For everyone at the inaugural London International Cross Country on 20 January, there was a real feeling this event marked the start of something very special indeed.
As any budding athletics historian will tell, Pathe newsreels from the 1960s often show amazing races from Parliament Hill Fields in the centre of London, a venue that is regarded by many as the home of cross country running. The likes of former 10-mile world record holder Mel Batty have raced to glory over the tough demanding hills and of course, it saw Shaftesbury’s Julian Goater storm to a two-minute victory in 1981, still the biggest winning margin ever.
This year’s event, year one as organiser Eamonn Martin likes to call it, was every bit as dramatic as those black and white movie clips with the best in Britain going head-to-head.
“It’s been a fantastic start to things,” says Eamonn. “There are bits we can work on and there are runners we can bring in to make it even more testing, but for year one I think it was pretty much perfect.”
Martin, who perhaps by no coincidence was coached by Batty, the star of many of those old newsreels you’ll find on YouTube had a clear plan. He wanted the race to matter. And he wanted it to have a modern twist. Fans were treated to a beer tent, as well as a fans tent which runners raced through on each of the 2km laps and to make sure everybody knew exactly what was going on, there was a big screen showing all the action. Locals stopped and took in what was happening, and if rumours are to be believed, even a star from pop sensations One Direction paused on the way back from his morning swim to check out what was happening.
“It was great to see so many people out here watching,” says Tom Evans, second place in the men’s race. “It really helped make the day so memorable.”
And there was plenty of action to watch. Along with the men’s and women’s races there was an U20 event for men and women and a universities trial for the World Student Cross Country, a home country international (dominated by strong England teams) and places on offer for the World Cross Country Championships which take place in Belgrade in late March. Among all of that was an inter-area match and a string of hard-fought age group races. For year one, it was certainly action-packed and provided all the kudos any winter runner requires.
“This was a great start and something everybody will learn from,” said a Nike spokesperson. “It’s very much like how the Night of the 10,000m PBs (which takes place on the track in Parliament Hill Fields, a stone’s throw from the course) grew. And this event has provided an incredible platform for the event to grow.”
London Park authorities were also excited to see racing at such a high level, very much in keeping with the heritage and history of the heath which has played host to events for more than 100 years.
That excitement was shared by former 10,000m world record holder Dave Bedford who once won the Southern senior and junior races on the same day at this very venue with just a 20-minute break in between.
“Often you can’t see how races unfold, but you could here. This is a real step in the right direction,” he says.Dave Bedford
“It’s the best course in Britain,” says Goater, perhaps unsurprisingly given he stormed to the greatest ever national victory on the very same hills.
“It’s a fair course all round. You must understand how to work the ups and downs and it was great to see the start used the traditional spot in front of the lido. That first charge up the hill is so important. This year’s race showed cross country in a good light,” he says. “I really hope this grows in the coming years.”Julian Goater
Martin has some great plans for the event to move on and invitations to overseas teams are certainly high up on his agenda. Partly that’s because of the undoubted credibility top overseas names will lend to the event, but he also recalls racing London v Paris v Berlin one year in a Lord Mayor’s parade race around the city of London and that was enjoyed by huge crowds. With the right planning, this race promises the same kind of action.
And while it’s good to get the opinions of legends like 1984 Olympic silver medallist Wendy Sly or cross-country running legend Dave Clarke, a three-time winner of the National in the 1980s, it was also really exciting to hear that today’s runners love the course and the event. Jess Bailey (Matthew Long, Leven Valley), third in the U20 women’s race and the World Mountain Running silver medallist loved the course and couldn’t praise Martin enough for creating the event.
“Eamonn is moving this event in the right direction,” she enthused. “It was just so different to anything else in the country.”
“And it’s so nice to see racing again at Parliament Hill,” says Sue Lamb, the England women’s team manager. “Everybody was so excited beforehand.”
“That’s what I want,” says Martin. “We need to make the sport exciting and relevant.”
It’s a sentiment that the likes of Clarke and Goater couldn’t agree with more. Cross-country needs trial races like Parliament Hill to get the best out of athletes and “get us ready to compete on a world stage,” says Goater. “Tough races like this are a great way to get ready to take on the Africans or Americans or anybody in fact.”
“For now, it’s time to go away and reflect and learn from what has happened,” says Martin. “But it was great to see interviews with all the age group medallists. That really adds to the occasion. Of course, there are changes needed, but for year one the race delivered everything I hoped it would.”