Most distance-running coaches will agree that cross country forms a key part of the core foundation of the sport. Before athletes focus on the road, or even the track, it is suggested that talented young distance runners concentrate on the version of the sport which introduces them to muddy paths, narrow tunnels, open fields and artificial hills.

A real cross country race, a purist might say, should include a stream that needs to be crossed or some hay bales that must be hurdled. Maybe a bridge that needs to be negotiated. Or even a fence that must be climbed.


It’s the most exciting discipline in the sport, offering such a wide variety of courses that organisers have as many options as they could possibly want.

The softer off-road surface is more forgiving on the legs, particularly for younger athletes who are still developing, and the varied terrain, sharp turns and steep climbs are ideal for building strength and improving speed endurance.

Unlike track or road events, where athletes compete over specific distances, a cross country race can also include a range of individuals from 800m specialists to marathon runners.

It is for this reason more than any other that the discipline is widely considered to be the most prestigious version of distance running.

It is no coincidence that the most successful athletes at the World Cross Country Championships, which was first held in 1973, include some of the biggest names in the sport over the last half-century.

Five-time winners at the event include Kenyan icons John Ngugi and Paul Tergat, Ethiopian legend Kenenisa Bekele and Norwegian phenom Grete Waitz, who all left their mark on other surfaces as well.

However, while international athletics has become largely geared towards a focus on fast times, cross country is a discipline in which times don’t really matter, making it somewhat of an outlier in terms of media coverage and general interest.

Though measurements have become more accurate in recent years, exact course distances generally aren’t even considered too important, and cross country is more of a free-range war of attrition than it is a race against the clock.

It’s fast from the start, and then it’s a grind – a battle to see who can grit their teeth the longest.

The SA Cross Country Championships will be held in Amanzimtoti on Saturday, and some exciting races are on the cards across a range of age groups and distances.

Champions will be crowned, lessons will be learned, and battles will be won and lost.

And whoever emerges at the front will have to be ready to fight hard, dig deep and leave it all out in the mud.


Photo Credit: Getty Images

Written by Wesley Botton