Cross country courses are laid out on an open or woodland area. The IAAF recommends that courses be grass-covered, and have rolling terrain with frequent but smooth turns. Courses consist of one or more loops, with a long straight at the start and another leading to the finish line.
Because of variations in conditions, international standardization of cross country courses is impossible, and not necessarily desirable. Part of cross country running's appeal is the natural and distinct characteristics of each venue's terrain and weather. Terrain can vary from open fields to forest hills and even across rivers. It also includes running down and up hills.
According to the IAAF, an ideal cross country course has a loop of 1,750 to 2,000 metres (1,910 to 2,190 yd) laid out on an open or wooded land. It should be covered by grass, as much as possible, and include rolling hills "with smooth curves and short straights". While it is perfectly acceptable for local conditions to make dirt or snow the primary surface, courses should minimize running on roads or other macadamized paths. Parks and golf courses often provide suitable locations. While a course may include natural or artificial obstacles, cross country courses support continuous running, and do not require climbing over high barriers, through deep ditches, or fighting through the underbrush.
A course at least 5 metres (5.5 yd) full allows competitors to pass others during the race. Clear markings keep competitors from making wrong turns, and spectators from interfering with the competition. Markings may include tape or ribbon on both sides of the course, chalk or paint on the ground, or cones. Some classes use colored flags to indicate directions: red flags for left turns, yellow flags for right turns and blue flags can mean continue straight ahead or stay within ten feet (of the flag). Courses also commonly include distance markings, usually at each kilometer or each mile.
The course should have 400 to 1,200 m (440 to 1,310 yd) of level terrain before the first turn, to reduce contact and congestion at the start. However, many courses at smaller competitions have their first turn after a much shorter distance.
Courses for international competitions consist of a loop between 1750 and 2000 meters. Athletes complete three to six loops, depending on the race. Senior men compete on a 12-kilometre course. Senior women and junior men compete on an 8-kilometre course. Junior women compete on a 6-kilometre course.
In the United States, college men typically compete on 8 km (5.0 mi) or 10 km (6.2 mi) courses, while college women race for 5 km (3.1 mi) or 6 km (3.7 mi). High school courses are shorter.
All runners start at the same time, from a starting arc (or line) marked with lines or boxes for each team or individual. An official, 50 meters or more in front of the starting line, fires a pistol to indicate the start. If runners collide and fall within the first 100 meters, officials can call the runners back and restart the race, however this is done only once. Crossing the line or starting before the starting pistol is fired is considered a false start and most often results in disqualification of the runner.
The course ends at a finish line located at the beginning of a funnel or chute (a long walkway marked with flags) that keeps athletes single-file in order of finish and facilitates accurate scoring.
Depending on the timing and scoring system, finish officials may collect a small slip from each runner's bib, to keep track of finishing positions. An alternative method (standard in the UK) is to have four officials in two pairs. In the first pair, one official reads out numbers of finishers and the other records them. In the second pair, one official reads out times for the other to record. At the end of the race, the two lists are joined along with information from the entry information. The primary disadvantage of this system is that distractions can easily upset the results, particularly when scores of runners finish close together.
Chip timing has grown in popularity to increase accuracy and decrease the number of officials required at the finish line. Each runner attaches a transponder with RFID to his or her shoe. When the runner crosses the finish line, an electronic pad records the chip number and matches the runner to a database. Chip timing allows officials to use checkpoint mats throughout the race to calculate split times, and to ensure runners cover the entire course. This is by far the most efficient method, although it is also the most expensive. The drawback to chip timing is its inability to separate a close finish properly. Chips times the feet, when the rule books say it is the torso that counts. It is technically possible for an athlete to fall across the finish line, legally crossing the finish line, but with their feet too far away from the sensor to have their finish recorded.
Contemporary races have now started to use fully automatic timing systems for photo finish accuracy to their results. This has dramatically improved the timing mechanisms of Cross Country over the last few years.
