Cross Country racing – what a road runner needs to know

In this post, I will share what it is like to compete in the Canadian cross country championships from the perspective of a road runner.

Last week I competed in my second Canadian Cross country championships. For the past 4 years the meet was in Kingston, Ontario. The race moves to Abbotsford, BC for 2019-2020.

Is Cross country the same as trail running?

No.  There’s a good description on the Athletics Canada website:

XCountryMidRaceSusaTrevorCross country is a race run on outdoor courses over varied terrain. Distances vary but can range from four to twelve kilometers. It is both an individual and a team sport; runners are judged on individual times and teams by a points-scoring method.

Races, for both teams and individuals, are run on either grass or woodland courses and might also include stretches of gravel paths, road and hills. Races usually take place in the winter months, outside the usual track and field season.

The IAAF recommend for international competitions that there is a main course loop of between 1750m and 2000m with natural obstacles used where possible, and the likes of deep ditches, dangerous ascents and descents as well as thick undergrowth should be avoided.

Can anyone enter the nationals?

There is a community race anyone can enter, but if you wish to enter the U18, U20, Seniors, or Masters you need a competitive Athletics Canada membership.  You don’t have to do any sort of qualification to enter.

In all honesty, the only reason I have a competitive membership was because some of my fellow K2J runners entered this race in 2016 and a bunch of us decided, sounds like fun next year I want to try it.

What’s different from a road race?

The start line and timing

The first thing you will notice is that the start line is a big long line of runners. There is no timing mat at the start line, it’s a mass start and only your gun time is recorded.  Of course with the wide start area the difference between your gun and chip time would only be 1-3 seconds even for runners like me who are hanging out in the back.

The really serious teams will group together to protect their top runner and ensure they have a nice clear lane to get out in front.

The terrain

The biggest difference in cross country is the terrain. You will be running across a field.  The first year I ran this race it was very muddy and wet. The second year, it was colder and there were icy patches on the course. You can expect at least one good up hill and down hill on the course as well.

Personally, I love running on grass instead of pavement. It’s easier on the shins and knees, you can really let go on the downhill and let gravity carry you.  Of course that does mean the ground will not be perfectly even, but this isn’t trail running, you aren’t leaping over logs and boulders. When I trail run I am constantly looking ahead thinking about where to place my foot next to avoid tripping or twisting an ankle. Cross country terrain isn’t like that, I could run the way I do on pavement, it was just softer underfoot and more slippery.

The conditions change between throughout the race and throughout the day. Because you have a pack of runners in spikes running on the course tearing up the ground, expect the course to get muddier and muddier. We were lucky because the masters course was at 9:30 AM. It was windy and cold, but mostly dry, the conditions were very different for the senior men’s race at 3:30 PM. It was raining and the course was mostly mud!

The shoes

XCountrySpikesDid I mention it was slippery? My sister Judy ran this race in 2016 in regular running shoes. She said she had to slow down a lot on the course because she was slipping in the mud.

The first year I ran, there was a guy running it barefoot (much to the surprise and amusement of the announcers), he wiped out completely more than once. (Side note: no barefoot runners in 2018)

Myself and the rest of the K2J runners who competed in 2017 benefited from my sisters experience. We bought cross country shoes and spikes for the race.

I’d like to mention here that although I did run cross country in high school (over 20 years ago), I had NEVER run with cross country shoes and spikes before. The same was true for most of my friends. My teammate Randy discovered that if you don’t tighten the spikes enough when you screw them in they can actually fall out during your run. Luckily he found that out on a practice run, not on race day.  I went out with my sister Judy, and my friend Jim for exactly one 5 km run in my spikes before the race. I just wanted to see what they felt like when running.

spikesThere are multiple lengths of spikes you can purchase. Real cross country runners apparently change their spikes depending on the conditions, sort of like a skier trying to select the perfect wax

Cross country shoes are light, with a very flexible sole. The moment you step in a puddle your feet will be wet. If you step on a rock you will feel it, but those spikes are AWESOME for traction. In 2017, since none of us had any experience racing in spikes, we decided to go with very short spikes (1/4 inch), technically they would be considered track spikes. The course was very muddy and I only slipped a bit on a couple of the corners (there are some tight U turns on the course). In 2018, we bought slightly longer spikes (3/8 inch, apparently a common cross-country spike length). In 2018, the course was more icy than muddy. The spikes did their job beautifully and I was able to race without worrying about traction.

