XC: The Greatest Show On Turf

Photo: Matt Stanley

It’s easily the hardest race in running. Cross country brings together the toughest of runners from the road, track and trails for a singular battle of attrition. Ahead of the national championships this month in Boulder, Colo., Olympian and former U.S. cross-country champion Kenny Moore explains the rugged beauty of running’s dirtiest discipline.

Two years ago, on a chilly March morning in Bydgoszcz, Poland, Chris Derrick and Ben True, two of America’s finest young distance runners, stared out from the starting line over the course before them. They saw huge rolling hills, twisting turns, stretches of borscht-colored mud, and patches of snow and ice. This was cross country at its ultimate.

 They were facing the finest field of runners in the world. From the gun, the leaders would blast out at sub-4-minute mile pace. Some would slip, stagger and go down swearing on the viscous terrain.  Many would be bloodied from other runners’ spikes. At least one African runner would be taken to the hospital with hypothermia.

This was the pinnacle championship event of cross country, the most primal running discipline, in which the race isn’t waged over laps on a level stadium track, or on a measured route through city streets before cheering spectators, or on a picturesque course high in the mountains.

This, the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, is unquestionably the single most difficult race to win, because it brings together milers and marathoners, steeplechasers and 10,000-meter runners to have it out over a dozen kilometers of whatever pastures, golf courses or horse tracks the host nation finds most brutal. It’s not always frigid; usually it’s not. The 2017 World Championships were just awarded to steamy Uganda.

I ran two Olympic marathons, and I know cross country is the ultimate proving ground, the discipline in which rugged souls such as Derrick and True most excel.

PHOTOS: 2014 NXN High School Cross Country Championships

Even though cross country is an all-out individual event, it is also the ultimate team sport. Seven teammates race over the course, all with the goal of finishing as high as possible. A team’s score is the total of its first five finishers. That means that after the cavalry charge of the start, every runner in the field except the leader is subject to a moral obligation: To keep passing the runner in front of you. The only sin is slacking off.

Thus, in cross country, no one can run a step without experiencing the agony of guilt or the agony of anoxia. In cross country, you must run as hard and as intelligently as it is given to humans to run. Knowing that you’re out there for more than just yourself creates a higher accountability. It shames and emboldens you to run at your limit.

“The start of Worlds is a sight to behold,” says True. “It’s always the same. The gun goes off and everyone sprints all-out. The Africans break away into a lead pack and it’s a sufferfest for everyone behind them after that.”

The opening charge was just that in Poland. True and Derrick went out hard, but not so hard, they hoped, that they would pay the price of all the crazy-brave souls up ahead. “I was well back of the African pack,” True says. “I didn’t feel bad. The main thing, I was still on my feet, through all the snow and ice.” A lot of runners weren’t. “The first two laps, Chris and I worked together, and ahead of us you could see guys falling, see guys staggering to keep their feet. We just kept reeling in guys.”

“Moving like that,” says Derrick, “you feel a horde of guys are going to come on up. Like they are going to tear your flesh. I thought I was in serious trouble. The surroundings were taking on a sepia tone.” True sensed a similar dimming.

“I had mud caked in my eyes. Everything seemed brown. It could certainly have been exhaustion.”

Japhet Korir of Kenya won. True held on against the darkness and crossed the line, finishing sixth—the highest by an American since 1995. With Derrick in 10th, and their teammates Ryan Vail, Robert Mack and Elliott Heath finishing 17th, 19th and 30th, the U.S. won silver, beating Kenya for the first time since 1984 and finishing behind only Ethiopia.

Derrick, 24, and True, 29, hope to line up again at the next biannual world championship, this March in Guiyang, China, which is 4,000 feet above sea level. The qualifying race is Feb. 7, at the U.S. cross country championships in Boulder, Colo., which is a mile high and likely to be snowy and cold.

Although he nursed a sprained ankle over the winter, Derrick tuned up with a win at the Great Edinburgh XCountry event, an 8K race held on Jan. 10 in the sloppy conditions of the Scottish capital’s Holyrood Park.

“It was a really hard race on a tough course,” Derrick said after the race, in essence summing up just about every cross country race he’s ever run. By most estimates, there are 20 million active runners in the United States, but only a tenacious few run cross country. Still, the sport is vibrant at its core. More than 440,000 teenagers run cross country at the high school level every fall across the U.S., and roughly 20,000 more race over hill and dale in the college ranks. The most committed recreational runners compete in gritty, local race series that, for many, culminate in the U.S. club cross country championships in early December.

PHOTOS: 2014 Foot Locker High School Cross Country Championships

While most top-level American distance runners concentrate on racing on the track or roads, runners like Derrick and True are part of the tiny fraction for whom the blood-and-guts nature of cross country is their calling.

“We have a group,” says Jerry Schumacher, the American coach for the U.S. world championship team and full-time coach of Derrick, “who have raced cross country for years, and who make it their prime importance. And all these guys growing up in Maine and Illinois and Wisconsin and Minnesota had to be a factor in those conditions.”

True, of Hanover, N.H., was born and raised in North Yarmouth, Maine. He grew up racing both Nordic skiing and distance running. He was an All-American three times in each sport during his collegiate career at Dartmouth.