Scores are determined by summing the top four or five individual finishing places on each team. In international competition, a team typically consists of six runners, with the top four scoring. In the United States, the most common scoring system is seven runners, with the top five scoring. Points are awarded to the individual runners of eligible teams, equal to the position in which they cross the finish line (first place gets 1 point, second place gets 2 points, etc.). The points for these runners are summed, and the lowest score wins. Individual athletes, and athletes from incomplete teams ( teams consisting of less than 5 athletes or teams and individuals who have been disqualified are excluded from scoring.) Ties are usually broken by the position of each team's sixth runner.
The lowest possible score in a five-to-score match is 15 (1+2+3+4+5), achieved by a team's runners finishing in each of the top five positions. If there is a single opposing team then they would have a score of 40 (6+7+8+9+10), which can be considered a "sweep" for the winning team. In some competitions a team's sixth and seventh runner are scored in the overall field and are known as "pushers" or "displacers" as their place can count ahead of other runners, giving other teams more points. In the above match, if there are two non-scoring runners and they came 6th and 7th overall, the opponent's score would be 50 (8+9+10+11+12). Accordingly, the official score of a forfeited dual meet is 15–50.
Because of differences between courses in running surface, frequency and tightness of turns, and amount of up and downhill, cross country strategy does not necessarily simplify to running a steady pace from start to finish. Coaches and cross country runners debate the relative merits of fast starts to get clear of the field, versus steady pacing to maximize physiological efficiency. Some teams emphasize running in a group in order to provide encouragement to others on the team, while others hold that every individual should run his or her own race. In addition, whether you run ahead 'of the pack' or behind it and pull ahead in the end is important, but can vary according to the runner's individual skill, endurance, and the length of the race. Runners should also account for food intake prior to the race. Most important, however, is the training beforehand.
Cross country running involves very little specialized equipment. Most races are run in shorts and vests or singlets, usually in club or school colours. In particularly cold conditions, long-sleeved shirts and tights can be worn to retain warmth without losing mobility. The most common footwear are cross country spikes, lightweight racing shoes with a rubber sole and five or more metal spikes screwed into the forefoot part of the sole. Spike length depends on race conditions, with a muddy course appropriate for spikes as long as 25 millimetres (0.98 in). If a course has a harder surface, spikes as short as 6 millimetres (0.24 in) may be most effective. While spikes are suitable for grassy, muddy, or other slippery conditions, runners may choose to wear racing flats, rubber-soled racing shoes without spikes, if the course includes significant portions of paved surfaces or dirt road.
Formal cross country competition traces its history to the 19th century and an English game called "hare and hounds" or "the paper chase". English schools started competing in cross country races in 1837, and established a national championship on December 7, 1867. It was held on Wimbledon Common in south-west London. It was the first cross country race that was considered "open", or could be run by anyone. Its original purpose was to imitate steeplechase for off-season training, and was considered a bit of a joke. The race was about 3.5 miles long, and went through very boggy and hilly terrain. The course was not well marked, and many competitors got lost. Matters were not helped by the fact that the race was run in the dark, as it began at 5 pm.
Cross country was contested as a team and individual event at the 1912, 1920 and 1924 Summer Olympics. Sweden took gold in 1912, and Finland, led by Paavo Nurmi, captured the gold in 1920 and 1924. During the 1924 race in the Paris heat wave, only 15 of the 38 competitors reached the finish. Eight of those were taken away on stretchers. One athlete began to run in tight circles after reaching the stadium and later knocked himself unconscious, while another fainted 50 meters from the finish. José Andía and Edvin Wide were reported dead, and medics spent hours trying to find all the competitors who had blacked out along the course. Although the reports of deaths were unfounded, spectators were shocked by the attrition rate and Olympic officials decided to ban cross country running from future Games. Since 1928, cross country has been contested only as the fifth discipline of the modern pentathlon, and until 2016 it was the only discipline where the Olympic competition was only part of the modern pentathlon. The sport will have a separate medal event at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires.
Europeans dominated early International Cross Country Championships, first held at the Hamilton Park Racecourse in Scotland on 28 March 1903. England won the first 14 titles, and 43 of 59 until the IAAF took over the competition in 1973. France was the next most successful country in the early years, winning 12 championships between 1922 and 1956. Belgium is the only other country to win at the International Cross Country Championship, capturing titles in 1948, 1957, 1961 and 1963. The English also dominated the individual competition, with an Englishman winning the individual title 35 times, including three wins by Jack Holden (1933–1935).
