I love cross-country running. I love cross-country so much I wrote the book on its history — spending over four years researching, writing, and revising a story I knew needed to be told to the masses. It’s a sport that sees well over half a million participants domestically every season (with total global participation numbering in the millions) — yet finds itself in a precarious and uncertain situation among the distance-running elite — coaches and athletes desperately wish it was more competitive, more lucrative, and more widely received.
What makes cross-country so well-loved? There are many reasons: the vernal autumnal landscape, deep in nature, away from the track; the team atmosphere in training, racing and improving toward a common goal; the relative simplicity in its manner and execution; the individual effort required to be successful; even its relative exclusion from spectators. These elements all combine to compliment a distance running experience that has an important and storied place in the wider reach of athletics.
But right now, the important event of note is the marathon, and most recently, the professional pursuit of lowering the record of running one under two hours. With the prestige of large prize purses, course-record possibilities, and large participant fields propelling this particular event into the spotlight (with little wonder why it’s such a big deal among runners these days, among all walks of life) — a niche barrier-breaking attempt — orchestrated by Nike and Adidas each — was seen as a pseudo distraction at best, one where scientists and experts put the likelihood of dipping under this “impossible” two-hour target at between 0.1 and 15%.
But the result of Nike’s #Breaking2 effort was far from impossible however. Millions watched live on May 6th (the anniversary of Sir Roger Bannister’s record-setting mile) as Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge soldiered through kilometer after kilometer at a suicidal pace, aided by Nike-sponsored teammates, away from noisy spectators, deep in the natural Monza locale in Italy on a prepared course, with the sole purpose of doing something no individual had ever done before. The live worldwide video stream, which used visual aids, expert commentary and analysis, dramatic expositions about the training of the athletes, and celebrity cameos, turned the two-hour record attempt into a spectacle of note that was seamless in delivering entertainment value. Kipchoge would cross the line in a nearly inhuman 02:00:25.
In short, this event demonstrated exactly what has been lacking in cross-country running, despite the many obvious parallels between the two: athletes and teams in cross-country needed to face the marketing failures of the sport head on, and correct them to match the appeal of a worldwide audience. If they believed in the sport like Nike believed in this record attempt, everything would change.
The question was how — and more relevant, why care? To put the “how” question succinctly, the answer was in the direct delivery Nike used to popularize and engage its audience with the Breaking2 attempt. Elite cross-country running, whether constituted locally, nationally or globally, could benefit from the dramatic backstory emphasizing the team element (something unique among distance running done in other formats), the pedigree of the athletes present, and the unique course conditions. The value of winning or breaking “impossible” efforts could also be better emphasized at the world level: the IAAF World Cross Country Championships had been a dual-meet of sorts between talented East African nations, while much of the rest of the world languished in sending their best athletes. It was more than possible to build “hype” the way Nike built their Breaking2 attempt.
This potential was even high to deliver an entertaining experience within the budgets of national federations or even the IAAF. Sponsorship was available too — if companies like Nike could execute a non-record-legal marathon attempt sans-competition, then surely other companies might find value in promoting the “World’s Toughest Footrace” featuring athletes from all distance running specialties racing against each other.
Other ‘niche’ sports, from Obstacle Course Racing to Motocross, made the athlete the centerpiece and didn’t shy away from including fans up close or telling the backstory (similar to how Nike approached their campaign with Breaking2). Plus, cross-country running had the added prestige of having been an Olympic event, a fact that would undoubtedly make it more relevant should it find itself in that arena again. The Olympics helped marathon running gain widespread popularity this way.
And while these solutions only graced the tip of the iceburg in how to deliver a better, more comprehensive and meaningful cross-country experience — it led to a greater question: why did it matter? Well, cross-country featured pure competition at both an individual and team level — plus it was the most global and accessible of all sports. It would reach an audience of young people who were capable of breaking the next set of records, ones proven to be important no matter the context. And in delivering the #Breaking2 experience, the world saw that it mattered. The opportunity was ripe for cross-country to do the same.