Endless winter laps around waterlogged or frozen sports fields: most people, when asked about their memories of school cross-country running, tend to go grey at the very mention of it. Bar a small handful of individuals (generally deemed ‘freaks’ or ‘weirdos’), cross-country for most people remains a mere footnote in the sporting annals.
Not so, however, at a number of schools where cross-country running has historically played a pivotal role, as important and respected as the more traditional team games of rugby, hockey, football and lacrosse. Central to the status of cross-country at these schools is an annual school race. And three races in particular would make it onto my podium: Rugby’s Crick, Shrewsbury’s Tucks and Sedbergh’s Wilson Run.
The Tucks race, 1923
William Webb Ellis ensured that his school would forever be associated with a particular oval-balled game, but Rugby School has an equally distinguished history in cross-country. Indeed, the school can claim to be one of the oldest established clubs in the country, with records going back to the mid-1830s. Rugby’s annual run, The Crick, has an impressive heritage: 2015 will see the 177th running of the event.
Originally, the event covered 14 miles, and a newspaper account of one early run describes how “one by one the runners struggle in and limp off to their respective quarters to be rewarded with a snug seat by the hall fire and the pleasures of fighting their battles over again to an admiring audience.” The modern route, covering 10 miles, is run by girls and boys, plus a fair number of parents, staff and Old Rugbeians.
Vying for the historical bragging rights is Shrewsbury School’s Tucks Run, which can also trace its roots to the 1830s. Shrewsbury’s famous running club, The Hunt, is in fact the world’s oldest, with records going back to 1831. One such run, The Long, was a full 14 miles, perhaps bidding to outdo their Midlands neighbours to the east. However, the most prominent is The Tucks for the simple fact that, uniquely, it is run by all pupils. A much shorter run than The Crick at a mere three miles, the sheer scale of the event (over 650 competitors) makes it such a spectacle.
Historically, the event was held on the same day as the Shrewsbury Races in order to keep boys away from the latter, with the run traversing the fields of Farmer Tucks and ending with his wife’s home-brewed ale and cider (this tradition has, sadly, ceased). The Hector Rose Bowl, meanwhile, is the much-coveted winner’s award.
If The Crick wins the prize for Oldest Run and The Tucks wins the Mass Participation award, Sedbergh School’s Wilson Run certainly wins the Most Gruelling category. Also known as Ten Mile, it has been raced largely over the same route ever since 1881. Like The Crick, this is not a whole-school event and for very good reason: it’s tough. For those Sedberghians who wish to tackle the Wilson Run, a training course must be completed within a set qualifying time. Open only to boys and girls over the age of 16, the race is not for the faint-hearted: this year’s race was run against a backdrop of snowfall, not unfamiliar on the Cumbrian hills.
Like The Crick and The Tucks, The Wilson Run is a major event in the school calendar, and to conquer the famous course is to stand shoulder to shoulder with Sedbergh heroes of old. In a touching nod to its past victors, this year’s event was started by the oldest surviving winner of the race, TH Pick, who won by just one second in 1945.
2014 winner Charlie Tait-Harros with Kenyan Olympic gold medallist John Ngugi
There are no doubt other schools around the country with a strong cross-country tradition. As The Crick, The Tucks and The Wilson Run show, cross-country running doesn’t have to be a chore. It can be exhilarating, challenging, a source of pride. Who knows, perhaps cross-country won’t be condemned as a footnote in the sporting annals after all.
Peter Middleton is Master in Charge of Shrewsbury School’s cross-country club, The Hunt. Contact www.shrewsbury.org.uk