Redwood City in California makes an unlikely backdrop for a narrative on the history of cross-country running. A tech-savvy city of approximately 77,000 that sits equidistant between San Francisco and San Jose, it’s home to a surprising secret: venture into its upper-geography and you’ll discover the soul of cross-country.
Piney-track trails sit under a mix of second growth redwood forests and oak woodlands. Huddart is the most well-known park — nestled on a ridge of the Santa Cruz mountains and used as a training ground by Stanford University athletes and elites alike. Crystal Springs Cross Country Course too, a 45-year-old local venue for harriers big and small has seen it’s epic battles: in 1974 it was set to be a clash between four-time national cross country champion Frank Shorter and three-time collegiate stalwart Steve Prefontaine; instead Kenyan John Ngeno stole the show. But notable history is not why Redwood City and cross-country running are connected. In fact, it is quite the opposite: why is the connection so opaque?
Individuals who enjoy history and distance running both have a small problem. There is nothing on the shelf which captures start to finish the history of cross-country — not a single text that explains how the organized act of running over hill and dale came to be and why it’s important today. Look closer and it becomes clear why. Misconceptions abound about how old the sport actually is — who first decided to mimic the equestrian elite — and which school starred in the earliest form of the sport. Many governing bodies, including ones in the United States, have a concerning absence of detail about their earliest national champions. And there are gaps in the narrative that explain the reasons for how the sport changed. These are some of the reasons why the narrative in its entirety is finally being told today.
The fossil record shows that humans have been running long distances off-road for thousands of years, but the sport of cross-country has existed for only two centuries or so. At the dawn of the Victorian Age, the Midlands of England — with rolling fields and wet, marshy grassland — provided the perfect incubator for a new game invented by boarding-school students who risked serious discipline as they created a new outdoor sport.
Steeplechases and fox hunting on horseback, practiced by the socialite elite and off-limits to youths, became popular and fashionable in Britain in the late 1700s. Schoolboys imitated these events. The allure of the outdoors, the excitement of the chase, and the joy of adventure — inspired games like Hare and Hounds and Hunt the Fox to become more formally organized in the early 19th century.
This version of the sport is sometimes mistakenly attributed to Rugby School because of the “paper chase” in Thomas Hughes’ novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857). Hughes’ description of Hare and Hounds did inspire the first adult running club, Thames Hare and Hounds, organized near London in 1868, but the earliest records of both cross-country and track and field are at Shrewsbury School, miles northwest of Rugby. The oldest record of Shrewsberry’s running game The Hounds is from 1819, nearly 20 years before Thomas Hughes’s novel. Additionally, at their annual Spring Meeting, Shrewsberry students held a series of mock horse races including the Derby Stakes, the Hurdle Race, the Trial Stakes, and a program of throwing and jumping events — in other words, a track and field meet. The oldest surviving record of this event is from 1840.
Within a generation, the appeal of paper-chasing among working-age amateurs grew to the point where England held a National Championship in 1876. Ironically, this first English National (held in November) featured torrential rain that washed away the signifying paper-trail and the results were declared void. Soon paper-chasing took root in Ireland, Scotland and the United States. By the end of the 19th century, cross-country running was a fixture across Europe.
In the United States, the modern incarnation of cross-country had already begun to replace paper-chasing. The Westchester Hare and Hounds became the first American harrier club in 1878, and Ivy League universities kept the tradition going by connecting graduates with local teams. Within 20 years of the Westchester club’s founding, a college championship was run. Meetings between schools and club teams alike were common, and America had sanctioned not one, but two national amateur championships for public consumption. The reason why these championships aren’t honored by USA Track and Field is a startling story.
The New York Athletic Club, with a membership of over 1,500 men, was one of the most popular institutions that practiced the sport. In November 1883, the club’s location in the Bronx’s Mott Haven neighborhood was chosen for the inaugural Amateur Individual Cross Country Championship of America, the first national cross-country championship in the United States. The event was a success; the sport flourished, and the NYAC basked in the glory. Subsequent cross-country championships were held every November for the next four years, and the NYAC gained a reputation for being well-organized and offering substantial prizes.
The NYAC’s biggest local rival, the Manhattan Athletic Club, had been founded in 1877, but the sport wasn’t just confined to those two clubs. Cross-country running had boomed in New York and spread to other major metropolitan areas to the west and south, as well as Canada. Races were ostensibly restricted to gentleman amateurs, but there was also a dark underside. Betting, gambling, roping, staging, and wagering were prevalent. The clubs, with reputations to uphold, sought to clear up the problem by uniting to enforce stricter guidelines. In 1880 eight athletic clubs, the NYAC and Manhattan Athletic Club included, formed the National Association of Amateur Athletes of America, or NAAAA.
The New York Athletic Club withdrew in 1886 following several controversies (including the mismanagement of funds), and the Manhattan Athletic Club began to form a second organization to oversee American cross-country running specifically. Founded on March 29, 1887, the National Cross Country Association was born. One of the NCCA’s first goals was to establish a team championship for East Coast clubs, and within a month of the new group’s incorporation, the first Team Championship for the National Cross Country Association was held on April 30, 1887.
The team championship turned out to be a big success — and the individual championship sponsored by the New York Athletic Club disappeared after its fifth running in 1887. Despite its influence and prestige, the NYAC found itself excluded from any type of cross-country championship.
