Cross Country

Guiyang 2015: Sonia O’Sullivan’s World Cross diary

Sonia O’Sullivan was an IAAF ambassador at this year’s World Cross Country Championships in Guiyang, China. The 1998 double world cross country champion wrote a diary of the event and her experiences for Jumping The Gun.

World Cross Country Guiyang 2015 by Sonia O’Sullivan

The World Cross country took place in China for the first time ever this weekend. Most people don’t associate China with any great history in Cross country running but they have produced marathon runners down through the years and always representation over the middle distance events at International Championships.

When you think about it, why does a country have to have a rich history in a particular sport in order to host a World Championship event? The soccer World Cup will be held in Qatar in a few years time and I’m sure there are plenty more examples of successful events held in countries not traditionally associated with a particular sport.
I’ve never been to China before so there was a VISA to be obtained, a nine hour flight to a huge international airport in a city I had never come across before, Guangzhou, followed by a short hop to Guiyang. When you think of China, you often think lots of cars, lots of people, pollution, built up areas and lack of recreational space.

Guiyang: grey but not dull with places to run

An overview of Guiyang

An overview of Guiyang

Guiyang, a small city of 6 million people which looks to be growing, is also known for its nature and beauty, nestled in the mountains. The people here take great pride in their parks and the image of a green city, there is plenty of rain and not much sunshine but the greenery seems to thrive.I always measure a city on where you can run, this has to score highly to register as a nice place to spend a few days and not want to leave as soon as you arrive.

After flying through the night, the challenge was to stay awake until a reasonable hour in order to get a good nights sleep and avoid waking in the middle of the night. Many teams were planning a run at 4pm in the pre-event training park. It’s always interesting to get your first view of what local organisers consider a good training venue. A five minute walk from the hotel to the Guanshanhu Park and I was not disappointed. There were training signs up all around with volunteers guiding the way, though you would find it hard to get lost on the 3.3km green track like surface around a picturesque lake and undulating surface. there was a water station and even little towels to dry yourself off as you walked back to the hotel. The humidity was a little surprising as I had received word that it was cold and very heavy rain leaving for the airport.

There is a very grey atmosphere here but it doesn’t feel heavy or lethargic as some cities do. The trees and positive nature of the people make this a very nice place to spend a few days and for athletes to prepare for the hardest race in the World . The IAAF World Cross Country Championships. The interest from the local people was seen all around lots of pictures being taken and cheering at the training track, many surprised at the how tall the international visitors were . I was told that being in southern China, people here are not very tall compared to northern China so visitors often gave the impression and fascination of towering giants.

A race all distance runners used to dream of running

The World Cross Country was once a race that all distance runners dreamed of running, an event they aspired to be selected to run and push the limits to test their endurance, stamina and speed over testing courses against the best athletes on the Planet. Guiyang did not fail in providing a very challenging course within a very compact space so very accessible to spectators who could run around and watch the race from within the course. The perimeter was surrounded by local people who came to see the best runners in the world all race each other in their home town.
The promotion of the event was seen everywhere you went green banners blending in with the trees, disguising building sites and across all the motorway bridges. If you lived in Guiyang, you could not help but be curious and travel just outside the city to the local horse race track to catch the action.

East African charge with one or two brave Europeans

There were of course full teams from all the African nations, the best cross country runners in the world and the testing course did not slow them down. Each race had the east African charge with one or 2 brave Europeans, Americans, British and Chinese trying to make an impact. The hardest race in the world does not get any easier and the altitude of 1200m was probably not ideal for those athletes born and raised at sea level. This is not reason enough to pass up the opportunity to give it a go and take a chance, if you are not here you will not know and by being here and stepping outside the comfort zone you will be asked questions that otherwise will never cross your mind.

Lack of Irish presence

No Irish flag at the opening ceremony

No Irish flag at the opening ceremony

It was hard to watch the parade of nations flag ceremony and the obvious missing Irish flag. Ireland has a rich history of success and always a welcome presence at the World cross country championships. There are athletes in Ireland and cross country is the event they are best at, not pushing to be here, to take on the challenge does not bode well for the future. Junior athletes need to be exposed to this level of competition, they need to experience the greatest race on earth and push beyond their limits, to raise the bar and move on to the next level. Everything about the World Cross Country points to the development of athletes and building of character.

Changqin Ding stands out for the Chinese

There were many great performances over the weekend and it would be too easy to look at the winners and note how impressive they were. For me the standout performance was Changqin Ding of China. I sat beside her at the press conference on Friday and she smiled and told us how she had run a personal best in the marathon 2:26:55, just 5 days before. She had to run the marathon in order to qualify for the World Championships in Beijing later this year, Guiyang is her home town so she was not going to miss the opportunity to run the World Cross Country in front of her family and friends. I was intrigued to see Ding run so effortlessly over the course and finish in 16th position, many athletes would be pleased with this position.

First non-African the target for many in modern era

She was the first non-African which is a target of many in the modern era of WXC, China finished 4th team just 21 points shy of the bronze medal, not bad for a country with no real international cross country results of note. The women’s bronze team medal is probably one of the most achievable medals outside of East Africa, but what chance have you if you are happy to stay home and follow online.

Geoffrey Kamworor courtesy of PhotoRun
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Feidhlim Kelly

Feidhlim Kelly

Con Houlihan once told me that tomorrow is now. In taking on this venture I’ve started to try and put his words into action.

I worked for Con from 2007 till his passing in 2012 taking down his copy and a whole lot more. I have a Con Houlihan section which will go in to more depth on that.

I’m a long-time contributor to the Irish Runner magazine and am also working for the Irish Examiner.

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