Talking cross-country with Canada’s elite runners

A lot of people love autumn for the beautiful colours and the cooler temperatures, but for runners, there’s another reason to love the season: cross-country running.

Cross-country, or XC, can be defined simply as a race on open-air courses over natural terrain and whether it’s on paths, over hills or through the mud, there’s something special about the feeling of going off road.

To find out what that is, we spoke with some of Canada’s best runners about why they love cross-country running, how it helps them with road racing, and some special moments they’ve had running XC.

What do you like about cross-country?

For Kelly Wiebe, who represented Canada at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in 2015, cross-country running is all about getting back to basics.

“Cross-country running is running in its most primal and natural form,” Wiebe said. “All you need to have to train for cross country are running shorts and a pair of shoes. Its simplicity is what makes it so beautiful to me.”

Its simplicity is also the reason why it’s usually the first place children learn to run—like it was for Rob Watson.

“[Cross-country] was my first taste of competitive running,” he said. “We started doing cross-country running in 2nd or 3rd grade, just a bunch of kids running around a field. It was a sport we did all the way through our school years.”

How does cross-country running help you with road racing?

Natasha Wodak finished 27th overall at the 2015 World XC Championships in Beijing and she said the training she does running cross-country makes her a stronger runner on the road.

“It’s usually raining, muddy and technical, so you’ve got to be strong and tough,” Wodak said. “I always find that in the spring I feel so strong after coming off a XC season.”

Eric Gillis, who has represented Canada three times at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, agreed.

“XC is great for building aerobic endurance for track and road athletes,” he said. “Training for XC running can include a wide variety of methods including, hills, intervals, fartlek, and tempo, as well as different surfaces.”

Running on those different surfaces is one of the keys to off-season training, according to 2014 Canadian Cross-Country Champion Rachel Hannah.

“It helps to develop different muscles and the soft surface gives the body a much needed break from the pavement and track surface,” she said.

What’s your favourite cross-country memory?

Wiebe said his favourite memory comes from the CIS championships in 2012. In his final year as a varsity athlete at the University of Regina, and after two third-place finishes in the previous years, Wiebe wanted to finish his university career on top.

“I went out as hard as I could, and ended up leading from start to finish, winning by over 30 seconds and setting a new course record,” he said. “It was the happiest moment of my entire varsity career.”

Wodak’s favourite memory comes from similar circumstances: her senior year on Simon Fraser University’s cross-country team.

“We were at the NAIA national championships in Kentucky and going into the race we were ranked seventh,” she said. “Everyone ran amazing and when we found out that we won the team title we were all so excited!”

Her first NAIA title was a huge moment for her, she said, but she does have another XC memory that holds a special place in her heart.

“Winning the Canadian XC championship in 2013,” Wodak said. “It was my first national XC title and I did here at home in Vancouver in front of my friends and family.”

Hannah’s favourite XC memory comes from 2014, when she took over the Canadian XC crown from Wodak at last year’s championships.

“I have competed at the Vancouver course for all 4 years and the memory of being in first coming into the home stretch was one of the most amazing feelings I have ever experienced,” she said.

Gillis’s favourite memory is from a bit earlier than his days of running at St. Francis Xavier University.

“My favourite memory is of my first XC season back in seventh grade, getting to eat fast food with a bus full my teammates after an away meet, I’ll never forget how cool that was,” he said.

The memories of spending time with a team are some of Watson’s favourites as well.

“My favourite cross-country memories come from the team aspect of the sport, like the long road trips with the guys during university or the brutal, lung-busting workouts done on the back roads with the dudes in Guelph,” he said.

When the days get shorter and September turns to October, these memories are never far from Watson’s mind.

“These late September days as the air turns cold and the leaves begin to fall, I can’t help but think of carelessly running through those fields and smile,” Watson said.

Get outside and go off-road

We want to thank Rachel Hannah, Eric Gillis, Nastasha Wodak, Rob Watson and Kelly Wiebe so much for sharing their thoughts on XC with us.

Be sure to follow these awesome runners on Twitter as the season kicks into high gear and some of them prepare for the 2015 Canadian Cross Country Championships this November.

But cross-country isn’t just for elite runners. If you want to give running off-road a try, Run Ottawa is hosting the annual Jim Howe Memorial Cross-Country Races on Oct. 18.

Named after Dr. Jim Howe, a community leader and avid cross-country running enthusiast, the 5K and 11K races on the fields and trails near the Gloucester Hornet’s Nest offer a great chance to get a feel for what XC is all about.

For more information and to register, visit the Jim Howe Memorial Cross Country Race event page. See you on October 18th!