Deena Kastor at the 2001 World Cross Country Championships (© Getty Images)
by Deena Kastor
The hardest race in the world had just become a whole lot harder.
It was March 2000, the World Cross Country Championships in Villamoura, Portugal, and I was about 500 metres into the senior women’s race when a bee flew into my mouth, stinging the back of my throat. Uh-oh.
The pain, I could deal with – it’s a given in a race like that – but gradually, as the race went on, I could feel my throat closing up. I was in the lead pack at the time, but with my body not getting enough oxygen I began to lose consciousness.
On the back side of the course I passed out, hitting the ground so hard that it kind of woke me up. My manager, Ray Flynn, had been watching on the jumbotron at the finish and they kept replaying the fall in slow motion – he could tell I was already unconscious by the way I fell.
But after I hit the ground, I popped right back up and started chasing the lead pack. I was only able to catch one girl, eventually finishing 12th. Not the result I wanted, but as good as I could manage under the circumstances.
That’s the thing about this event: even when you show up ready, it can still chew you up and spit you out.
But when it comes to building strength, nothing is better than cross country.
I remember my first World Cross, the 1990 edition in Aix-les-Bains, France. I was 16, a girl from California running her first international race. I felt that was such a privilege, to wear the US uniform and be with athletes from all over the world in a celebration of the sport.
Up to that point, I always got out of the gates hard and would be in the lead, but there I went out of the gates as hard as I could and the entire world was in front of me – it was eye-opening.
I finished 72nd in that junior race, more than 90 seconds behind the winner, which made me feel I had a lot of progressing to do. But that excited me. It made me feel that thrill of competition in a bigger way and that was the beginning of my Olympic dreams to run with the best in the world.
Before the race our coach said to us: "When you’re lining up in those starting corrals, every single one of you has earned your right to be there."
It was a good lesson in feeling like I belonged even if, when the gun went off, I felt like I was being devoured. But I also fought every step of the way and it gave me a drive to come back, to improve on that performance.
And I did come back, again and again, until I eventually got on the podium as a senior.
I loved cross country from the start, getting my first taste of it at the age of 12, running through the parks and the Santa Monica mountains where I grew up. My first ever airplane ride was for a cross country meet, to North Carolina later that year for the national championships, which I won.
I don’t know if I loved it because I was talented at it or if I was talented at it because I loved it so much, but either way I never lost that love.
For years, the World Cross Country Champs was my benchmark of progress, inching my way from 30th to 25th, from 21st to 16th – a slow journey to try to become the best in the world.
Over the years, I found that if I followed just one denomination of the sport – just track or just roads – my strength seemed to suffer. Cross country just brought out a strength, an endurance, a grit, that no other training could duplicate so we put it back on my schedule to make me strong again. In every season it worked – it made me stronger, more resilient, more enduring.
It also had something we, as distance-runners, didn’t get in other areas of the sport: running as a team.
Cross country brings an onus that you’re representing something so much more than yourself – you’re representing your teammates, your country, your community, your family. The coaches I was mentored by always said that, that we need to represent those communities in the best way we know how.
There’s also that element of chaos, and part of the joy is being able to run in sloppy, nasty conditions or hurdle hay bales.
I remember Ostend in 2001 was so nasty, the mud being so thick and suctioning your shoes right off your feet. In Dublin in 2002, we expected conditions like that but it was bone-dry, firm grass, more like a track circuit than a cross country fight.
But wherever they’re been hosted, it’s represented the countries they’re in in such a great way.
One of my most memorable was in Marrakesh, Morocco, because in a time when the world seemed so similar through trade and the internet, it felt like stepping back in time to be bartering for spices in the marketplace and eating with your hands at a vendor. That was a transformative experience to be able to so richly experience the world we were visiting.
In that 2000 race in Portugal when I got stung by the bee, the US won its first women’s team medal and that was really exciting, even if my search for an individual medal went on for another couple of years.
It finally arrived in Dublin in 2002, where I got out-kicked by Paula Radcliffe for the senior women’s title. A year later in Lausanne I finished second again, but I was happier with my performance because I had fought the entire way to try match the speed of Worknesh Kidane, but I just couldn’t.
Over the years, I began to realise my most successful road racing or track seasons always followed cross country.
It develops persistence, grit, resiliency. Strength-wise, it gives your feet and ankles and hips a lot of strength and flexibility and mobility that no other style of training can duplicate. You can’t get functionally strong like that in the weight room or by running on the road – it takes that cross-country-style running to build that.
These days, the World Cross Country has changed, going back to just one race instead of the long and short options they had in my day. That’s definitely a good thing, because when they split the races into 4K and 8K I always felt that diluted the feeling of being a world champion or a world silver medallist.
I like good old head-to-heads – throw everyone in together. The beauty of cross country is seeing who wins: the milers or the 10K runners or the marathoners?
It was always fun to see that, and it will be again this weekend. It’s fantastic that the organisers in Aarhus are being innovative and finding ways to get more people to participate. If we can get more young runners out there, it could be the gateway into the sport for their future.
They’ll learn all about the pain, the pleasure and the value of persistence in a race that’s like nothing else in the world.