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Cross Country: One Hill of a Sport

The days are getting shorter and that only can mean one thing for runners: it is time for cross country –– affectionately known as “cross.”

Everyone catches the bug a little differently. For some, cross is their first love but others wind up on the high school cross country team after a bad experience with another sport. For example, I started running to get into shape for soccer tryouts. I made the soccer team, but as a back-up goalie, I spent an awful lot of time riding the bench. I soon realized that running laps wasn’t punishment; it was the highlight of my practice. The next season, I joined the cross country team and experienced end-of-summer practices that moved into dual and invitational meets as the weather became cooler.

In fact, one of the charms and challenges of cross is the extremes of weather during its season. In the US, cross country starts in the heat of August and stretches into the cold of November. At the international level, it continues through the winter and the World Championship has occasionally been contested on snow-covered trails.

 Cross Country in the Snow!
European-style cross country in the 1924 Olympics
Conditions aren’t usually this extreme

Cross country has a long history. The joy and fun of racing through the woods probably makes it difficult to determine a true start of the sport, but the English claim that the first formal competitions began at English schools in 1837 with a pursuit game called “hare and hounds.” The first English national championship was held on December 7, 1867, and was open to all comers. Therefore, cross country signals the beginning of a democratic running culture that aspires to recognize that anyone who lines up should be allowed to compete.

Early in the Olympic movement, cross country was contested both as a team and individual event (1904, 1912, 1920, and 1924). After the 1924 Paris Olympics race was conducted during a heat wave, causing severe attrition and several rumored deaths (later proven to be unsubstantiated), the Olympic Committee removed cross country from the Olympic program. There have been recent calls to reinstate cross country in the Olympics as part of the Winter Games, for although it is a sport that doesn’t require ice or snow, it sure can be exciting when frozen trails are involved.

All types of runners enjoy cross. Middle-distance specialists, for instance, can battle it out with 5,000 meter runners. Sprinters can work on their overall endurance and fitness while challenging marathoners working on speed and agility. Importantly, everyone can benefit from the distance. Elite professionals say that cross-country running is a core activity that helps develop endurance and lays the groundwork for success in track and road racing. If cross can help runners like Benjamin Limo, Sonia O’Sullivan, and Paula Radcliffe, it can also help you. Three-time Olympian Craig Virgin, the only U.S. men’s winner (1980-1981) of the World Cross Country Championships, explained, “Doing well at the World Cross Country Championships was a catalyst for all my other successes.”

Actually, sprinters do run cross…

Fall cross country races have memorable sensations that take hold of a runner. I can still feel the nip in the air and hear the crisp leaves under foot. I also remember the distinctive smell of Bengay. In upstate New York, the hills made the course. In high school, I ran on courses with hills named Coronary and Cardiac. When I’m in the woods in the fall, those unique smells and sensations urge me on to run. For those who have participated in cross country in the past, the mere mention of “cross” will undoubtedly evoke good memories. Oddly, what I don’t remember is all of the hill repeats and intervals done around the golf course, although I do remember the slow slogs back to school after an exhausting practice.

Luckily, cross country running doesn’t need to be an exercise in nostalgia. Older runners –– I prefer the term “Masters,” as if one can master running –– can also experience or re-experience the joys of cross country and you don’t have to return to high school to do so. We might not have a weekly dual and invitational meet to travel to, but we can participate in the cross country series at Tawasentha Park. The next two are Monday, August 17 at 6:30 PM and Monday August 24 at 6:30 PM. These are fun, difficult races (the hills…) tackled by runners of all skill levels and speeds. ( If you haven’t raced cross country recently or are new to the sport, be sure to check these races out.

If you enjoy Tawasentha and are looking for some additional racing opportunities in the fall, be sure to sign up for the Saratoga Cross Country Classic ( –– also the site of the 2105 USA Masters 5K Cross Country Championships. If you are over forty, this is your chance to run in a championship race close to home. (

Some fun at Tawasentha
Next week, I’ll give you some technique tips to improve your cross country running! Stay tuned. What’s your best cross-country memory? Why do you cross? Drop us a line in the comments.

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