The first international cross country championship for women was held in 1931, and thirteen more times through 1972. England won 12 of these early championships, losing only in 1968 and 1969 (to the United States). American Doris Brown won five consecutive individual titles between 1967 and 1971.
Beginning in 1973, the IAAF began hosting the renamed World Cross Country Championships each year. In 1975, the New Zealand men and United States women won, marking the first championships by non-European countries. In 1981 an African nation (Ethiopia) won the men's race for the first time, and a decade later an African nation (Kenya) won the women's race for the first time. Ethiopia or Kenya has captured every men's title since 1981 and every women's title since 2001. Through 2010, Kenya has won 40 World Cross Country Championships and Ethiopia has won 23.Kenenisa Bekele won both short and long World Cross Country course titles in the same year five times (2002–2006), after a junior men victory and senior long course silver in 2001. The IAAF calls him the "greatest ever male cross country runner to have graced the sport."
Carlos Lopes – first man to win World Cross Country title three times.
John Ngugi – first man to win five World Cross Country titles, including four consecutively in the late 1980s.
Paavo Nurmi was a four-time Olympic gold medalist and undefeated throughout his 19-year career in cross country running
Gaston Roelants – four-time champion at the International Cross Country Championship between 1962 and 1972.
Paul Tergat – long course champion five years in a row (1995–1999), plus a bronze medal finish in 2000.
Doris Brown – won the International Cross Country Championship for five consecutive years (1967–1971).
Zola Budd – young prodigy who twice won women's World championship (1985–1986), known for running barefooted.
Tirunesh Dibaba – won three times at the World long course and once at the short.
Lynn Jennings – won World title three times.
Edith Masai – won the World short race three times.
Derartu Tulu – won World titles three times in six years (1995, 1997, 2000).
Grete Waitz – first athlete to win five IAAF World Cross Country titles.
Gete Wami – won twice at the World long course and once at the short.
Sonia O'Sullivan – was the first person who achieved wins in both the short and long races in the World Cross-Country Championships (1998)
In addition to the World Cross Country Championships, the IAAF sponsors six annual area-level competitions: the African Cross Country Championships, Asian Cross Country Championships, European Cross Country Championships, NACAC Cross Country Championships, Oceania Cross Country Championships and South American Cross Country Championships.
Beyond championships, IAAF world cross country meetings include the Great Edinburgh International Cross Country, Cross Internacional de Itálica, Antrim International Cross Country, Cinque Mulini, Nairobi Cross, Chiba International Cross Country, Fukuoka International Cross Country meet, Eurocross and Almond Blossom Cross Country.
Cross country running is organized at the state level by the athletics association for each state. In Queensland this Queensland Athletics. In the Masters category (over 30), this is organized by Australian Masters Athletics. Brisbane will host the Australian Masters Nationals Championships, April 21–24, 2011 with the Cross Country hosted by Thompson Estate and Eastern Suburbs Athletics at Minnippi Parklands.
The cross country season in Brisbane is usually March – September. During the season there is usually one race each week in a different park, generally organized and hosted by one of the participating clubs. Photos of such events can be found here.
Cross country running is a far-reaching sport in Canada. In middle school, races are more serious and are divided by grade and gender. In high school, the races are far-reaching and tend to be the main talent pool (especially at the senior level) for university or national-level runners. At the university level, the sport is administered by Canadian Interuniversity Sport.
The organization of cross country running in the United Kingdom has continued to be mostly devolved to the four national associations: England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. The sport is based around the clubs, which usually are mixed cross country and road running clubs. The current position (which is changing) is that in England, the English Cross Country Association is part of the Amateur Athletic Association.
