Cross in crisis, but what’s the solution?
Elizabeth Egan finished in the top ten in the senior women’s race at the Irish Inter Clubs Cross Country Championships on March 1st. What should have been cause for great celebration, led to more of a sense of deflation. She competed in the English national the week before with 865 finishers while only 24 women toed the line in Kilbroney Park, Co. Down. Below she reflects on the current travails of cross country and has seven suggestions to improve the situation.
My whole adult life, I’ve dreamed of finishing top 10 in an Irish Cross Country Championship. In 2005, as a naive 15 year old, I finished 7th in the junior race at the Interclub championships in Naas and led my then club to bronze medals in the team competition, just a day after winning the Leinster U16 Indoor 1500m title on an outdoor track in Tullamore. Three days later, I easily qualified for my first All Ireland Schools Cross Country Championships. The world, it seemed, was my oyster.
Life unfolded, and I never improved on that placing as a junior. There have been many good and bad days since, but it wasn’t until Sunday (March 1st), 20 years on from that memorable day on Naas racecourse, that I finally made it into the top 10 as a senior. A result that should have had me singing and dancing all the way back to Wexford, however, had me feeling quite deflated and, if I’m honest, a tiny bit guilty.
My emotions following Sunday’s race could not have been more different from the joy, relief and excitement I felt when finishing 58th in English Cross Country just 8 days earlier. I realise that 58th doesn’t sound like a great performance, but for me, it was. It was my best result in the race in 10 years. An incredible 865 finished the Senior Women’s race, an increase of 157 on the previous record, set just last year. More than 2000 finished the senior men’s race. And all this despite clashes with a couple of big indoor meets (Birmingham Grand Prix and BUCS Championships). There were spectators practically the whole way around the course. The atmosphere was incredible. To be part of such a race is a privilege; to finish ahead of almost 800 other females, was very satisfying.
In stark contrast, just 24 finished the senior women’s race at Sunday’s Irish Interclub Championships.
So why, while the English National is seeing record participation numbers, is the Irish equivalent hitting rock bottom? The trend of fewer European nations sending teams to the World Cross Country Championships, together with the IAAF’s move to reduce the event to a biannual occurrence, has had undoubted repercussions at the top level, but cross country is far from dead.
‘They’re all racing indoors’, I hear people say. That’s hardly the answer. Just two women finished the 3000m at the National Senior Indoors last weekend (though, to be fair, some of our better endurance athletes raced the 1500m), and one of those was Sunday’s cross country champion. There were no 3000m races in the National League, just three ran in the AAI Games, and the fields were far from deep at the Leinster Junior/Senior/Masters Championships.
Come the track season, there will be a similar lack of competition. A number of events at the AAI Games last year had just one entrant (I know because I ended up doing the 1500m, my third choice event). The Leinster Seniors had similarly poor entries. While the numbers participating in the National Seniors were probably a bit higher than in recent years, there still appears to be a lack of competition for competitive athletes just below international level, and a general apathy, for whatever reason, for competing in national senior championships.
Like many people, I have many thoughts on how things can be improved from an Interclub Cross Country perspective. I put forward some of these ideas to Athletics Ireland after last year’s dreadful turnout. Some require radically rethinking how things are currently operated; some are simple to implement. It’s disappointing that we are discussing the exact same points as we did this time last year, and that, apart from the venue been known for a while and the entry being open for longer than five days this time round, nothing has changed in the intervening 12 months. Yes, reviews have been held and discussions have been had, but while we wait for the wheels of change to grind into motion, things will only get worse. Few of those who competed on Sunday will have had a positive experience – even if the lack of competition didn’t bother them, some of the unsporting behaviour may have – and many may well be turned off from competing next year. If I’m faced with making a choice between English National and Irish Interclubs (the two races tend to fall on the same weekend every 3 or 4 years), I won’t take too long to deliberate.
1. Send the top 6 available senior men and senior women to the World Cross Country Championships. Select the team from the Interclubs, except in exceptional circumstances. In alternate years, ensure that a team is sent to World University Cross Country Championships, and that the top finishers in Interclubs are sent to some form of international (perhaps look at getting involved in the Home Nations International).
2. Scrap all Intermediate competitions, and ensure that any Novice competitions are exactly that. Intermediate competition disincentivises individuals from competing in senior events, and fills no purpose in the annual calendar.
3. Rename the Interclubs, the Irish National Cross Country Championship (or The Irish National for short). The Interclub championship can still be held as part of the event, but it should be an interesting side story to the main event, rather than a public grudge match between close rivals, inconveniently interrupted by a handful of ‘individuals’. Athletics is largely an individual sport, and any team competition should simply be a bonus.
4. Introduce a national cross country league, with points awarded based on finishing positions at Autumn Cross Country, Intercounties, Provincial Championships (half points), Antrim International and Interclubs (double points). Best 3 performances count; athletes must compete in Interclubs to qualify for prizes; prize money for top 10.
5. Give 6 free entries to the top 3 clubs at each of the provincial championships, and to the top 5 or 10 individuals from each of the provincial championships.
6. Get rid of any rule that limits the number of people that can enter Interclub or Intercounty cross country (team size, rule regarding not having competed in a senior championship in last 4 years if want to be regraded).
7. Every single athlete who cares about the future of cross country running on this island should enter and compete in next year’s event, irrespective of how they might do. This is our sport; just talking about it won’t keep it alive.
I realise that I represent only a small number of runners in Ireland, but therein lies the problem. Why are there so few of us that sit between the top end runners who battle it out to make the European team, and those who run for health, fitness and the buzz of simply completing a 5km, half, or marathon? Even I realise that my chances of representing Ireland have passed, but I haven’t yet given up on being the best that I can be. Surely people like me should be the majority, the beating heart of this sport, not a tiny forgotten about few, fighting for survival.
As someone pointed out to me recently, I’m a purist. And for me, cross country is the purest of all events. You race against everyone else that shows up on the start line, be they an Olympic Champion or a novice completing their first race. I believe that you should test yourself against the best athletes you can participate against, and cross country gives you that opportunity. You run over whatever terrain has been laid out in front of you, in whatever elements the day provides. Times and distances don’t matter.
*Elizabeth has an excellent website on altitude training camps and also has a very insightful book Notes From Higher Grounds.