In 1989, the great Kenyan runner John Ngugi won his 4th consecutive World Cross Country Championships. Running over a rain soaked golf course in ankle deep mud, John ran off the front and raced solo for most of the race. He appeared to skim the surface of the track, floating above it, running suspended in air, yet moving so fast. I know, because I was there, and I saw him race. I have a vision to this day of John Ngugi racing over mud like it was smooth hard asphalt; such was his ability and his prowess. John Ngugi went on to win another World title in 1992, making for a total of 5, and then Paul Tergat, another great Kenyan, won 5 in a row from 1995-99.
I was in Stavanger Norway at my first World Cross Country Championships, the first of 5 world cross country events that I attended from 1989-1993. Back then, the races were run on one day and there was a single event for the men and women to run. Endurance runners from the 1500, 3000m, 5000, 10000, and marathon all converged in this one mass start cross country event. The races were an elite smorgasbord of World, Olympic, and European distance champions. The World Cross Country Championships were so competitive that Phil Ligget, the popular sports commentator, called it the “fiercest foot race on earth”.
I was the Canadian Champion, but at 22 year of age, inexperienced and amongst this calibre of athletes I was overwhelmed by the level of competition, and the magnitude of the event itself.
It rained all week leading up to the event, and the ground was sodden and soft. At the race site, all countries were assigned an outdoor 'room' in the sprawling centre of green army tents that had been put up for the event. We Canadians arrived, and silently, nervously, we found places for our gear off of the wet ground and out of the rain. Team members came and went from the tent, quietly performing their pre-race rituals. By the time the junior women and men had raced, the hilly course was deep mud. As I paced alone nervously through the warm up area of tents, I could hear singing and laughter coming from one of the rooms and as I walked past I could see it was the Kenyan team tent and a large group of runners (juniors, senior, women, men) were in there. They were laughing and singing and some were even dancing together in a circle! I was amazed and intrigued by the sound of joy and the happiness that was coming from that tent, before such intense competition! Like children playing, the Kenyan athletes possessed a magic that was completely alluring. I was enchanted by the evident joy and the camaraderie that existed between then… there was something about the attitude that suggested a far greater importance than the races about to be run. I have never forgotten that laughter, those smiles on the faces of the relaxed runners, or the singing and I have witnessed it at many events since.
Although I was too young and far too nervous at the time to fully understand, I learned a lesson that day that became a huge part of my path as an athlete: that I needed to be serious and dedicated to training, but light-hearted about my career. There is a passion, and that passion comes from softness, not hardness. That running for joy is a childlike freedom. I realize now that my whole athletic career has been a process of moving closer and closer to finding that place of fun again. I am forever grateful for the way those Kenyan runners sang freely out loud in the rain before the World Cross Country Championships in 1989.
10 More things I learned from racing Cross Country that I continued to use throughout my run career:
1. Be Assertive. I always tried to be first off the line and first into a corner.*
2. Make Space. Cross is crowded: I would try to get out in front and put space between me and a pack, especially going into trails.
3. Use your Strengths. I was a front runner. I didn’t care if anyone knew my secret, when I went out front, and ran scared like a rabbit I was really motivated by the fear of getting caught!
4. Run down Hill Fast. I did lots of crazy hill training, but never neglected to practice running downhills very fast.
5. Start Fast, Go Fast in the Middle and Finish Fast: or, never stop pushing.
6. Own the Course: I would pre run every course, sometimes several times if it was not in my hometown. If the race was in my hometown, then I would train on that course relentlessly and own every inch of the course and would know where I was going to make my move if I had to.
7. If the weather is bad then that’s good news. In rain, snow or hurricanes, bad weather is a chance to be tougher than nails. Just make sure you always have a selection of spikes, including 10mm!!
8. Get Lost. If I was ahead, then I would try to put more time once I hit a corner or a wooded section. When people can’t see you, they don’t try as hard to catch you.
9. Run corners fast. Take tangents, run the corners at speed and try to get a step ahead of competitors in the corner.
10. It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over. Run hard past the finish line. There may be someone to catch just before the chute, or in the case of the Worlds, if you stop pushing for even one second, ten runners push by.
*Once, I was a little too aggressive into a corner. I was running neck and neck with Leah Pells down Citadel Hill at the Nationals in Halifax. There was a downhill sharp corner about 600m from the finish. I attempted to cut into the inside of that last corner, but slipped in the mud, lost my balance and wiped out. Leah surged ahead and beat me to the line.
Lucy Smith started running in Halifax, Nova Scotia, racing cross country in the Bantam category. She went on to win 5 Senior National Cross Country Championships and 2 University Cross Country Champs. She raced at World Cross Country Championships 5 Times.
Writing about the art of moving well and the lived experience of a life in sport.