. Successful cross country athletes, such as Kate Avery, understand how important it is to stay composed throughout the race. She surged during the final minutes of the race – the perfect time to make it hard for your opponents to respond.

Conclusion

The 2020 senior British Athletics Cross Challenge races were both eight kilometres in length. Stirling’s park and golf course was a very wet and muddy location this year, and really tested the athletes. Extremely experienced athletes, such as Andrew Butchart, found pacing too difficult to perfect. Once again, the athletes that dealt with the conditions best, won. The mud and rain can be more easily overcome when the desire to win is so strong (and you’re in peak condition).

European Cross Country Championships 2019 – Review

The 2019 European Cross Country Championships was held in Lisbon’s Bela Vista Park on Sunday 8 December. The Portuguese capital city hosted seven separate races, with stand-out performances from regular cross country champions. In this post, I’ll answer the question “What happened during the 2019 European Cross Country Championships?” and what lessons all runners can learn from this premier winter race.

What happened in the men’s races?

In the Under-20 race, Jakob Ingebrigtsen was the three-time defending champion. It took him less than two and a half minutes to get to the front of the huge pack. Although it took about 12 minutes for him to pull away, Ingebrigtsen stayed relaxed the entire race. There was no doubt that his class would shone through. His showboating began well before the final stretch; he won the race by 38 seconds. Great Britain won the team race with athletes finishing in respectable positions of fifth, ninth and eleventh. Norway won team silver.

In the Under-23 race, France’s  Jimmy Gressier was the defending champion. But it was Elzan Bibić of Serbia who pushed the early pace. Gressier was content to keep on his heels as they navigated the winding, hilly course. He became impatient and surged just before 18:30. He still had a lap to run. But he ran it alone to retain his title. He even walked the final few metres to celebrate with the crowd. He also helped France win team gold.

In the senior race, Filip Ingebrigtsen was expected to perform well, after winning last year’s race. But as he stayed in the main pack it became obvious that he would not be crowned champion again. Instead the Swizz athlete Julien Wanders lead for the first 8:30. Then the Turkish athlete Aras Kaya surged. Robel Fsiha of Sweden responded well. It took until almost 27:00 before Fsiha surged up a hill to pass Kaya. From there he worked hard to keep accelerating. The Swede won by 11 seconds, celebrating on the final straight. Great Britain won the team event, with Andrew Butchart (fifth), Ben Connor (ninth) and Kristian Jones (twenty-second) scoring points. Filip Ingebrigtsen finished in a surprising twelfth position.

What happened in the women’s races?

In the Under-20 race, Italy’s Nadia Battocletti was the defending champion. She didn’t take long to get to the front and used her strong, efficient arm drive to propel her forward. She had company from four other athletes when the race truly got going. The group to three athletes. Battocletti remained composed, and used a steep hill with two minutes to go to make her move. Although she only won by three seconds, she made the decisive surge in her own time. Once again Great Britain won the team race, but accumulated the same points as Italy. Great Britain won the gold by only three positions, proving how every racer matters.

In the Under-23 race, Anna Emilie Møller was the outstanding favourite to win again for Denmark. She took a few minutes to reach the front of the pack, but wasn’t concerned with the frontrunning of Dutch athlete Lau. After eight minutes of racing, Møller surged. Ireland’s Stephanie Cotter kept with her. But Møller soon was alone, never needing to look behind. Her focus and strength throughout once again revealed her superior athleticism. She won by 39 seconds. Lau took the silver away from Cotter. The Netherlands won team gold. Great Britain had to settle with team bronze.

In the senior race, Yasemin Chan was looking to win her fourth successive gold medal. But it was Karoline Bjerkeli Grøvdal of Norway who lead early. But it didn’t take long for Chan to get beside her. After five minutes she was ahead, and pushing on. Grøvdal had to settle into her own pace, as the Turk continued to drive her legs and use her wide arm drive to great effect. Her focus never wavered as she won by 15 seconds. Grøvdal won the silver medal. Great Britain once again won the team event.

What happened in the mixed relay race?

The order of the mixed relay race was female, male, female and male. The Great Britain team began with Sarah McDonald and she was patient as she only pushed her pace in the second half of her first leg. She handed over just after the Belarus team. But the advantage was quickly wrestled back by James McMurray, who gave his nation a 4-second lead for Alexandra Bell. The final handover of the wristband was clean and quick, as Great Britain had a 8-second lead for the final lap. Jonny Davies attacked the course and ensured that Great Britain won gold. Belarus gained silver and France secured bronze.

