Blog: Cross Country can learn from the National Road Relays
Louise Caraher, aka Swift Girl, has kindly written this blog for JTG on the national road relays and what we can learn from it to benefit cross country.
By Louise Caraher
I am a huge cross country fan. I always have been and I always will be. I think I love cross country because it is much more brutal than the track – the hilly sloping courses with streams to jump over and tree roots to avoid are a real test of endurance. I should probably admit that I was a terrible track runner during my (very short, very injury prone) athletics career. Memories of doing lap after lap as a 15-year-old in Morton Stadium still haunt me in my sleep. On the track I always seemed to be sluggish, I never paced my run correctly and I constantly fell victim to someone else’s sit and kick tactic. But on the country I could fly. Rain, wind, hail, sleet, or snow – bring it on! I felt like I could glide over the surface with ease, and although I inevitably ended up out of breath after the race, lying on the cold ground covered in mud, I still always felt like I’d had a really good time. It was cross country that made me fall in love with running.
My heroes were class on the cross
Some of my favourite Irish athletes growing up enjoyed huge successes on the international cross country stage. Catherina McKiernan always seemed to be on the podium at either the European or World Cross Country. I remember watching Sonia’s double win in Marrakech 98 and being even more steadfast in my belief that I would never be a track runner. Watching her run World’s in Dublin 2002 (when I was 13) was one of my favourite days out as a child. I assume that the majority of my generation of athletics fans share similar memories – so why then is cross country a dying sport in Ireland?
I attended two ‘senior’ All-Ireland races this year. At the National (Inter Club) Senior Cross Country in Kilbroney Park, County Down, just 24 female participates contest the race. More than double that number (51) took part in the National Road Relays last weekend in Raheny. The numbers aren’t quite as shocking in the men’s races, however the Road Relays still come out clearly on top with 96 male participants compared to 76 at the cross country. The difference in numbers of spectators was even more apparent. At the cross country there was a pitiful amount of spectators, and I assume the vast majority were relatives of those competing. Raheny on the other hand had spectators all along the mile route, with a large gathering at the handover zone/ finish line. So what makes the Road Relays so much more appealing to athletes and spectators alike? I don’t have any definite answers, but here are some of my thoughts on it:
The relay format: Relays are always engaging. That’s why every major championship finishes with a 4×100 or 4×400 relay. Obviously the purists (myself included) believe that the 4×400 should always be last, but unfortunately the ‘Bolt factor’ means that the 4×100 has closed some recent major championships. Many of my friends who aren’t athletics fans tune in to the Olympics for the 100m final and the relays. Why? Because relays are exciting. Because someone might drop the baton. And best of all, that person might be American! Tactics play a massive role in relays – have the teams put their best runner out first? Or last? Is there a weak link anywhere in the team that can be exploited? This excitement could clearly be felt at the road relays, as each team tried slightly different tactics in their attempt to take the victory. Cross country races technically have a team race within them, but it takes backstage to the individual pursuit for medals. The road relays prioritise the team aspect of athletics, and are all the more successful for it.
Standardised Venue: The National Road Relays have been held in Raheny for the last 15 years. Having a fixed location means that the event is rooted firmly in people’s minds and in the yearly athletics calendar. The National Cross Country, on the other hand, moves into a different county and venue each year. A standardised venue increases the likelihood of local people coming down to spectate. Another benefit is that most athletes know their own PBs on the Raheny course so have something to aim for even if their team is not challenging for the medals.
A single event: It is hard to keep track of cross country events in Ireland. Between the inter-clubs and the inter-counties, and the novice, intermediate and senior events it seems like there is an ‘All-Ireland’ event every few weeks throughout the cross country season. The road relays are a much simpler format – just one national race which caters for novice, intermediate and senior athletes.
Dublin: A quarter of the population of Ireland live in Dublin, and Dublin runners account for over half of the entrants at most major events. At the National (Inter Club) Cross Country 17 of the 24 athletes in the senior women’s race were from Dublin clubs, as were 39 of the 51 runners in the Senior Women’s National Road Relays. Because of this Dublin dominance it makes sense to locate national races in the capital.
Try something new
Athletics Ireland could take some of the aspects that make the National Road Relay so successful and incorporate them into future planning for cross country. Ireland could easily trial having a fixed location, as is currently the norm in other countries e.g. the English national cross country championships. They could replace either the inter club or the inter county cross country with a relay event, to encourage more participation. Maybe these suggestions will work, maybe they won’t, but one thing is for sure – for the sake of Irish cross country, we need to try something new!