Mud. Sweat. Tears.
Cross country (except when it snows in the NCAAs apparently), is built for toughness, for grit, and for determination.
Gone are the days of fast times and pacemakers. Gone are the days of Vapourflys eschewing the results. And here are the days of athletes racing as a team.
Cross country is for the athletes who truly love the sport.
In recent years however, cross country has been relegated to a background role in global athletics. It seems that cross country is the event that the IAAF has forgotten about. The effort and money have simply not gone to expand the distance across the globe.
At the last World Cross Country Championships in Denmark, neither Belgium, Norway, nor the Netherlands sent a team to the event. Many of the top runners from countries across the globe failed to make a showing including the likes of Farah, Hassay, Knight, and more. Although the race was well organized, the Championships seemed not to attract the global attention that other events in athletics are provided.
This is a stark change from the past. There were days where Radcliffe, Kastor and co. would all arrive on the line ready to battle out the top spots against the East Africans.
The state of cross country in Canada is no different. Outside of the USPORTS stream, it is difficult for young runners to transition from their high school days to recreational / sport for life running days. Very few cross country races are open to the general pubic in Canada and often these are open meets where large collegiate teams come to collect the bounty. In addition, these race are often attached to a larger meet (such as the Canadian Championships) which move around the country and provide no consistent racing opportunities.
On the elite side, Canadian country has some issues as well. The largest of these is the lack of top Canadian athletes who race in the Championships. Of course, this is their prerogative, but it has shown how far cross country has fallen in the minds of the Canadian distance community.
Perhaps the biggest reason for this is the lack of prize money offered at the Canadian Championships. If Knight or an Ahmed were to show up, there would be little to no prize purse for them. The same goes for a Debues-Stafford or Melissa Bishop. Athletics Canada has struggled to find a title sponsor for the event and the money simply is not there.
The question for sponsorship potential is what comes first: the chicken (sponsors) or the egg (Olympic caliber runners).
Although this piece has sounded like I have been spelling doomsday for Canadian cross country, it would be ignorant of me to ignore the good things going in the discipline.
Because there are good things.
Last year, the men’s field was one of the deepest in a long time. The likes of Rory Linkletter, Ben Preisner, Ehab El-Sandali, and Ben Flanagan returned from the states to mix it up against Luc Bruchet, Mike Tate, Evan Esselink and Yves Sikawibu.
Besides Bruchet, Olympian Natasha Wodak also toes the line every year which is awesome for Canadian running. Last year, Genevieve Lalonde also destroyed the field, which provided a different element to the race than usual.
Canada also sent full squads to the World Championships in the mixed relay, junior races and senior races, an element that Athletics Canada should be provided credit for.
However, the struggles for the sport ultimately remain – how do we expand its popularity?
I believe the answer can be found in the relevance of cross country internationally. If the World Championships continues to be held every second year, the sport will suffer. If the rumours are true and cross country may find its way to the Olympics in the near future, it will serve the launch the sport back to prominence.
Until then, running fans need to support cross country by watching it online, talking about it, racing it, or heading out to the course to spectate.
The Canadian Championships are in Abbotsford, BC on November 30.