What The Hell Is Cross Country?

IMG_0570by coach & Rogue founder Steve Sisson

So, the other day I was discussing the concept of the world’s greatest race with some athletes I coach. Of course, a topic like this will most assuredly include widely divergent opinions. Kinda like asking who’s the greatest superhero, right?

”Come on?!? Are you serious?!? Of course it’s Mighty Mouse!!!”

We were discussing the crazy-talented field assembled for the London Marathon and what a race would look like that included the best marathoners vs the best milers, with all the other race distances thrown in. At this point, I chuckled…see, most members of this group came into running later in life, after kickball, Pop Warner, HS basketball and intramural Ultimate Frisbee, meaning they have no background in running beyond it being their chosen sport’s punishment.

1477944_10152173185352642_1937235815_nSo, I tell them all that there already is an Undisputed Greatest Human Footrace On The Planet: The World Cross Country Championships.  It is considered by many as “the world’s toughest race to win” because it brings the milers & the marathoners, the track stars & the road warriors to one course, on one day, for all the marbles. It is typically run on incredibly challenging courses, in horrific weather conditions, encouraging fast starts & aggressive racing styles. For decades, almost every significant champion on the track or on the roads, at any distance, competed at the World Cross Country Championships. In 1975, Steve Prefontaine sent a few pairs of Nike’s to an upstart American who had just placed third at World Cross in Morocco. A few weeks later that upstart, Bill Rogers, won the Boston Marathon in an American Record of 2:09:55. It is so tough that the athlete who many considered the greatest runner of all time, aka the GOAT, Haile Gebrselassie, never won a World Cross title.

But I digress… I could make a very compelling case for cross country as the world’s toughest race but my friend over at Flotrack, Mich Kastoff, already made that argument prior to the 2013 World Champs.

I have lived & run in Austin since 1988 & I have always been amazed at the Marathon Madness that consumes this town. Of course, we’ve got a world-class marathon in town and that likely has seeped into the water of every Austinite, but in every training group I have coached the goal is always the marathon. Once someone completed the marathon, they became obsessed with running a personal record. Once that was achieved, it was on to becoming a Boston Qualifier. I am not denigrating that experience. I share the view that Boston is the Olympics for the everyman, which makes that accomplishment the Holy Grail for most runners. It’s just seems to me the two-marathons-a-year-for-years-on-end plan is stale as a popcorn fart.

Now, I’m not trying to offend anyone. I just want you to be aware that there is SOOOO much more running available! Sure, you’ve done the Cap 10K and the Chuy’s 5K, but they are rarely more than a blip on your running radar. You need to get excited for something…for something unusual, something challenging, something crazy. Believe me, cross country is something very different.

RogueAC-64The Varieties of Running Experience

Every physical therapist I speak with laments their initial consultations with long-term distance runners. They point to their tragic inflexibility, their locked hips, intransigent psoas’ & comatose glutes, which they invariably blame on pavement. Firm, high-energy return surfaces like concrete & asphalt are very fast but they also require a significant toll. Because you need only recruit a minimum of tendons, ligaments & muscles, those soft tissues get supremely overworked. Continuously running repetition after repetition with no variability means those soft tissues get overworked while other complementary body parts atrophy.

When doctors & PTs complain about running being bad for us, this is what they mean. Cross country, on the other hand, requires a full body commitment to racing & training. Soft surfaces require your feet, knees & hips to balance & compensate for innumerable adjustments while you are running. The hilly terrain, sharp turns & undulating surface put your soft tissue under every conceivable stress while you are trying to really push off & accelerate. Many athletes I coach who get back into cross country training will tell me that they are shocked that their shoulders & abs are sore. They just can’t conceive that those body parts, so far from ground contact, are getting a workout.

Now, while your body will get worked over pretty good, your mind will get destroyed. Utterly, sweetly – dare I say – divinely destroyed. The best cross country never stops coming at you; whether the course, the conditions or the competition, cross races are relentless. You have to stay alert, focused & aggressive all while racing at what seems like the fastest pace you can sustain (though in my experience, you can ALWAYS go faster), and you are not doing it alone. Believe me, there is a vibrant community of cross country racers of every age all across the country. Just check out these photos from US Club Cross Championships is Bend last December. Every age & ability level is grinding out the distance on a hellacious course, at altitude & having an AMAZING time doing it.

I am sure that after reading the above many of you will be thinking why the hell would I want to subject myself to that kind of torture? Come on, now. You know why…you need a new experience. You need to challenge yourself, mentally & physically, beyond your current limits. But there is also one other reason you should consider cross country training this summer & fall…

There is no “Time” in Team

In my nearly forty years of running experience, nothing is tougher than a well-run cross country race. Because there is little focus on the clock or splits, so much of what makes an amazing cross country runners is their ability to transcend their own suffering & fears in the middle of fierce competition. In cross country, no one cares what your time is; each course is so different in terms of terrain & weather conditions that few really care what time you run…they only care where you place. Where you place plays into the other thing that makes cross country like no other running discipline: the team.

In cross country scoring, each team has seven designated runners. Five of those seven will count in team scoring by adding up the place of each team member. The team with the lowest score wins. Super simple… no confusing rules or strategy. Just seven teammates, toeing the line against all the other teams to see whose got the right stuff. I think this is the coolest part of the discipline. All other running options are so individualistic: there is no community piece, no bigger sting to a poor performance than the personal disappointment. In cross country, you MATTER. Your result is the key to the team’s success. I find that to be so refreshing in a sport that seems to only highlight the first to finish & not the struggle of all the finishers.

So, please consider racing some cross country. Team Rogue will be getting ready for the 2014 US Club Cross Country Championships in Bethlehem, PA on the historic Lehigh Cross Country Course on December 13. This race is open to runners of all abilities, and we would love to see a strong Austin showing!


steveSteve Sisson is one of the founders of Rogue Running as well as head coach for Rogue Athletic Club and Team Rogue.




3 thoughts on “What The Hell Is Cross Country?

  1. Steve, remember when Austin had a XC series in the fall. Maybe it needs to be brought back. Just saying. I enjoyed the series. And FWIW, my running career began with XC.

    • I surely remember. I am happy to announce that Rogue will putting on the Grass Routes XC race on October 11th. Additionally, we are working on trying to string together a number of XC racing opportunities for open athletes as our athletes prepare for the Club Cross meet in December. We’ll announce it on the Rundown when the race dates firm up. Stay tuned!

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