By Len Johnson
I love the world cross-country championships. At a personal level, however, I can take cross-country or leave it.
If you are a regular reader, the first statement will come as no surprise. The second may, but it speaks more to the personal and my own performances than cross-country in general.
Cross-country was the least productive category among my modest running achievements. Marathon, then track, were greater strengths and would account for 15 of my top-10 career performances! I had good days on the road and track, no more than good moments over the country.
Neither the road nor the oval encapsulated the peak period in my running life in the same way that the world cross-country did.
World cross-country was there at the start of my running career, there at the finish (of my serious running phase) and is a continuing part of my role as journalist, tourist and travelling spouse to this very day. From Morocco, 1975, through to Aarhus 2019 and, now, to Bathurst 2023.
I ran my first marathon in the 1976 Victorian championships. The race followed an out-and-back course from Point Cook air force base. The route encompassed market gardens, sea-front and for reasons which still defy logic, a short, sharp rise over the Melbourne-Geelong highway to the turnaround, then immediately up and over again at the start of the return journey.
That same year I travelled to the Montreal Olympic Games and on to Europe. A chance meeting at a ferry terminal on the shores of a Norway fjord led to an invitation to train with the Pat Cloches’ ‘pack’ on my return to Melbourne.
In cross-country history, this was a year after Australia’s first full team appearance at a world cross-country championships – the 1975 edition in Rabat, Morocco – and a year before its second appearance in Dusseldorf, Germany in 1977.
John Axsentieff had run in Morocco and also issued the training invitation, but he withdrew from the training group to focus on a career in finance (and triathlon!). As a consequence, I knew no-one, spoke rarely, but listened intently for my first year. The experience of Morocco and Montreal and the prospect of Dusseldorf dominated the conversation.
Melbourne’s 1977 winter was a very wet one, but as I laboured through ankle-deep mud and slush in the Athletics Victoria cross-countries, I was at the same time absorbing tales of the team trips to Morocco and Germany. Chris Wardlaw, Dave Chettle, Tim O’Shaughnessy and Rob de Castella had all competed in Rabat, Dusseldorf – or both; Lynne Williams had run in the first team but for some strange reason, no women’s team was selected for Germany.
Pat Clohessy and Chris Wardlaw were both strong believers in the role of cross-country in general (and the world cross-country in particular) in the development of Australian distance runners. The Pack’s impact reached its high point in 1981 when five of the men’s team of nine were regular pack members as were three of the six women. We all had a share of the reflected glory when ‘Deek’ finished sixth in the men’s race, the first Aussie to crack the top-10 in the big race.
My own cross-country performances had improved marginally by the time of the next championships in Gateshead in 1983. The trial race was in Sydney’s Centennial Park in mid-January, just after the annual Falls Creek sojourn. Ten days before it was due I had blitzed the training group over ten hilly kilometres along the Bogong High Plains Rd from the western end of the aqueduct back to Langford’s Gap.
I was in career-best form. I Coodabeen a contender (though probably not a team member). Instead, I was home, running at Ferny Creek when the trial was run in Sydney.
From that point on, it’s been writing and spectating. I went to my first championships in Lisbon in 1985. Three vivid memories – the training camp on the Algarve where the Portuguese, English, Swedish and Australian teams prepared including superstars Carlos Lopes and Rosa Mota, and two from race day: first, the late Sharon Dalton coming on to the gravel run-in to the finish line in the top -10 but dropping back to a still-good 20th in the last 100 metres as desperate opponents threw themselves at, and through the finish line. Then, the men’s race with 200 in the lead pack first time past the post, 100 the second time, 50 the third and still 20 at the start of the final lap before Carlos Lopes sprinted away to victory.
The Age sent me to two championships, the 1988 edition in Auckland was hardly surprising. No more expensive than covering an AFL game in Perth, but the following year’s trip to Stavanger in Norway was a shock. I still remember the editorial manager telling me how lucky I was and it was just as well “Deek and Lisa (Ondieki) were running.”
They weren’t, but Jackie Perkins and Steve Moneghetti saved the day finishing fifth and fourth in the women’s and men’s races and successively becoming the highest placed Australian at world cross-country.
Fukuoka in 2006 was a week after the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games. Benita Willis was the star, fourth in both the long and short-course women’s races and taking Australia to a team bronze in the latter.
Amman, Jordan in 2009 and the course was the highlight. Al-Bisharat golf course conjured up visions of well-cut grass and manicured greens. It was nothing of the sort as the course picked its way through rocky tracks through dirt and desert sand. A February dump of snow and late spring thaw made Bydgoszcz 2010 a slog through mud rather than a canter round the park while sun, hurdles and numerous twists and turns made the well-kept grass of the purpose-built circuit. in the Spanish beach resort of Punta Umbria a lot harder than first impressions made it look.
Finally, Aarhus in 2019, with its circuit featuring mud, dirt, punishing climbs and swooping descents changed the game again. We’ve had to wait two extra years for Bathurst23, but I’m sure it’s going to be worth it. I’ve had it with cross-country myself, but my love affair with world cross-country ain’t ending any time soon.