At colleges and universities across the nation students are settling into dorms, meeting new teammates, and learning routines for the soon to arrive cross country season. It’s an exciting time, and the promise is strong.
“Unlike track and field and road running, which had easy-to-manage lists of top athletes and times (along with historical venues with great traditions); similar attention had not been paid to cross-country,” writes Andrew Hutchinson in his voluminous new work The Complete History of Cross Country Running, From the Nineteenth Century to the Present Day. Untamed running was a wonderful opportunity for athletes looking to escape the track, but…there was nowhere an athlete could go to learn about the stories, legacies and processes in developing the sport. That had to change.”
Mr. Hutchinson’s book is that attempt. Like Tom Derderian’s magnus opus Boston Marathon, History of the World’s Premier Running Event, which saw its second edition come out last year along with a corresponding documentary movie, Hutchinson goes for an epic scale that matches his subject.
A door-stopping 400 pages in length, the book is arranged in chapters covering specific eras, from Chapter 1, 1800-1850, to Chapter 17, The 2010s. It is also interspersed with Event Spotlights like: “Hannes Kolehmainen Runs First Cross-Country Event at Stockholm Olympics (July 15, 1912)”, and “The Miracle in the Mud”—The U.S. stuns Kenya at World Cross (March 24, 2013).
From describing how a Hellenic goddess’s arrow became the symbol of the sport, to enumerating the sport’s beginnings in British prep schools, all the way up to the modern day exploits of champion runners from Europe, the U.S., and East Africa, Hutchinson covers his subjects exhaustively.
“As Apollo’s winged sandals associate with track and field, so too does twin sister Artemis’s golden arrows appear for cross-country running; a symbol of strength, and a reminder of the connection between these twin disciplines within athletics.”
In the Complete History of Cross-Country Running we learn that the earliest versions of what we now call cross-country emerged in British public schools in games called “Hunt The Fox” and “Big-Side Hares-and-Hounds” that mimicked on foot the horse-bound chases across open rolling fields and meadows.
“…the weathered books kept for The Royal Shrewsbury School Hunt contain the earliest accounts written by students themselves. In sketchy black ink, the records adjust annually with each new secretary. The oldest is dated 1831, and references indicate the sport was established at Shrewsbury by 1819.”
In reading Andrew Hutchinson’s involving new book (coming out January 18, 2018 via Carrel Books), I see how little has changed in the basic appeal of this grounding sport.
In the 1980s I was a member of a small but intrepid group of Boston area runners who made up a training game called Hard Cuts based on the maxim, “short cuts don’t cut it in distance running”. And so we sought the most difficult routes possible, especially so during the snowy winter months when more of the outside belonged to us.
From our farthest point from home we would run back as nearly as we could to how the crow flies, including through briars and brambles, over and under fences and across people’s vacant backyards and through teeming rush-hour traffic. The only barrier we didn’t take on was the Charles River.
Andrew describes British schoolboys over a century earlier writing, “as stolen fruit is always the sweetest, we determined to revive the good old custom of running out of bounds.” Stories recounted vaulting hedges, enraging a nearby miller, defying farmers, chasing off neighboring dogs, and taking off down a secluded road known as Fornicators Lane.”
Everything and everyone cross country can be found between these covers, the great champions, the most memorable races, the checks and laws (terms you will learn the meaning of) that molded the sport and saw its ranks grow to become a global contest pitting the planet’s best middle and long distance runners in a single contest where place not time was the measure of excellence.
With a forward by two-time World Cross Country champion Craig Virgin, the book is written in a flowing prose that mirrors a quick but steady running pace. It can be read like a long run start to finish, or just as easily by picking and choosing by personality, era, or event.
Now, as shadows begin to lengthen and the first edges of fall’s chill bring covers closer, we know the season on grass is near at hand. Whether you are a long-blooded harrier or newbie being fitted for freshman cross country, Andrew Hutchinson’s Complete History of Cross Country Running will quicken your spirit. He has fashioned a real winner, for sure, producing a long overdue chronicle of a grand history now fully delivered.