Saturday’s cross-country action in Edinburgh will be great, but would be even greater if its traditional short-course race had not bit the dust
The Bupa Great Edinburgh Cross Country is the curtain-raiser to the athletics year ahead and due to the decline of the world cross country championships it has become the premier shop window in the UK for off-road runners who enjoy showing their rivals a muddy pair of heels. The event is televised live on BBC on Saturday and there is surely no finer venue than Holyrood Park, with athletes racing in the shadow of the extinct volcano Arthur’s Seat.
Reports of students running in the park were penned by none other than Robert Louis Stevenson back in the 1870s, while Scotland generally has helped nurture the purest and most natural branch of athletics via the staging of 12 world championships, from the first-ever “international” on Hamilton racecourse in 1903 to the IAAF global gatherings in Glasgow in 1978 and Edinburgh in 2008.
Nova International, the organisers of Saturday’s races, have contributed to this rich history by staging their annual Great North Cross in Edinburgh since 2005 after previous races dating back to the 1980s were staged in Durham and Newcastle in north-east England. As the development of their Great Run series and CityGames have illustrated, too, Nova are never keen to rest on their laurels and the introduction of a team race with the United States v Europe v GB in 2011 added a new dimension to the meeting.
You can tell I’m looking forward to Saturday’s action, right? You’d be correct, although there is one element of the Great Edinburgh Cross that I’ll be mourning – the loss of the short-course men’s race.
For some years now, this largely domestic dust-up has been one of my favourite races on the entire athletics calendar. Strongmen with bags of stamina go head-to-head with speed merchants who specialise in 1500m and even 800m. The pace is always fast and furious from the start and on the rolling, rugged course there is nowhere to hide as we see who has wintered well and who has eaten too much turkey and chocolate over Christmas.
Usually run over three or four kilometres, the short-course men’s race is chaotic and gloriously unpredictable, with positions changing dramatically as the race unfolds. Most of all, it has zero respect for reputations.
Last year, over a 3km course in Holyrood Park, the unheralded Ross Millington of Stockport Harriers led the race at halfway from global giants Asbel Kiprop, Kenenisa Bekele, Eliud Kipchoge and Brimin Kipruto. The 2008 Olympic 1500m champion Kiprop eventually won the race, but former world champ Kipchoge was only third, the legendary Bekele wound up 11th and 2008 Olympic steeplechase winner Kipruto was 12th as junior Jonny Hay (pictured above just ahead of Kipchoge) finished a shock second in his first-ever senior race and fellow Britons Ricky Stevenson, Millington, Callum Hawkins, Steve Vernon and Andy Wiles also gained Bekele’s scalp in one of the most bizarre results of the year.
This is what makes the short-course cross-country race so brilliant, though. It is a crazy, topsy-turvy, donkey derby of a footrace. Bekele is not the only big name to eat humble pie either, because two years earlier Mo Farah was only third behind Vernon and winner Stevenson on a snow covered course just eight months before he scored a 5000m and 10,000m double at the European Championships in Barcelona.
Going back to the 1990s, when the event was held in the north-east of England and the line-up predominantly British, the dominant milers of the period, John Mayock and Anthony Whiteman, were regularly routed in the Great North Cross short-course race by unheralded names like Darren Spawforth, Phil Mowbray, Gareth Turnbull and Neil Caddy.
Spawforth, in fact, proved he was no fluke by winning the race twice in 1991 and 1993, while Turnbull took victory four times from 1998-2001. Maybe the unique mix of 4km distance and cross-country terrain suited them. Perhaps it was down to biorhythms and they simply ran well over the festive period or early in the new year. Or did they simply fail to transform their great winter form and talent on to the track in the summer.
A bigger mystery, though, is why the race is not happening this year. I guess it has much to do with an already busy schedule that features junior races and a 2500-strong 5km road race, plus the fact television cannot squash absolutely everything into the 90-minute slot it has set aside for it. Whatever the reasons, I seek solace in the fact Nova clearly knows what it’s doing in these matters after successfully building a cross country meeting with a higher profile than the world championship itself.
Hopefully the men’s short course race will return next year, though. Such comebacks are possible, as Nick McCormick proved in 2006 when he recovered from a fall at the start to get up and win his second Great Edinburgh Cross short-course race.
It is merely one of the many thrills and spills that have happened over the years in the most entertaining race on the cross-country calendar.
» See the latest issue of Athletics Weekly for a two-page preview to the Bupa Great Edinburgh Cross, while the January 10 issue will feature in-depth coverage from the meeting