Cross your heart

2008-04-26 00:00

THE value of cross country running is sorely under-estimated among the local running community. This vital, exciting and challenging discipline of the sport is shoehorned into five or six months of the athletics calendar, seemingly overlooked as some distant relative of the athletics family.

Mention the words “cross country” in clubs in the UK and the response is considerably different, not least because their competitions frequently include cold freezing rain and snow, the lifting and lowering of weighty, mud-enshrouded shoes through the local farmers’ specially ploughed fields, and the occasional shoe-cleansing, foot-numbing gallop through a riverbed.

While conditions may turn the faces of some Kamp Staaldraad Springboks white, club athletes in the UK relish the cross-country season for its camaraderie, challenge and opportunity to score for the club. Huddling around a warm cup of coffee awaiting results is commonly a precursor for war stories in the local pub from both front runner and back marker.

Cross country is the foundation and preparation for track and road, attracting the world’s best from 800 metres to the marathon.

Strength, acceleration, agility, and power are only some of the gains that an active cross-country season bestows on runners of all abilities. It is no coincidence that Kenenisa Bekele is simultaneously the most successful track and cross-country athlete of recent years.

The minimal facilities required make cross country even more important in South Africa.

In the past couple of years the provincial commission has arranged events around the sub-regions, with varying success. A review of the venue and format could increase its popularity.

The thousands participating in Jeep, Mudman, Exterra and short triathlon events are living confirmation of an attraction to off-road running across all age groups, particularly when complemented by good post-race socialising.

These events are held in a diversity of venues, mostly offering unusual but memorable experiences.

Cross country, with its well-known braai and post-race thirst-quenching attributes, and favourable year-round weather, would do well to extend their reach.

Defining racing groups on the basis of similar abilities and time, as opposed to age, would not only allow individuals to have their “moment of glory”, but provides a mechanism for re-introducing the much-mourned team-building of inter-club competitions.

Focusing and rewarding only on individual performances at the two fastest categories will curtail the team domination of so-called professional clubs.

Promoting anyone who makes the top five positions three times in a season ensures progression and recognition irrespective of age or initial ability. Improved performance at an elite level will bring selection to provincial and national teams, and adding faster time standards is a simple modification.

More exciting, novel and memorable venues like those scheduled for July’s league around Stainbank Nature Reserve in Yellowwood Park, with its herd of zebra and buck, need to be utilised.

The battlefields of northern KZN, the game farms of the north coast, a weekend of events at one of many Drakensberg resorts, or a spot on the Midlands Meander would make events more attractive as family outings.

The more formal spectators’ facilities of Scottsville race course, with competition around the show rings, multiple laps around a BMX track, inside ABSA stadium or indoors at the ICC, are all possible. TV coverage of such events would require minimal equipment.

In Gauteng north, Transnet is currently constructing one of the first semi-permanent cross country tracks in South Africa.

Cross country can be organised by local clubs and communities with minimal resources, and yet, if created to attract greater participation, has the potential returns of the major road events.

Offering a series of distances between 400 metres and eight kilometres, with time and ability categories, it is possible to compete in one or multiple events on the same day. Distances can cater for the whole family, while complying with distance age restrictions.

These are but a handful of concepts that could make cross country more attractive, and boost performances at all levels.

A key to unlocking this potential is to address our self-created conflict within sport. No two road races share the same calendar space in the same sub-region of the province, and yet the cross-country leagues are set to clash with road races, relay events, and even provincial and national championships on the assumption that their appeal is to different markets.

We lament the back-to-back racing by runners, and yet by separating the logistic planning of two inherently intertwined disciplines we promote that very aspect, while simultaneously destroying our efforts to promote the sport.

Cross country is the only discipline with the opportunity of taking the sport to every community in the country, but the real benefit can only be realised through review and evolution.

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