Robert De Castella on his way to winning the Gold Medal in the Men's Marathon event during the 1982 Commonwealth Games (© Mandatory Credit: Allsport Australia/ALLSPORT)
Most people would know Rob de Castella as a marathoner. Gold medallist in the marathon at the first World Championships in Helsinki in 1983, dual Commonwealth Games gold medallist, and a World Record win in the marathon at Fukuoka in 1981
But ‘Deek’ forged his competitive fires at the World Cross Country Championships. His first Australian team and first overseas trip, just a week or two after his twentieth birthday, was to the 1977 Cross Country in the German city of Düsseldorf.
You wrote your own race reports back then and fellow team member Chris Wardlaw reported of his young training partner’s performance: “’Deek,’ we think was the youngest runner in the field. Placing 37th with so little experience was a superlative effort.
“His cross-country ability is now well-established,” Wardlaw continued before predicting – correctly – “he will make our next teams without any worry.”
De Castella ran for Australia in the World Cross Country eight more times, highlighted by three top-10 finishes. He was sixth in Madrid in 1981 – Australia’s first top-10 – tenth in Rome the following year and sixth again in Gateshead in 1983.
But it was Dusseldorf 1977 which made a great impression on the young de Castella. Pat Clohessy – Deek’s career-long coach – was team manager on a tour which began with warm-up races in the (West) German and Belgian Championships. Despite the Australian summer to European winter transition triggering an outbreak of colds, it was a great experience, ‘Deek’ says now.
“The camaraderie, the travel in a large group, is special. A group of distance runners only.”
Of the race itself, he says that he was advised to get out fast and keep going fast. “It’s just going out and getting swamped. You go lactic in the first 200 metres and stay lactic the rest of the race.”
World Cross Country trips are more targeted these days, losing both the lead-up races and the post-Championships race at the famous Italian Cross Country Cinque Mulini – a race which traverses fields, farmyards, river banks and the surviving two of five working mills which gave the race its name – was run the week after the World Cross Country and the Australian team competed.
The historic significance of his first sixth place notwithstanding, de Castella still ranks his 1983 Gateshead performance more highly.
“Gateshead was by far my best run,” he recalls. “I was leading for parts of the race (including a section of the final lap), running against Carlos Lopes and the Africans.”
The cliché of the unknown African runner held true then, especially with teams of nine in the men’s senior race. Little-known Ethiopian runner Bekele Debele out-sprinted Lopes with Kenya’s Some Muge third. All were given the same time. De Castella was only eight seconds back in sixth place.
The World Cross Country was the precursor to a big year. A week later, de Castella won the Cinque Mulini race. Then, a couple more weeks after that he defeated Lopes and Alberto Salazar to win the Rotterdam marathon before going on to his World Championships marathon victory four months later. Not a bad sort of year.
De Castella will be in Bathurst for the World Cross Country
“World Cross Country is an incredibly important event,” says de Castella. It’s so bloody tough, depth and quality from 1500 runners through to the marathon.
“The size of the field, the pace, there’s nothing else quite like it. It’s inspirational, but also sobering.”
Distance runners have more options now when it comes to race and that has impacted the World Cross Country, too. But de Castella says the appeal of cross country lies in its simplicity and accessibility.
“So many kids, even in remote areas, have a cross country. Track is more difficult to organise with equipment and officials, which makes school cross-country so important for grass-roots development.
“Everyone can relate to their school cross country.”
Bathurst will be the first World Athletics Cross Country Championship in four years as the Covid19 pandemic forced two postponements. De Castella wants to see the event go off well.
“On the world stage, there is nothing like the world cross-country. For Australia to host it is a great honour.”
By Len Johnson for WXC Bathurst 2023