“I love cross country,” says True, “because it is the purest form of running. It’s the first real running we do as kids, out in the grass, out in the woods. It is the simplest, too. Nothing is needed but the trail, and someone to race.”

After earning his architecture degree in 2009, True tried training in Oregon, but was soon back at Dartmouth. “I am a true New Englander,” he says. “I went back to where I was mentally happy.” He joined the Saucony Elite Racing team in 2011. Since then, training with former NCAA cross champion Sam Chelanga, True cut his track PRs to 13:02.74 for 5,000 meters, and 27:41.17 for 10,000 and placed 35th overall (and first among American runners) in his first trip to the World Cross Country Championships in 2011.

Derrick won state and national high school cross country titles while running for Neuqua Valley High School in suburban Chicago, helping his team to the championships as well. After a great collegiate career at Stanford that included a runner-up finish at the 2011 NCAA Cross Country Championships, he joined Schumacher’s Nike Bowerman Track Club, based in Beaverton, Ore. Schumacher came from the University of Wisconsin, where he had run the mile and turned out years of tough Badger runners. One was Matt Tegenkamp, currently the fifth fastest American ever at 5,000 meters with 12:58:56.

“I knew Jerry was in it for the right reasons,” Derrick says. “His expectations of what I can do and my own line up together.” Well, with one exception. In the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials 10,000m, Derrick finished an agonizing fourth, narrowly beaten by Galen Rupp, Tegenkamp and Dathan Ritzenhein, and missing the final Olympic team berth by 4 seconds.

“I was trying to be positive,” recalls Derrick, “saying I hadn’t been feeling well, I’d done my best, and Jerry said, ‘You should have made that team.’”

 Schumacher is a warm, beaming exponent of cross country, because it makes you better at every other kind of running. It gives you stamina, and forces you to learn more body control than any smooth surface can teach. My coach, Bill Bowerman, always said, “The hills will find you out.” After we crested them, he asked us to fully employ gravity, by freewheeling down the steepest descents “until you can get your breath back at 4-minute-mile pace.” That took seasons of practice. In February 2013, employing these skills, Chris Derrick won the senior men’s 12K race at the U.S. cross country championships in Forest Park in St. Louis, beating Ritzenhein, Tegenkamp, Heath and True, and qualified for Worlds. He covered the course in 35:38.6, winning by 6 seconds while averaging 4:46 mile pace. He repeated as national champion last winter in Boulder, running away with the 12K at 5,400 feet in 36:14.

PHOTOS: 2014 U.S. Cross Country Championships

Derrick lives in an airy, spacious home about a mile from Nike headquarters. He has four roommates, all aspiring American standouts: Heath, Ryan Hill, German Fernandez and Evan Jager, the American-record holder in the 3,000m steeplechase.

One Sunday after Thanksgiving, I appeared at their door. “I can’t shake hands,” Derrick says, “because I’m cooking all this pork.” He nodded me in, hands immersed in a big bowl of marinating meat, and headed back to the kitchen. The entryway contained so many colored shoes it evoked a flock of tropical birds.

Derrick was patiently assembling a New Mexican adovada stew with red chilies. Jager sat expectantly before the TV. They had just done their weekly Sunday long runs. “So now it’s just football and cooking dinner,” Derrick says. “You know your life is boring when the most exciting thing is a new pot.”

As the different ingredients were chopped, minced, browned and assembled into a braise that only grew more fragrant, you recalled coach Schumacher saying, “Chris’ cooking is a wonderful manifestation of his meticulous nature.” That patient nature is perfect for the distance running life, where exhausting efforts must alternate with recuperative ease and great, sustaining food.

“My role,” says Schumacher the next day, “is helping make him better until his potential is reached. He will know when he has gotten the best out of that wonderful talent. He’s not going to stay at it too long. He’s very bright.”

And like all the runners Schumacher works with, he points toward this month’s trials in Boulder and the next world championships.

America’s best female distance runner of this era, the indomitable Shalane Flanagan, is also coached by Schumacher. They both think cross country contributed to her success on the track and in marathoning. Of course, it’s present in her blood. Both of her parents raced the worlds. Mother Cheryl took fourth in 1969, and father Steve 112th in 1977. Flanagan took the individual bronze in the women’s world championship race in 2011 in Spain—the last time she raced cross—but she was most thrilled about helping the U.S. earn the team bronze medal.

We are never more powerful than when we act in the service of others, which is why sprinters run faster on relay legs than open races. And why running cross country so cements brotherhood. “Cross country is cool because you are truly a team,” Derrick says. True credits the USA’s success in 2013 to that team mentality. “I think it is mainly that we stayed strong, we didn’t bend, we didn’t let [the cold] affect us psychologically.” They will need to call on that again in the hills of China in March to repeat their podium performance from Poland.

Through the mud, snow and ice, cross country will always issue the deepest call to our most rugged runners. These runners, by reflex and nature and training, always seek out the ultimate test.

Let us celebrate their glorious suffering.

* * *

Kenny Moore is a two-time U.S. Olympic marathoner and former U.S. cross country champion who won the Bay to Breakers 12K race in San Francisco six times. A former writer for Sports Illustrated, he is the author of “Bowerman and The Men of Oregon” and wrote the screenplay for “Without Limits,” a 1998 film about Steve Prefontaine. 

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