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.