Running lessons from the race

The 26th edition of the European Cross Country Championships revealed two important lessons for all runners: 1. getting to the front early in the race helps, and 2. relaxed arms support balance when running steep downhills.

Get to the front early

None of the races were particularly long; the longest race was the senior men’s event at 10,225m. This meant that the athletes had to find a fast rhythm quickly if they were not to be left behind. Most of the eventual champions sat back during the early few minutes, and then found a space near or at the front. They were in the best position to cover other athletes’ surges, plus ensure they were free of any crowds, where they could have been tripped or held back.

Relax the arms running downhill

Although the arm drive of athletes varied on the flat and uphill sections of the course, most athletes kept their arms loose and beside their bodies when running downhill. This allows them to use gravity more effectively to cover ground, and supports their balance as they run faster. 

Conclusion

The 2019 European Cross Country Championships threw up few surprises. Familiar faces dominated on a course that was unaffected by rain or mud. Temperatures were reasonable, at 14℃, and although the laps were hilly, most athletes had no problem traversing the Portuguese park. Great Britain showed again why they have great strength in depth. They topped the medal table with five golds and one bronze, all from the team or mixed relay races. Many other countries performed well, helped a lot by athletes who had tasted success before.


Read the 2018 report.

World Cross Country Championships 2019 Review

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.

Great Stirling Cross Country 2019 Race Review

Although cold, conditions in central Scotland last Saturday were dry. 

Coupled with the fast, flat (for the most part) golf course, the Simplyhealth Great Stirling Cross Country races suited track runners best. 

The 3-team competition may not have resulted in a massive field of runners.

But the rivalries were evident and promised intense racing over distances of 6km, for the women, 8km, for the men, and 4x 1,500m for the mixed relay.

Cross-Training Improves Racing

 

The most impressive performance of the meet was Elena Burkard’s 5-second victory in the women’s race.

The German’s patience during the first three laps meant she could attack the leader, GB’s Charlotte Arter, soon into the final lap. 

Burkard replicated her triumph over Arter in the recent European Cross Country Championships.

Her posture and wide arm drive never faltered as she navigated the grassy fields.

More intriguing is the interview Burkard gave post-race. 

She trains at cross country skiing camps. 

She has learnt that to protect herself from injury she must train smartly. 

Cross-training helps her maintain fitness and develop leg strength without the stressful pounding of excessive running. 

Even though she admits she is poor at this winter sport, it obviously works as a supplementary activity.

Knowing the Route Beforehand Matters

 

During two of the three races, some athletes ran in the wrong direction. 

Hillary Bor, in the men’s race, was still able to win the race, although by less than a second. 

In the mixed relay, the US athlete on the second leg effectively lost her 50m lead due to her decision to veer off course.

Extra marshals positioned at specific points on the course would most likely have eradicated confusion. 

However, the mistakes highlight an important issue. 

All athletes should understand the race course well enough to navigate it alone. 

If there is any uncertainty before the race, then clarity should be sought from the organisers. 

The consequences can mean the difference between winning and losing.

Familiarity with Hills Builds Strength

 

The only testing hills on the course were an incline after the first 100m, and one at the end of each lap. 

Although steep, both are short. 

These stretches give the stronger, more technically superior athletes the edge. 

On the final laps, during every race, the eventual winners would take their chance to power uphill. 

They would gain both greater momentum and lead over their rivals.

This is a predictably effective strategy, as hill running is notoriously tiring. 

If the athlete is primed for this challenge they have the ability to break their opponents. 

Burkard in the women’s race, and Muir in the mixed relay, demonstrated the greatest willingness and correct technique. 

They appeared to make light work of the otherwise hellish sections of the course.

The format of the competition, with athletes vying for individual and team glory (with either Team USA, Great Britain or Europe) is an exciting addition for spectators. 

However, unsurprisingly, with more countries to select from, Europe are never likely to be threatened for the team trophy.

Elite Champions at 2018 European Cross Country Championships

Conditions in the southern city of Tilburg in the Netherlands was as expected for cross country running – muddy, wet, rainy, windy and cold.

But, despite some athletes slipping and falling, the settings did nothing to prevent the athletes from competing hard over compelling distances, ranging from 4 to 10km.

Winners Focus

All the eventual winners had nothing on their minds other than navigating the undulating, winding course as efficiently and as quickly as possible.