Cross country running takes place from roughly September until March. Most matches are parts of different cross country leagues, which are organized on an ad hoc basis. These vary from large, high quality leagues, such as the London Metropolitan Cross Country League, Birmingham League, Hampshire League, Essex League and Surrey League (which is unusual in requiring ten runners to score) to small, local leagues (such as the Gloucestershire AA league), and individual clubs can be a member of several leagues.
Typically there will be four or five fixtures a season. Also, there are county championships, area championships (north, south, and Midlands), the national championship (whose location rotates around the three areas), and the Inter-Counties Championship (which is often the best quality race owing to its restricted entry and its role as the trial for the World Championships).
Also there can be many inter-club matches, particularly among the older clubs. Most league matches are around 10 km (6.2 mi) long, and most championships 12 to 15 km (c. 7½ to 9 miles) long. Most clubs are mixed, though men's and women's races tend to be run separately.
Secondary school aged students are also to compete at local schools races, with a set number of students qualifying for county level, at which there is a further race to be eligible for the English Schools Cross Country race. There is also quite a lot of racing between universities, with larger fixtures organized through BUCS.
Primary schools, although more often the juniors, also participate in cross country events and some areas of England have done so since the late 1960s. An example would be schools near Ouston, County Durham which compete as part of Chester-le-Street & District Primary Cross Country Association.
USA Track & Field hosts four annual national cross country championships. The USA Cross Country Championships, first held in 1890, include six races: masters women (8 km), masters men (8 km), junior women (6 km), junior men (8 km), open women (8 km) and open men (12 km). In addition to crowning national champions, the championships serve as the trials race to select the Team USA squad for the IAAF World Cross Country Championships. The USA Masters 5 a km Cross Country Championships, first held in 2002, incl men's race and a women's race. The USATF National Club Cross Country Championships, first held in 1998, feature the top clubs from across the United States as they vie for honors and bragging rights as the nation's top cross country team. The USATF National Junior Olympic Cross Country Championships, first held in 2001, has raced for boys and girls in five different two-year age divisions.
Most American universities and colleges field men's and women's cross country teams as part of their athletic program. Over 900 men's cross country teams and over 1000 women's cross country teams compete in the three divisions of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Men usually race 10 km (6.2 mi) or 8 km (5.0 mi), and women usually race 6 km (3.7 mi) or 5 km (3.1 mi). The season culminates in men's and women's championships. Jr. College men often race 4 miles.
Every state offers cross country as a high school sport for boys and girls. Over 440,000 high school students compete in cross country each year, making it the sixth-most popular sport for girls, and seventh most popular for boys. The standard high school cross country race distance is 5 km (3.1 mi) for most states with California high schools running 3 mile races, though some counties run a shorter, 3- to 4-kilometer course for girls. Beginning in 1979, the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships have offered a national championship for high school cross country runners. Since 2004, the Nike Cross Nationals have offered an alternative national championship, focused on teams rather than individuals. A 2008 film, The Long Green Line, documented the success of Joe Newton, cross country coach at York Community High School in Elmhurst, Illinois.
While many middle schools (grades 6–8) in the U.S. offer cross country as a school sport, youth running clubs dominate in this age group. A typical middle school course is 3 km (1.9 mi) or 2 mi (3.2 km), and races may not split up boys and girls. Few elementary schools in the U.S. have school teams, but many running clubs exist for youth runners. Youth running clubs compete in local, regional, and national championships sanctioned by the AAU or USATF. Course distances for this age group vary depending on the age of the athlete. Common championship distances are:
Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, California hosts the largest cross country invitational in the United States, with over 22,000 runners from community colleges, high schools and elementary schools competing. The meet started in 1948 and continued today.
Outstanding American cross country runners include Don Lash, who won seven consecutive national championships from 1934 to 1940, Pat Porter, who won eight titles from 1982 to 1989, and Steve Prefontaine, who won three NCAA national titles in cross country. Only two American athletes have won the IAAF World Cross Country Championships: Craig Virgin, who won in 1980 and again in 1981 and Lynn Jennings from 1990–1992.
The 2015 Disney movie McFarland, USA revolves around a cross-country team at a small high school.
One variation on traditional cross country is mountain running, which incorporates significant uphill and/or downhill sections as an additional challenge to the course.