If You Build It,
They Will Come  

It was a celebration of cross-country running 200 years in the making, and the end result just might resuscitate a sport that was on the verge of being lost.

Words By Andrew Boyd Hutchinson
Photos by Lone Dybdal

The excitement was palpable. For those who cared about the status of the sport — in the buildup to the 2019 IAAF World Cross-Country Championships — there were flashes and glimmers of real hope that it was going to be conducted differently. That the global council would finally “get it right”, and that the small ember of heat that was resting under the tinder of potential flame would reignite and bring cross-country back as a roaring bonfire that would warm the other offerings of athletics.

One hundred years previously the sport of cross-country had been strong enough, and relevant enough, to be celebrated in the Olympic Games as the finale to the athletics calendar. Two hundred years previously it had been born out of the thrill of rushing out of bounds, with friends, to revel in the risk and extreme of pure nature: hedge rows, water splashes, logs, and certainly copious amounts of mud included.

But the 2019 version of the sport had been reduced to the fringes of running. It was participated by youth and pockets of purists the world over, but lost exposure amongst more popular, media-savvy offerings on the track and roads. Thus, those who would otherwise make cross-country a priority for all occasions had to decide where it fit around other formats. 

The time was ripe to try something new…So the Danish Athletics Federation looked forward, by looking back, to take stock of only the best elements of the game that would provide the spark that cross-country needed.

Jakob Larsen, leader of the Danish Athletics Federation, knew this: “This has from day one, been about turning people’s heads. Whatever we could come up with that would make people turn their heads, then yes, let’s do this.”

Larsen and his team began by making the centerpiece of their venue the Moesgaard Viking museum, with a grass roof that had a 10% grade, which connected to the surrounding countryside — all of it rolling, hilly knolls that would fit perfectly with the ethos of the sport and be an “equalizer” for talent. Then came the challenge zones: a mud pit, watersplash, and sand scrum that would temper the pace and require supreme navigating. As Larsen and company began the preparations and shared their goals on social media, the world began to take notice.

As Larsen shared, “We are not a big federation, we are a minor country and a minor federation, so we have this tendency to always say we cannot play by the same rules as everyone else, we need to do it differently. If you cannot win by the standard rules: change the rules.” The challenge zones were not just an attempt to make the race more arduous, but also played into “traditional cross-country” as well, and was spectator-friendly. Thus, the anticipation for putting on an authentic cross-country race got bigger and more ambitious.

Within weeks of the debut of the championship, an interested audience was taking stock that the event had snowballed into something special. Member federations the world over were seeing athletes who might not have participated join in droves for the love of what Aarhus meant. Larsen and the Danish Federation were broadcasting that it was going to be magical; different; powerful; awe-inspiring; worth the price of admission. They had a beer sponsor, a viking gauntlet, and most importantly, a display at the nearby Dokk1 library commemorating the history of the sport, not just marketing it as a new reimagining.

As Larsen announced: “The entire way in this process of creating this event, it has more-or-less been not about the production of a world championships. It’s been about designing an experience: designing an experience for the world-class athletes, for mass participation runners, for spectators, and also for people watching it on the television; for five seconds, for half an hour, or indeed for the entire event.”

In the process of creation, Larsen and his team were teaching the world about why the sport needed to be back in the spotlight. It was a direct message used by so many educators before, who yearned to reach an apathetic student-body.

“They’re not that different from you, are they?” asks the English teacher John Keating in Dead Poets Society. “Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you. Their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because you see, gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen. You hear it?… Carpe… Hear it?… Carpe. Carpe Diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

Larsen was seizing on the opportunity to make the past come alive and to look ahead simultaneously, and by the day of the event, the world had heard the call and arrived.

As head of the IAAF, Lord Sebastian Coe shared his insight into the occasion as he stood in Dokk1 Library in front of the heritage display of 200 years of history, hours ahead of the event: “We all actually all have one thing in common. And that is that we fundamentally all understand the value of cross-country, and cross-country is the basis of everything great in our sport.”

If Larsen’s event was going to resonate beyond 2019, it was going to need more than appeal and participation, it was going to need the support from the highest-ups in the organization. Larsen had that with Sebastian Coe, who stated: “I also love cross-country because it’s one of those few disciplines in our sport where the middle distance can meet long distance. Where a 1,500-meter runner with an ambition and a background in cross-country can be as competitive on the course as somebody that’s running the marathon. And I think that’s fairly rare in our sport. And for me, cross-country has it all. 560-odd athletes, 66 member federations here. That’s a huge gathering. It’s a global event.”

The event itself delivered drama that few expected, even with the world in attendance. In the opening race of the day, participants and spectators alike saw the brutality of the course in action. The first opportunity, a co-ed relay, saw the United States challenge Kenya and Ethiopia, before Morocco came charging back to fight for silver and finish ahead of Kenya and the U.S.

Next, the under-20 women’s race saw four finishers from three different countries finish within a single second of each other. Following that, the under-20 men’s race featured a David versus Goliath opportunity with Norway’s Jakob Ingebrigtsen, who inspired a captivated audience by racing toe-to-toe with Ugandan’s Oscar Chelimo and Ethiopia’s Milkesa Mengesha and Tadese Worku. With Mengesha winning, Worku finishing second, and Chelimo third, it was the first time in more than 30 years that Kenya came away from the U20 men’s race at the World Cross without an individual medal.

The senior women’s race saw history made as well, when Kenya’s Hellen Obiri became the first woman in history to win a world championship athletics gold in outdoor track, indoor track, and cross-country. The men’s race too, saw Uganda as a dominant team champion, and with their victory usurped Kenya and Ethiopia for the first time in World Cross-Country since 1980.

The day continued with local community talent and ample participation opportunity by the less elite who were in attendance as well. All who wished, it seemed, could attack this course that was lauded as one of the toughest in event history.

Cross-country running at this level has never been easy. Even from the genesis of this event, it was never supposed to be. But once everything came together, it was an easy decision: the event that Larsen and his Danish compatriots had assembled stoked the flame that brought the sport back to life. Sebastian Coe summed it up in appropriate fashion:

“I had sensed for some time that there wasn’t as much excitement as their should have been in golf courses, on race tracks, and on hay bales. I think that there was a demand from many athletes — there was certainly a demand from the public — and our fans, who themselves are actually looking for challenges in their own lives, that are replicated in cross-country — to go back to our roots.”

In that movie Dead Poets Society, English teacher John Keating attempts to do the same thing: bring his students interest into the humanities and poetry as it was often overlooked, like cross-country was, in the gamut of more “practical” applications. Keating emphasized the roots and the ethos of the subject to galvanize interest. As we rewrite the script on the sport of cross-country, Keating’s speech can be reinterpreted with running in mind:

“We don’t run cross-country because it’s cute. We run cross-country because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And track, marathons, ultra running, road races, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But hills, mud, team rivalries, nature, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, ‘O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?’ Answer. That you are here — that cross-country exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play *goes on* and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

Andrew Boyd Hutchinson is the author of “The Complete History of Cross-Country Running” and currently resides in the Bay Area.

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