BLOG: What makes cross-country?

By Sarah Tunstall

The beginning of February and hopefully the worst of this year’s winter is behind us, however, the Cross-Country season is still in full swing!

Last weekend saw the annual Northern Cross-Country Championships held at Witton Park Blackburn, a notoriously tough course and one I certainly remember running for a lot of years. It’s therefore been quite surprising the amount of moaning I have heard about the weekend’s course!! “It’s a fell race,” “This isn’t Cross-Country,” “I’m sticking to the road!!” It made me wonder what does define a Cross-Country.

I am almost certainly biased as I relish the tougher conditions and enjoyed a successful run. However, I still think this course is a brilliant Cross Country venue. A lot of credit should go to Blackburn Harriers after the Park was severely flooded on Boxing Day and this would always make the conditions tough going and probably softer than usual. Also the added loop of the “teaspoon”…now a term that sends a tremor of fear amongst many of the North’s best male runners, did make an already hardy course even tougher. Overall though the course included; hills, downhills, mud and flat running. Surely this is the perfect combination to test Cross Country running ability? A manicured golf course or Country Park is also Cross Country by definition but often a test of speed and if dry conditions prevail, road or track running ability.

Leading the climb from eventual winner Claire Duck (227) and third place Rosie Smith (131)
Leading the climb from eventual winner Claire Duck (227) and third place Rosie Smith (131)

It would be impossible to find a course to suit every runner and this is one of the things I love about Cross-Country. It levels the playing field amongst athletes from all disciplines; Road, Track, Mountain or Trail running. By definition Cross Country is “a race on open-air courses over natural terrain” and “can include weather conditions of rain, sleet, snow or hail, and a wide range of temperatures.” All these factors affect competitors in different ways and often on the start line of a Cross-Country race pb’s can stand for nothing, which in my view makes for quite interesting and varied results. Different courses will always suit different strengths and results can be reversed week on week, again making each competition different.

Over the winter my own training generally revolves around; off road running, grass sessions, uphills, downhills and speed work. I won’t be suited to every course but if I cover every eventuality all I can do is line up and race as hard as I can on the given terrain. I won’t always like it but someone will probably like it less than me! Cross Country isn’t about minute mile pace and Garmin splits, it is true racing as we’re judged on individual positions, striving to beat one more person or gain places for extra points that score towards the team results. Great races unfold as a consequence, which I still find quite refreshing in a GPS and Strava led world!!

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