Michael Pavitt

There is a moment annually when on a generally dark and dreary day in the build-up to Christmas and the New Year, either myself or my Dad will utter the words "Do you remember that cross-country in Stebbing?"

From memory, the race in question took place on New Year's Day around seven or eight years ago as part of the not so illustrious Mid-Essex Cross-Country League. I remember rocking up at Grange Farm in the village thinking it would be similar to every other cross-country race I had run.

I was wrong.

There is a reason that one of the recent mentions of the race has been referred to as the "infamous Stebbing".

A first sign that the event might be slightly different to anything I had previously encountered came on the start-line. As comfortably the shortest runner, there was a joke that I would require arm bands to complete the course.

Still comprehending the idea that I would require flotation aids to take part in a running event, the buzzer went off and a group of rather daft athletes began striding out on the opening section of the run.

The first major realisation of the challenge to come came when turning around the first corner to pleasantly discover that some of the faster runners were not as far ahead of me as I would have expected.

However, it may have been due to them being delayed by having to negotiate the dual challenge of running and plotting a way through a bog.

Chasing down people in front became rather challenging when, with every step forward, the mud below made increasingly concerted efforts to peel your spikes off your feet.

The recent European Cross-Country Championships took place on a relatively boring course ©Getty Images
The recent European Cross-Country Championships took place on a relatively boring course ©Getty Images

Thankfully, you were able to clear some mud off during the next segment in which you ran directly through a river, during one of the coldest months of the year. More mud was then caked on at another relentless bog section.

It was clear that the nature of the course levelled the playing field considerably. Some runners who were comfortably better than me were now alongside, given my nimbler way of darting through some of the obstacles. There were others, as well, who I saw walking back to the start having been beaten by the elements.

Pushing through woodland and uphill parts also proved far more problematic having become heavy-legged from the constant battles with mud and the lack of rhythm it caused to your running style.

The highlight came close to the end at another river crossing. On approach, I remember questioning why such a large crowd had gathered around this one particular part of the course. A clue was given seconds later, when a much larger man hit the water, which promptly went up to his chest.

Unable to stop in time, I ended up diving into the river and becoming fully submerged. I am not sure whether armbands would have proved much assistance, but I ended up swimming to the other side. One step closer to completing a triathlon, I ended up crawling my way up the other side of the riverbank.

The reward when you eventually reached the finish turned out to be a delightful hose down with yet more cold water to begin the cleansing off of the mud-ridden troupe of runners.

Out of all the cross-country races I have run, the Stebbing race has remained comfortably the most memorable and enjoyable.

Courses need to be more interesting to attract spectators ©Getty Images
Courses need to be more interesting to attract spectators ©Getty Images

For the most part, races were frankly quite boring. You could find yourself running around one field to emerge into another field, before continuing the next part of the course in another field. Some occasional woodland and a steep hill would break-up some monotony.

I caught up with some of the action from the European Cross-Country Championships a couple of days ago and had flashbacks to those kinds of races.

The event in Šamorín was essentially held on a field. Yes, the Slovakian organisers had included a water jump and hurdle for runners to contend with. However, they merely stepped over it without breaking stride on almost every occasion. They appeared to be the most token of obstacles, which added very little to the actual event.

I believe it was the 2014 edition of the event at Samokov in Bulgaria, where the main obstacle was a small log placed across one part of the course. You were left wondering “why did they even bother?"

There are other problems with cross-country races, with the most pressing continuing to be the issues surrounding athletes' allegiances to countries. However, I feel there needs to be a greater challenge provided by courses to ensure a much larger spectacle.

If races are largely taking place on a field, the fastest runners are likely to come out on top every single time. Which would be the same case on the road and track. I am not asking for cross-country to be turned into Total Wipeout, but the discipline needs to offer something different.

More challenging obstacles could increase the entertainment provided in races ©Getty Images
More challenging obstacles could increase the entertainment provided in races ©Getty Images

As a runner, if I am finding running around a field to be fairly boring, you can be sure that it is far more boring for those watching. By contrast, there was a reason why a large group of people surrounded part of a river in Stebbing on a freezing cold January day. They knew there was a spectacle to be had. Watching people pile into the water was clearly entertaining, with people watching as much for the amusement as they were for the race itself.

There was also the additional intrigue of seeing how the best runners would cope when five kilograms of mud were added to their shoes, as they tackled a bog and ploughed fields.

Even national championships seem to offer a more challenging course than some of the international events do. For instance, Parliament Hill, the semi-regular home of the English Cross-Country Championships, sends the elite races off on the same course that has had hundreds of age group runners churn it up for hours beforehand.

A Telegraph report from the 2015 National Championships quoted an observer of the race as likening the hoarding masses to Ben Hur.

There is something both slightly mad and distinctly enjoyable about events like that. One wonders why a low-level race and National Championships can show off the discipline at its muddiest and most challenging, yet the international competitions cannot seem to do the same.