Cross-Country has always had a particular significance in British athletics.
Though the trend for marathons and other road races is booming here as
elsewhere, the increase is not so noticeable in cross-country running and
racing. That is a pity, since lovers of cross-country have found a magical
Earth, forest, hills, up and down and always mud, mud. That is cross-country
tradition and how could it be otherwise? This is how the great ones of British
track and field developed, not just the long distance athletes like the
Welshman Steve Jones, world record holder for the marathon in the 1980s, but
heroes of the middle distances like Steve Ovett: in 1978 the 23-year-old beat
almost all of the cream of British long distance runners in the national
championships. Later that same year in the European Championships in Prague, he
won the 1500 metres title ahead of a field including Thomas Wessinghage and
Jürgen Straub, having taken silver behind Olaf Beyer in the 800 while
Sebastian Coe had the bronze. Ovett was a cross-country runner and had made
himself strong over the hills around his hometown of Brighton on the English
Blackheath and Bromley Harriers are a south London club rich in tradition.
Founded in 1869, they are also a club that looks to the future and has many
talented young athletes. But for the long distance runners, whether they be
likely to win or those crossing the finishing line somewhat slower, the winter
cross-country series is the high point of their year. The reason is this
series, where the club races against other clubs in what are called "Mob
Matches" or Inter-Club meetings.
Around six times over the winter the "Blackheathens" race against
rivals from other clubs. It feels like an international, running against Orion
Harriers or Ranelagh; the latter club was that of Chris Brasher, co-founder of
the Flora London Marathon and 1956 Olympic steeplechase champion. They meet
either in Richmond Park in south-west or in Epping Forest, where Elizabeth I
used to hunt in the sixteenth century. Her hunting lodge is still there,
painted black and white in the classic Tudor style, and stands close to the
clubhouse of Orion Harriers.
Harriers, yes, thats what they are in spirit, named after the hounds which
were raised for the hunt. These men and women run cross-country, literally. The
courses are usually over 12 Kilometres and the winner is rarely inside 50
minutes. Even high quality runners don often beat that kind of time, since the
terrain is always hilly. Of course, the weather is a factor and the true
cross-country runners love it when rain "refreshes" the mud.
Afterwards there is tea, sandwiches and cake in the clubhouse. There is a
lot of chat, often along the lines of "I could have beaten him, if only
..." The points are added up and this is the vital moment, since this is
about team competition, whether Ranelagh, perhaps going to the startline with
50, have beaten Blackheath who arrived 75-strong? Every performance matters:
the 70-year-old who might have won this race 50 years ago, can still make the
decisive contribution, even if he finishes in the last ten. There is not much
of a fitness centre in the clubhouse, no videos, loud music for accompaniment,
only changing rooms and showers. If you don finish in the top 50, you might be
having a shower which is lukewarm at best. But if you discover this world,
perhaps as a newcomer to running, you will not be disappointed.