I recently became aware of an interesting divergence of philosophies regarding competition trails for cross country running and Nordic skiing. Some time ago, I was invited to consult on the creation of a national caliber, cross country running venue in Louisville, Kentucky. A new race course was to be part of an ambitious, nationally prominent, urban park and created with an eye toward hosting major national and even international cross country running events.
The University of Louisville, famous for its impressive sports programs, including successful football and NCAA championship basketball teams, is also noted for its excellent cross country runners. Their coach boasts years of experience at the elite level of the sport.
Therefore, it came as a surprise to me when he suggested the course should be “flat and fast.” Typically, cross country courses reflect the local terrain and topography of the specific location. In other words, elite runners competing in Kansas or Indiana would expect a relatively flat race course while athletes running a course in West Virginia or Vermont would expect hillier terrain. It is the endless variety of the various courses that is one of the attractive aspects of the sport.
The Louisville coach suggested I visit the Lavern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course in Terra Haute, Indiana which has hosted many competitions, including several NCAA Championship events. I was both impressed and a bit puzzled by what I found. The Gibson venue is a jackpot for spectators who can see virtually the entire race course from near the start/finish. The site consists of 280 acres of reclaimed coal mine and land fill, purposely devoid of trees or anything that would obstruct the view of the spectators. The course is virtually straight and relatively level for nearly the entire first kilometer, giving the athletes plenty of distance to sort themselves out from the starting line to the first turn.
But what really surprised me about the championship course in Terra Haute is that it is relatively flat. Although the site might be described as very gently rolling, there is nothing on the course that a runner from Vermont would describe as a hill. Later, the Louisville coach confirmed that the current trend in elite, cross country running is for fast times, which translates into flat courses.
An interesting side note to this refinement of the sport is the desire for a uniform, preferably grass running surface. Although cross country running evolved a century ago in Great Britain on rough, hilly trails complete with stream crossings and vaulting of stone walls, more recently in America, the only available open area in urban communities was the golf course. As a result, cross country in the States often meant running down manicured fairways, which has become a desired attribute of championship trails designed for the sport. A cynical traditionalist might complain that cross country running has become a track meet on grass.
In contrast, cross country ski racing has headed in the opposite direction. Anyone who watched the Nordic skiing events of the recent Sochi Olympic Games had to be aware of the increased technical and physical challenge of the courses. It was not long ago that a typical cross country ski course consisted of 1/3 climb, 1/3 descent and 1/3 relatively flat skiing. Except for a few hundred meters at the start/finish area, the level skiing has disappeared from the equation. Modern ski trails focus on physically punishing climbs often followed by fast, sometimes technical descents. Thanks in part to the warm temperatures, inconsistent snow conditions, and especially challenging courses, Olympic Nordic enthusiasts saw a relatively high number of falls, some of them resulting in injuries, during the Sochi Games.
I believe this tendency to increase the difficulty of the world caliber Nordic ski courses is driven by two factors. First, the capability of the elite athlete has steadily, and dramatically improved. Barely a generation ago the men’s 50-kilometer event was a monumental survival test that could take four hours. Now, thanks to advancements in ski construction, waxing technology and snow grooming in addition to the capabilities of the athletes, the Sochi 50k seemed more like a sprint with more than a dozen racers in contention for a medal.
The second factor, for better or worse, is television. All Olympic sports are competing with each other for air time and it’s clear that the viewing audience enjoys the rough and tumble of snowboard cross and the new (probably made for TV) slope style.
I find it interesting that two sports (cross country running and cross country skiing) with similar origins and attracting many of the same athletes, seem to have taken such dramatically divergent courses in terms of trail design.