They never panicked, whether they had competitors beside them for the majority of the race, or found themselves forging ahead alone, stringing out the rest of the field. The champions also waited for the most crucial times to give their best effort; often over the final bend and straight.

These performances were highlighted further by the immature actions of Ouassim Oumaiz, the U20 Spaniard, who despite finishing second spent sections of the race talking, looking back, and even slapping the hand of Jakob Ingebrigtsen.

As a coach, I reflect on two matters; if he had concentrated more on his own pacing, he could have reduced the nine-second victory of Ingebrigtsen, and, better secured his silver medal, because on another day Serbia’s Elzan Bibic could have made up his two-second deficit.

Position Matters

Every race began with athletes sprinting the 200m straight across the mud flat to the opening of the woods. Cross country, by its nature, is fiercely competitive as tight corners and uneven surfaces mean every step must keep athletes balanced, and every position counts for individual and team glory.

Norway topped the medal table with three golds, helped in huge part by the contribution of the Ingebrigtsen brothers. Although Team GB could only manage team medals, they finished the day with the largest haul of any nation, revealing once again the depth of athletic talent that lies in the United Kingdom.

Believers Succeed

I predicted before the championships that Norway’s Jakob Ingebrigtsen and Turkey’s Jasemine Can would defend their titles. I also suspected that a new champion would be crowned in the senior men’s race, simply due to the extraordinarily strong field.

I was proven right, but the reason is more pronounced in the U23 champions, France’s Jimmy Gressier and Denmark’s Anna Møller. They displayed the belief of champions, accepting their roles as pre-race favourites, running to their strengths – Gressier fast, pushing the pace the entire race, and Møller strategic, waiting for others’ to fatigue before making her final move.

University of Essex Cross Country Championship

It was late 2011. I was to run my first cross country race since high school.
In previous years the annual event had attracted many entrants.
There was only one medal available. Only one name would be engraved on the historic University shield.
I wanted to be that runner but the high competition, including a well-known fast runner called Sandy, made the challenge an unknown.
As I walked to the start line at Wivenhoe Park I discovered I was wrong. There were only three other runners, all male and none I had heard of before.
My confidence grew.
We set off from the sports pavilion and within a minute I was last.
I continued to run hard around the perimeter of the football and rugby pitches, then the cricket field.
Three laps.
A flat course.
I stayed in last position the entire race.
The winner was Dominic King, the two-time Olympic 50km race walker and one of the best in the United Kingdom having competed at the Commonwealth Games and World Championships.


I underestimated my competition. But when I later realised the quality of my competitors I learnt not to always compare myself to others. I ran my own race and was pleased with my effort.

The time did not matter and instead my measure of success was my tight chest and ragged breath; I had given all that I could.

The soft grass and absence of spectators reminded me of my cross country days.

Yet, the experience was extra special because I ran with a professional athlete (albeit from some distance away) and my then-girlfriend (now fiancée) supported me.

High School Cross Country Career

Cross country was my route into running.

When I run on trails in training I am reminded of the importance of this surface. I look back fondly on those multi-terrain events at high school.

I ran cross country mostly in my Physical Education classes. Unlike other children, I never complained and secretly enjoyed this exercise more than any other sport. The course often followed the perimeter of the school sports field, along a cricket pitch and around a plot of barren land, full of weeds and litter (and home to an old military pillbox).

These runs built my endurance and required consistent pacing rather than speed.

There was often long stretches where I would be running alone.

This suited me.

During those times I would imagine the race commentary. It was inspired by the Sky Sports Soccer Saturday television show, where pundits would keep viewers updated on football matches that could not be shown live. This was a technique to motivate myself to remain competitive and experience the thrill of chasing and leading other runners.

It was the form of running that made me feel most free. There were no boundaries. No distance markers. No way of telling the pace or time during the ‘race’. It emphasised the playfulness of running.

I was awarded two badges for my dedication to the discipline. I am proud to have competed for my high school in two cross country championships, even if my finishing positions were never outstanding. Although I felt the same nerves as running on the track, once I was off the start line I would enjoy the atmosphere of mass participation, sparse crowds and a challenging course, which often included hills, mud and puddles.

Cross country taught me that sport did not need rules or equipment to be enjoyed, and that following the fast starters is not the most sensible approach.

My disinterest in running such events as an adult reflects my preference to set new personal records rather than explore paths off the beaten track. For now, anyway.