The National. Just those two words are enough to make the hairs stand on end. They raise that strange mix of excitement and dread that causes the heart to skip a beat. They conjure up hazy memories and heady anticipation for every grassroots club runner.
For the regulars and the first-timers, the returners and the ambitious, the National has a special resonance that probably no other event on the domestic calendar can replicate. Its reputation precedes it. The National is a legend in its own right, a recognition formed over more than 140 years of competition.
From the 32 men that ran at Buckhurst Hill in 1876 to the 5,191 runners across 10 age category races in Nottingham a year ago, the National is established at the very heart of grassroots cross country running in England.
Who can forget the snow-covered course in Sunderland in 2013? Or the chaotic mud-bath of Alton Towers in 2011 when the course had to be re-routed to avoid any fatalities, scenes reminiscent of the inaugural 1876 event that was eventually declared void. There’s a line in Andrew Boyd Hutchinson’s The Complete History of Cross-Country Running about the storm that ‘swamped the paper-trail and left competitors paddling haplessly for hours’.
The National is the pinnacle of the domestic cross-country season. Ploughing through mud for the past six months has just about taken its toll. From that distant opening fixture firmness to the increasingly inclement weather that’s certainly much fresher in the memory, the National is the last outpost for many on the long and winding cross country road.
The National requires one last effort to be summoned before the purgatory of March and end-of-season breaks, warm weather trips and marathon training sets in. The National is the last team focal point of the winter.
It’s accessible to everyone. Anyone can enter. The National is one of the few truly mass participation cross country opportunities. There are no qualifying times or entry requirements. There aren’t any barriers to turn people away. You just have to be a member of an affiliated club and pay your registration fee to take part. From 11 years old to veteran. You can’t be too slow.
Seb Coe and the IAAF have recently called for cross country to be more extreme and edgy. If they popped by the grassroots scene in the UK then they’d see it’s still in rude health. Any cross country doomsayers need to look beyond the pancake-flat race courses cooked up on the Continent and beyond. They need to recognise that the allure of pure competition and team tactics make cross country as appealing as ever. Never more than at the National.
Famous are the winners that went on to set world records and win major titles. Dave Bedford in 1971 and ’73, Brendan Foster in ’77, Tim Hutchings in ’83 and ’86 and Paula in 1994. It must be one of the only senior titles Mo Farah hasn’t won.
And how about the untold stories of countless others? The tales of four-time winner Percy Stenning, the first women’s winner Anne Williams and Jack Holden’s hat-trick of wins spanning the Second World War. These stories don’t come so readily to mind – but help to give the National its heritage.
In an interview with Alastair Aitken, former national champion, Dave Clarke, described how ‘people used to break down in tears when they didn’t make the team for the national.’ And it’s the tussle for team honours that still keeps those in with a shout up at night.
Making predictions, though, is a mug’s game. The likely runners and riders always too tricky to call with the indoors and road races vying for attention. Some may think the event’s star has fallen amid the packed racing calendar – but the National is a race that still matters, to those at the top and, more importantly, to the countless others that make it what it is. The volunteers, the team managers, the unsung heroes of the sport.
Tough Mudder and all those other rip-off events? For £9 a pop, you can get all the mud you like at the National. If it’s team spirit and roaring crowds you’re after, the National has it in spades.
Take last year at Wollaton Park. It was cross country at its purist. We wrote about bogs up to the eyeballs, impossibly thick mud and scenic undulations. More than 5,000 people finished. It says a lot about the appetite in this country for a supposedly dying sport.
And this Saturday, Parliament Hill plays host to the latest instalment. Styled as the home of English Cross Country, this weekend will see it stage the National for a record 16th time. Perhaps this longevity is where the legend of the course comes from.
There are few greater hairs-on-the-neck moments that spring to mind in grassroots running than seventeen-hundred men stampeding up the long hill at the start from the lido with the iconic skyline of the capital in the background. Put your ear to the ground and you can hear it shaking before the charging masses turn into more recognisable individuals.
The National is unique – and this year promises to be no exception.
Listen to Hannah talk about the English National Cross Country Championships on the latest Let’s Get Running podcast. Distance runners and podcast hosts, Shaun Dixon and Jermaine Mays, also catch up with top physio Jorin Kamps, who is working with former marathon world record holder Wilson Kipsang in the build up to Tokyo 2020.
Words by Bo James
Images from Andrew Peat and Mark Hookway