The Rich (and Secret) History of Cross-Country Running

Paul L. Underwood
by Paul L. Underwood
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The Rich (and Secret) History of Cross-Country Running

It started simply enough. Andrew Hutchinson, then a grad student at Stanford, took advantage of his access to Stanford’s library to begin researching the history of the sport he loved: cross-country running. More than four years (and one 700-page draft) later, he has a new book out, “The Complete History of Cross-Country Running.” And clearly there was a need for it — the tome has already sold out its first run, and is now being reprinted.

For Hutchinson, there wasn’t initially much to go on. “The Wikipedia entry was about three lines,” he says. “It was like, ‘Where is the history?’” It turns out that history had been long neglected, thanks in part to inaccuracies in the original records kept by “The Spalding Almanac.”

Hutchinson’s book corrects those errors and traces the narrative of the sport back to its origins in the early 1800s, when Victorian Era schoolboys began playing The Hounds, a mildly rebellious running game modeled after fox hunts. (As Hutchinson writes, “Runners enjoyed sharing three great passions apart from running: eating, drinking and trespassing.”) Decade by decade, Hutchinson explains how the sport evolved from its earliest, informal days to the international behemoth it is today. Each chapter also includes a sidebar on a notable race.

The end result is a sort of secret history of his sport, and Hutchinson was kind enough to speak with us about how it came together and what he learned. From our conversation, we gleaned these five things you might not know about cross-country running:

1. IT’S AN INTERNATIONAL SPORT

Cross-country running originated in England (indeed, Elizabethan-era poetry mentions boys playing similar sports), but, with an assist from the spread of the British Empire, had become fully international by the 1890s — as the book points out, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa had governing bodies for the sport before Germany, Finland, Sweden or Belgium did. “Really it’s an international history,” Hutchinson says. “Most people don’t know how big and global and ubiquitous the sport is outside of the United States.”

2. IT’S A SPORT WITH A LONG AND STORIED PAST

Some sports evolve in fundamental ways over the years. Think of football adding the forward pass or basketball incorporating the three-point line and a shot clock. But other sports, like baseball, remain more or less unchanged over the years — and cross-country belongs in the latter category, even if people don’t always think of it in those terms. That’s why, as with baseball, some of its history and characters feel relevant even decades later, which gives Hutchinson’s book a certain timeless appeal. “This is a grassroots sport that’s stayed unchanged for 200 years and that’s what fascinates me,” he says.

3. THERE WAS A GOLDEN ERA BEFORE THE GOLDEN ERA

The popularity of running in the U.S. is often attributed to the hype around Steve Prefontaine and other distance runners before the 1972 Olympic Games. But, as Hutchinson describes in the book, there was an era before them where runners began to dedicate themselves to the sport full time, rather than using running as a form of training for other sports. “Even in the ‘40s and ‘50s, so many athletes took it seriously,” he says. “The ‘60s and ‘70s was the explosion, but it was built on the backs of athletes who ran year round.”

4. THE LEGENDS AREN’T HOUSEHOLD NAMES, BUT SHOULD BE

Speaking of Prefontaine, his story is well known thanks to a mix of his prodigious talent, his tragic early death and his depiction in several Hollywood movies. But other cross-country runners are worthy of greater renown, even those who achieved fame in their times. Hutchinson mentions David Bedford, who embodied British running in the ‘70s “with his high red socks, prominent moustache, long hair and desire for the extraordinary.” (Bedford is, among other things, a rewarding Google image search.) He also mentions Pat Porter, who won eight straight national titles in the ‘80s, and whose story Hutchinson was particularly happy to include thanks to a personal connection. “He grew up in the same town my mother grew up in,” Hutchinson says. “He came into prominence in the ‘80s, and ran at Adams State in Colorado.” Sadly, Porter also shares more than talent with Prefontaine: He died young, too, in a plane crash nearly six years ago.

5. IT’S A SPORT WHOSE STORY IS ONLY NOW BEING TOLD

Unlike, again, baseball, where every player has at least some passing knowledge of greats like Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, many cross-country athletes don’t realize the history of their sport. Teaching young athletes that they’re part of a greater tradition was one of Hutchinson’s main goals in writing the book. “For many student athletes, not many understand their place in history,” he says. “They look at it as being a fun bonding experience. It’s a magical time of life that allows you to connect with people who are just as goofy as you are. But that’s been the MO of cross-country for 200 years. They were imitating fox hunts on horseback. The goofiness, the appeal of getting muddy. That’s something that you can go anywhere in the world and people will know what you’re talking about.” Especially now that there’s a book to foster those conversations.

About the Author

Paul L. Underwood
Paul L. Underwood

Paul is a writer based in Austin, Texas. He tweets here, he Instagrams there and he posts the occasional deep thought at plunderwood.com. He’s probably working on a run mix as you read this.

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