The History of Cross Country Running

Before we learn the history of cross country running, let’s look at the sport now. Despite many people thinking cross country is a niche sport, it draws an incredible number of participants. Over 400,000 high school students in the U. S. ran cross country in 2007 according to the National Federation of High School Athletics. It also continues to draw more and more competitors each year.

A typical high school race in the U. S. will have a distance around three miles. In the state of Wisconsin, where I coach, the girls high school race is four kilometers (about 2 1/2 miles) and the boys race is five kilometers (just over 3 miles). At the collegiate level the races in the U. S. range from five kilometers up to 10 kilometers.

Cross country began in England in the early 1800’s. The original races were run on much rougher terrain than today’s courses. Participants back then had to run through streams, jump fences, and go through hedges. In Track, the Steeplechase mimics these earlier races because participants have to jump over large wooden barriers, and over a water jump.

One of the earlier versions of cross country called “paper chase” saw one group of runners leave first. This group would leave a paper trail for the second group to follow. The hares chased the hounds so to speak. Another early version called “foot grind” had the competitors’ race from one point to the next, but had no fixed route to follow. Participants could choose to cut through streams and jump over fences instead of going around them.

Towards the late 1800’s, the competitions changed more towards today’s style of race. The course was a fixed route, usually two miles or longer on trails, dirt, or grass. Around this time the sport caught on in the U. S. Track and field athletes ran cross county to improve their stamina. The NCAA National Championship Races for men meet began in 1938. The first NCAA Women’s National Championship Race occurred in 1981.

Cross country was in the Olympic Games during the early 1900’s, but was dropped because it isn’t a traditional summer game, compared to Track & Field.

Currently, the World Cross Country Championships are held once a year. A unique part of the history of cross country is it has a world championship event held every year. This race is governed by the International Association of Athletics Federations. There is a junior race for competitors 19 and under, and there is the senior division for 20 and up. Each country can send between four to nine competitors depending on the division. The team champs are crowned by taking the top finishers from each country, adding up their total score. The lowest total team score wins the title. In U. S. high school and college races, the top five finishers from a team are counted towards the team score.

That sums up the history of cross country running. It's a huge sport that started in England, and now the whole world embraces it.

- Written by David Tiefenthaler

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