The route

Unlike road races, most cross country races involve multiple loops. This course had a 2 km loop and a 2.5 km loop. You repeat your loop as often as needed for your distance. I was in the Masters 8 km race. We ran the 2 km loop 4 times. Running a multiple loop race has an interesting effect on the brain. On the first loop you feel out the course, on the second loop all I can think is wow do I really have to do this two more times including that long uphill with the headwind! On the third loop I got lapped by the top male runners. On the final lap I had an exact plan on where to make my move to catch up with and pass the two runner in front of me. (Side Note: I passed them 100 meters before the finish line as planned, but then one of them kicked and passed me as if I was standing still… great finishing kick Rita!)

Check out some of Canada’s best runners

Nationals is a qualifying race for the Canadian national cross country team, so it’s a great opportunity to see some of Canada’s top running talent. The *big* race to watch is the senior men/women, but it’s amazing to see the up and coming talent in the U18 and U20 as well.

In 2017 the senior men’s race was won by Lucas Bruchet in 30:20, with Eric Gillis in 2nd place at 30:42 (Eric represented Canada at the 2008, 2012, & 2016 Olympics. The 10 km senior women’s race was won by Claire Sumner in 34:49.

In 2018 Lucas Bruchet repeated as senior men’s champion finishing in 29:55. The 10 km senior women’s race was won by Genevieve Lalonde in 33:47. Genevieve represented Canada at the 2016 Olympics.

How is the cheering/spectating?

Cross country is usually more spectator friendly than road races.

If you usually cheer on road runners you know that typically you pick a street corner and stand with your sign trying to spot your runner. After they go by, depending on the route and distance you might be able to hop on your bike, car, or subway to go find another spot. The race course in Kingston had a number of switchbacks which makes it fantastic for spectators.


Many cross country routes are designed so you can see someone multiple times in a single loop. On the first couple of loops the runners are so close together you can even dash across the course after the pack goes by to see them on the second half of the loop. You don’t have to choose between watching the lead runners and watching your runner. As they complete the loops you can watch the race progress, see the lead change positions or see the lead runner pulling away. This also means if you are a runner with friends cheering you on, you will see them multiple times and they will have lots of opportunities to see you and snap pictures.

For nationals, you should just plan on spending the day. Run your race, then check out some of Canada’s top runners in the Senior Men & Women’s races, watch the U18 and U20 races and check out the next generation, one of those runners may well be in the Olympics down the road. You can’t ask for a better view!

I’m an average runner, if I enter a competitive race, will I be last?

The first year I ran, I had a simple goal, not to finish last. We have some strong runners in our club. Some of them regularly win their age group and have been known to finish 1st, 2nd, or 3rd overall in local road races.  in 2017, 3 of them earned a top 3 finish in their age group at nationals. In 2018 none of them placed in their age group.

I met my goal of not finishing last both years, but both years, I was lapped by the faster runners. I finished the masters 8 km in 37:09 in 2017 and in 38:29 in 2018. For comparison, the last 10 km road race I entered, I finished in 47:51. (Huh, I hadn’t realized until now how much faster I was in 2017… I wonder if it was the footing, the headwind or the fact I had done less hill training for my fall marathon, looking back I did set a personal best on my 2017 fall marathon despite the fact it was NYC which is a tough course). I was 178th out of 220 runners. The last runner finished in 59:03. That’s about a 7:20/km or 11:45/mile pace. Masters for this race is 30 +. Nationals is more competitive than your average road race, but it’s still fun!

Been there, done that got the hoodie! If the Canadian X-Country Championships come to a town near you and you enjoy new race experiences, check it out!


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