In a last-ditch effort to rectify the situation they filed a lawsuit claiming ownership of the National Cross Country Association name, and won the case. The verdict was devastating for the Manhattan Athletic Club and its partners. After the sixth “Team and Individual Championship for the National Cross Country Association” in 1892, America’s second iteration of a national cross-country championship event came to an end. The Manhattan Athletic Club subsequently filed for bankruptcy in 1893.
It turned out to be a pyrrhic victory for the New York Athletic Club, which struggled to keep any momentum going in regards to a national championship. Their meets, however, became the events of record. Thus 1890 is the first cross-country championship listed by USA Track and Field despite the original championship race in 1883 and all of the ones between 1883 and 1890. The true record remains hidden to this day.
The sport of cross-country expanded globally after the turn of the 20th century. Helped in part by the inauguration of an International Championship (an annual meeting of the English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and eventually French teams), cross-country received its broadest exposure when it was added to the program of the Summer Olympic Games in 1912. There, it was the surprising domination by the Swedish and Finnish teams, along with strong performances by the Americans, which garnered the sport broader attention around the world. Cross-country appeared on two subsequent Olympic programs after 1912, and if not for a horrendously hot day (coupled with noxious fumes from a nearby factory) in 1924, its status as an appealing finale to the athletic schedule would never have been in question. Instead, it was taken off the calendar after only 15 runners were able to finish.
That left Britain and France as the dominant powers in the International Championship, with brief appearances by Spain, Switzerland, Italy, and Luxembourg in 1929. By the 1940s Belgium would also become a perennial mainstay.
Notable performances dot the cross-country annuals in the years since. Three times in the 1950s, in front of French crowds numbering more than 70,000, Czechoslovakia’s Emil Zátopek raced Ukraine’s Vladamir Kuts and Poland’s Jerzy Chromik in an international meeting known as the “Cross de L’Humanite”. Further European talent including Mariano Haro from Spain, Grete Waitz from Norway, and Carlos Lopes from Portugal also dominated international competition. Venues mattered too: Italy’s Cinque Mulini, one of the most iconic cross-country races in the world, had its first international winner when Tunisian runner Ahmed Labidi came in first in 1952.
African dominance transformed cross-country running. Kenyan distance running (started at the turn of the century due to colonial ties with England), along with Ethiopia (which attracted Swedish coaches after the Second World War) captured global notice with names like Kip Keino (Cinque Mulini champion in 1969) and Mamo Wolde (champion of Spain’s Cross Internacional Juan Muguerza four times from 1963–1968). By the 1970s, other champions such as John Ngeno and Henry Rono appeared in the United States at the top of the cross-country leaderboard and soon full teams of Africans began to earn titles in the American collegiate ranks.
This African dominance has had lasting consequences in modern cross-country. In the late 1990s the World Cross team scoring method was changed. A short-course championship was added to give a greater number of athletes more opportunities to win (it was later removed after major African names would “double-down” and win those too). Then the World Cross event shifted from an annual to a biennial format.
Most recently, the United Kingdom refused to send a senior men’s team to the championship, saying it needed to be more competitive to race against the dominant Kenyans and Ethiopians. Elsewhere, some coaches are scared that the rigor and strain involved with the sport might damage their athletes’ performance in other events. Many nations just don’t see the point.
For one thing, cross-country running has a marketing problem. The IAAF has downplayed and marginalized the sport in every market where it’s popular. Local groups need a boost to make cross-country more open to the masses. Obstacle course racing, particularly trendy in the United States and in Europe, has challenged the average citizen to lace up and get muddy for a good cause — and this has been cross-country’s forté since the days of the paper chase.
For another thing, cross-country running needs to celebrate its sacred locations. Wimbledon Common in London, the Hippodrome de Longchamp in Paris, Holyrood Park in Edinburgh, Van Cortlandt Park in New York and Franklin Park in Boston — all of these locations, and their local clubs and committees, need to host important cross-country races and promote their venues. All too frequently, major cross-country championships are run in inaccessible or far-away places. It’s no wonder why the sport has been marginalized: few people want to go to where the major events are held.
And finally, cross-country running needs to return to the Olympic Games. Instead of being featured in the summer games, where it was placed in the early 20th century, it should be a feature of the winter games. This idea, first proposed in 1937, was tabled in a debate in 1947 due to the “the present rules of the International Olympic Committee.” In 1971, it was reported that the IAAF themselves found difficulty supporting the idea.
And yet, the issue continues to pop up every 20 years or so. In 2008, legends Kenenisa Bekele, Haile Gebrselassie, and Paul Tergat wrote an open letter to the International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge and IAAF President Lamine Diack, urging the IOC to consider cross-country running once again for the Winter Olympic Games. A chance at an Olympic medal in a premier international event will entice many more nations to take cross- country seriously, and could make the sport accessible to nations who find themselves cut out of the typical Winter agenda. And cross-country has been run on snow before to great fanfare: it makes the sport more interesting.
Solutions to cross-country’s status illuminate what is possible — and this feels right at home in Redwood City, California. Generations ago, when the first American pioneers championed manifest destiny and arrived in the West, they brought with them dreams for the future and stories from the past. Like the rest of the American West, Redwood City was built upon these ideas of “what is possible”.
So too, can cross-country be rebuilt. Further improvements will draw talent and sponsorship to the sport, and interest is already building at the youngest levels — in time, cross-country can reclaim its former glory. And as a home for dreamers and explorers, Redwood City may in fact be the perfect setting to recapture the magic featured in cross-country’s history to spark a revival. Only time will tell.