When you’re used to being disappointed when you drop out of the top-20 in a hill race, it’s natural to ask yourself why you can afford to be satisfied with being around 60th (in a much smaller field than the average hill race) in the Novices Cross-Country.
So I decided to reflect on a few things that currently diffentiates Irish cross-country from Irish hill-running.
This is the most obvious. The county, provincial and national championships in cross-country are for club runners only and while the hills are now also dominated by club runners, there’s no doubt that the average level of a cross-country field is much stronger.
There are multiple reasons for this: More people run cross-country, the club’s promote it more and the races are considered more prestigious by the average (non-hill) runner. Most hill runs see runners of all levels compete from what Matt Fitzgerald would term TPL 50s to TPL 12 (very few Irish runners perform at times bringing them below TPL 12). The cross-country probably sees a spread closer to TPL 30-33 to TPL 12 (in the Nationals you would find slightly lower again because the “best of the best” will be present).
The way I equate my experience in Phoenix Park to the hills is this: Take the guys who finished most regularly in the top-30 in the Leinster League, multiply them by 3 and have them all run a race against each other on a short fast course.
In mountain running, the terrain is more difficult, more technically challenging and the climbs require greater speed endurance. This does not transfer as a definitive advantage onto cross-country running. For starters, the terrain is rarely challenging enough for hill runners to gain a significant competitive advantage over their road and track brethren (the really tough courses will to a larger degree, however) and the hills are so short that they require powerful surges to clear: Talents found as often (or more) in steeplechasers and middle-distance athletes as in hill runners.
The mountain runner is more accustomed to energy-efficient uphill running on a prolonged slog than this sort of uphill running and unless they also do some training to get their leg-speed and strength up, it’s debatable how much of an advantage your average hill runner would hold on a well-conditioned road or track runner. If anything, the cross-country highlights (and trains) the hill runners traditional weaknesses: Low top speed, shortened stride length, and slower leg turn-over.
This brings us to the truly defining factor of cross-country: The extremely evenly matched field (in competitive terms), the unpredictable terrain and uncertain race lengths that all lead to a generally frenetic pace and constant pressure from all sides as any hesitation or any minimal slowdown finds itself immediately punished by pursuing packs of runners.
You can forget about even splits and running against the clock here and this chaotic nature lends itself to mistakes and very hard excruciating racing. In every cross-country race I’ve run, I’ve seen seemingly fit runners blow up and pull out in front of me as early as mid-race. Why is this? Consider how rarely this happens in road, track and hill (speaking only from personal experience here).
I believe people are largely running blind and are left with very little time to recover from mistakes and are running so close to the pain limit that they often have no choice but to stop. Hill races are longer, on average, and allow time to recover some semblance of form. Also, hill races with their long uphill start generally lend themselves well to a conservative pacing approach. In cross-country this time-honoured strategy is not helpful as the race will simply pass you by. You must gamble, or lose out. Problem is, if you overplay your hand, you lose out too!
The erratic nature of cross-country races affects the tactics. Rather than executing well-laid out plans, you must have a purely reactive approach, changing your pace as the course unfolds and your competitors play out their hands to the best of your ability. Experience in this type of racing and knowing how to react to the signals of your own body are essential.
In this respect, hill runners do hold a slight advantage over many road and track runners as they are used to adapting to shifting paces and not running even splits against a clock. Many tracks races are run in the same way as cross-country races, though, although the uniformity of the track surface makes it easier to make predictions on how slowing down and speeding up will affect the rest of your race.
Gerry Brady has always recommended cross-country to hill runners and his logic is impeccable here: It does address the key weaknesses that hill runners have in their racing while at the same time providing a more level playing field for us against track and road runners than we would have otherwise. Calling it a golden middle-ground is not entirely incorrect, but at the end of the day good cross-country skills doesn’t come from hill strength or track speed: It comes from being a well-conditioned and all-rounded runner with a full set of skills.
As both Lydiard and later Peter Coe pointed out in their writing, the best runners are quite complete in terms of what distances they master and what physical conditioning they possess. Strength, speed, stamina, power, agility, coordination, balance and endurance all need to be developed, or as Danny Dreyer would put it you need both Form, Fitness and Speed. There is no point in having the ability to run 200m in 30 seconds if you are always too tired at the end of a race to use it. Likewise, there’s no point in having amazing endurance, if you lack the basic speed to decide a close race at the death.
This basically showed in my own race on Sunday. Because I have done little speed training recently and no anaerobic either, I neither had the raw leg speed for a finishing flourish over the last few hundred metres nor did I have enough resistance to the accumulating fatigue to increase my speed gradually as the race intensified.
I had leg strength and the correct form to maintain reasonable pace up the hills but did not have the explosive power developed open significant gaps on the uphills. Both are easily remedied by applying specific training on all these three areas closely before the cross-country season starts. This is my plan for next year, but this year, I am avoiding this specific training to develop a fuller base fitness for next season. As with all things in life there’s a trade-off: Short-term performance for long-term success.