In the end, the best summary did not come from the champions, but a 22-year-old Canadian who finished 82nd of 140 at today’s World Cross Country Championships in Aarhus, Denmark.
“It’s exciting to watch people suffer,” Rory Linkletter, a student at Brigham Young University, said minutes after the senior men’s race. “We run in the NCAA, and that’s like a track race on grass. But this is more fun for spectators, like, ‘Oh my God, you’re kidding me; they’re going to run up that?’”
By “that,” Linkletter meant the roof of the Moesgaard Museum in Aarhus—a steep, sadistic climb toward the end of the 2K loop that competitors faced five times in today’s senior races. This was just one of several unique challenges designed for the course to find not just the world’s fastest distance runner, but its toughest.
Runners had to negotiate a mud put, a six-inch deep pool of water, a section with soft sand, as well as endless undulations. After runners reached the finish, many of the world’s best were dropping to the ground like bowling pins.
Kenya’s Hellen Obiri, the reigning world 5,000-meter champion on the track, had barely drawn breath after winning the women’s title. She covered the 10.2K course in 36:14—before vowing to never do cross country again.
“It’s too difficult compared to track,” the 29-year-old said before Runner’s World asked if this was the hardest race of her life. “I think so,” she said. “The most pain.” For the sake of comparison, Obiri’s winning time was a little more than four minutes slower than the winning time in 2017.
Ethiopians Dera Dida and Letesenbet Gidey finished second and third, with Stephanie Bruce the first American woman, finishing 33rd in 39:09.
Before the race Bruce joked on Twitter that the race would finally decide what was more painful: childbirth or running cross country worlds.
“It’s still childbirth,” the mother-of-two said with a laugh. “But this is the hardest race I’ve ever done, hands down.”
For an athlete who has run multiple marathons, from New York to Boston, that was notable.
“It was true cross country and it just beat everything up; it beat your quads up, beat your calves up, it beat your heart up, and it chewed you up and spit you out if you weren’t ready. It was unforgiving.”
I passed Rose Chelimo on the last loop. She’s the 2017 World Marathon Champion. This course chewed you up and spit you out today. Hold your head up high if it wasn’t your day.
Next in for U.S. was Sarah Pagano in 50th, with Anne-Marie Blaney 51st, Karissa Schweizer 56th, Marielle Hall 58th, and Courtney Frerichs 75th.
“The pain was so overwhelming,” said Frerichs, the world silver medallist in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. “From the beginning I felt it in my legs and you start to feel sorry for yourself. I was trying to pull it together. I’m disappointed I couldn’t do better for the team.”
But despite her result, the 26-year-old was a fan of the course.
“It’s awesome,” Frerichs said. “It’s fun to get the spectators involved, to bring out the toughest in us. As hard as it was, we’re all going to be stronger for this.”
A similar theme emerged in the men’s race, where Joshua Cheptegei gained redemption to lead a Ugandan one-two ahead of Jacob Kiplimo, 31:40 to 31:44.
Two years ago, Cheptegei went into the final lap on his home turf in Kampala with a substantial lead but was reduced to a stutter, drunk with fatigue, in the final kilometer, his body shutting down in the heat.
The man who took victory that day—Kenya’s Geoffrey Kamworor—could only manage bronze here. The 2017 New York City Marathon champion was unable to keep pace with the Ugandan pair on the final lap.
The first American home was Shadrack Kipchirchir in 34th, with Stanley Kebenei 35th, Hillary Bor 60th, Emmanuel Bor 69th, Leonard Korir 73rd, and Mason Ferlic 76th.
“If cross country is going to be relevant again, they need to keep doing stuff like this,” Ferlic said. “You see the amount of people here? This is incredible.”
Ferlic, like the majority of runners, had never come across a course as challenging—or as cruel. “In terms of having to commit mentally during the race, the hardest [race],” he said. “It hurt.”
But for all the pain, the overriding reaction from athletes was positive, something the sport’s governing body (the IAAF) will be pleased about as it tries to restore the event’s popularity.
Cross country may thrive in terms of participation in U.S. high schools and colleges, but such events rarely draw big audiences, and Ferlic, a graduate of the University of Michigan, believes the NCAA needs to adopt a similar approach.
“You could take the concept of this and easily transpose it to the NCAA,” he said. “I don’t think it needs to be this challenging, but put it in places that have history, culture, scenery. Make it an event that people want to come watch.
“I say, keep on doing it like this. Get people talking about how crazy it is.”
On a day of high drama, the course proved the big talking point, claiming its share of victims.
In the men’s under-20 race, which was won in style by Ethiopia’s Milkesha Mengesha, Norwegian wunderkind Jakob Ingebrigtsen could only finish 12th, the 18-year-old unable to speak to the media afterward and being helped through the mixed zone by medics.
For the first time at the World Cross Country, members of the public were invited to race the elites, with men who have run under 33 minutes for 10K and women who have run under 37 minutes allowed to line up with the elites, then required to step off the course when in danger of being lapped.
“Horrendous,” said one male competitor who was pulled off the course just after 5K.
Some found novel ways of coping, like Australia’s Matt Ramsden, a mile specialist who was 39th in the men’s race.
“You’ve just got to ignore the pain and think of counting down the hills,” he said. “It was impossible to get any momentum. The first lap you’re hurting and you have to hold on, grit your teeth the whole way.”
Some athletes, like former NCAA star Karissa Schweizer, found it a chastening experience, the 22-year-old rolling her ankle midway through her world cross-country debut. She was unable to walk on her own after finishing and was helped away by Shalane Flanagan, her mentor at the Bowerman Track Club.
But whatever the war wounds, the reaction from athletes—and indeed spectators—was universal: It was a race they would never forget.
“An incredible experience,” Mason Ferlic said. “This will be something I’ll cherish forever.”