The 'National' By Those Who Know! (22/02/2016)

The ‘National’ by those that know! was a series of contributions contained in an edition of the ECCA Handbook published in October 2003.

The content is as relevent today as it was then. So as we head towards the 'National' on Saturday at Donnington take time to read the thoughts of "those that know".

Steve Cram

Cross-country running was an important part of my development is a young athlete. I competed regularly in the English National Cross Country Championships as a teenager during that time ran in the Youths and Juniors Championships. Later in the 80’s I competed in the senior event when it was still 9 miles in length. Though I never won a championship it was an essential part of my build up to the track season and in 1984 after finishing 78th in the English National Senior race, I went on to win a silver at the Los Angeles Olympic Games!

Back in the 70’s and 80’s, of course, England and Great Britain’s teams achieved much success at cross-country and the quality of the English National was also high. Disappointingly in recent years we have not had those successes and the quality of the domestic championships has also fallen. As a commentator for the BBC, I am always delighted to see the likes of Paula Ratcliffe and John Brown leading races. Surely if the quality of the National Cross Country Championships can be improved then we should see other English athletes drawing them, for this is a breeding ground for success in the future. Competing in the English National Cross Country Championships worked for me and maybe it will help you to achieve success in your event.

Paula Radcliffe

I started out with cross-country and it has always been a key part of my year. It is great fun but also provides a great stamina and strength base for the whole year. Cross-country is an individual sport but also has a very strong team aspect and I feel it is where team morale and camaraderie are at their strongest. Cross country is also essentially British – the muddier and tougher the better.

It is where you learn to dig deep and never stop trying. It is also where I’ve had the most fun over the years.

Eamon Martin

As a youngster I watched the men’s ‘National’ in awe. The list of entries each year was fantastic as milers, steeplechasers, 5K, 10 K, marathon runners and specialist cross-country runners all came together to compete in this one race and try to make it into the England team for the World Cross-Country Championships.

The list of previous winners looks like a Who’s Who of distance running since all the great names appear on it. I dreamed that one day, I too would appear on that role of honour and, for me, 1984 was that year. My victory was, truly, one of my fondest and proudest moments and still lives in my memory as a turning point in my own career. I was lucky enough to win again in 92 and become a member of that small at select band of double ‘National’ winners.

Beyond the personal challenge the ‘National’ had an electrifying effect also upon the clubs. Athletes peaked for the event since rivalry was rife year-on-year between the top clubs in the counties, top clubs in ‘areas’ and indeed top clubs in the country. The ‘National’ bonded club mates like no other race and the camaraderie generated was overwhelming.

Brendan Foster

For me, even more so my colleagues at Gateshead Harriers, the ‘National’ was one of the highlights of the club’s winter programme. As an individual the Senior race allowed me to compete against the very best of English distance runners – I even managed to beat them all once – while from the clubs point of view, the numerous victories moulded us together creating a brilliant team spirit.

“The greatest cross-country race in the world”

Today I feel it should be playing an even bigger part. Such a prestigious event, even if it meant moving the date to early February, should be the official World Cross Country trials for the British team. I’m sure such a move would heighten its profile to television, radio and the written media with club runners also enjoying the exposure.

Mel Watman (Author & Journalist)

What did such legendary world record breakers as Walter George, Alf Shrubb, Sydney Wooderson, Gordon Pirie, Mel Batty, Ron Hill, David Bedford and Brendan Foster have in common? They all won the ‘National’. Jim Peters, Dave Moorcroft, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram? They all competed in the ‘National’.

It doesn’t take a genius to deduce that participating in the English National Cross Country Championships did not exactly harm the careers of these outstanding runners. Indeed, the cross country background played a vital part in their rise to the top. Is it just a coincidence that, at a time when few of our leading runners now include the ‘National’ in their winter training plans, men’s middle and long distance running in Britain, as judged by world standards, is at an all time low?

As I reported in Athletics Weekly in 1977, “To win the ‘National’ is the ambition of every British distance runner no matter what he may achieved in other fields. For all his honours – world records, a European title, Olympic and Commonwealth medals among them, Brendan Foster has always dreamed of winning what he describes as “the greatest cross country race in the world”. His ambition was realised last Saturday at Parliament Hill Fields.”

Among those left in his wake that day were Bernie Ford, Tony Simmons, Dave Black, Mike McLeod, Dave Bedford, Julian Goater, Steve Ovett, Mike Tagg and Charlie Spedding. Truly, those were the days when British distance running depth was the envy of the world.

So come on you athletes and run the ‘National’… There’s a fantastic tradition to uphold!

Pat Butcher (Author & Journalist & one time member of Dudley Harriers)

Several of our leading athletes past and present are provided their testimonies elsewhere so the journalists task of quoting stars is largely redundant. Nevertheless memories of Mike Tagg and Brendan Foster saying that there ‘National’ victories meant more to them as club athletes than their international successes ranks high amongst the reasons for regretting the demise of the ‘National’.

But no amount of reminiscence or bellyaching is going to bring back the ‘National’ as we knew it without attention being paid to the parallel demise of the club system in England. One beat the other on the rise of ‘fun running’ has severely eroded the notion of excellence which informed the meanest club runner and made the ‘National’ the apogee not just of the winter but of the running year. Being in the middle of that stampede at the start was certainly one of my running career highlights.

Making the ‘National’ again the trial for the World Cross-Country Championship team would be the first step in restoring its glory as the biggest and best club race in the world.

Bud Baldaro (Coach & Life Member of Tipton Harriers) and the late Bob Ashwood (Coach and member Kidderminster & Stourport A.C.)

For decades cross country has proved the cornerstone of successful endurance running in this country. Perhaps it is no coincidence that most successful years at the world cross-country championships involved the English ‘National’ as the trial.

The relevance is not limited to the UK. John Ngugi, five times world champion was also an Olympic 5000m victor. His countryman Paul Tergat, 10,000m silver medallist in both the World Championships and Olympics has also enjoyed supreme success at cross country.

In the UK the great ‘harrier’ tradition helped to forge a fabulous base for distance running for both men and women. The physiological benefits cross training and competition have been well documented; cross being the only discipline the tests balance, cadence, change of direction and the capacity to cope with differing terrains plus, of course, great stamina and strength.

Less obvious are the enormous psychological benefits to be accrued from cross country competition. Quite simply there are no easy courses.

It is a great natural developer of both conditioning and mental fortitude. Should a course be described as flat and fast then there is a great need for speed endurance. No champion can win at any distance without a marked development of speed endurance and a mental capacity to sustain the tempo.

In frequently springing surprises on the competitor cross enhances significantly the ability to experiment with tactical variations over a great variety of conditions, to rains, and above all, pace surges.

The years it has proved the breeding ground of great British runners; the likes of Jack Holden, Basil Heatley, Mike Tagg, Dave Bedford and Tim Hutchings. Seemingly the Africans see the same advantages – Ngugi, Mourhit, Tergat and most recently, Bekele.

Long may the value of cross in developing stamina, strength, speed and sharp wits continue.