Cross country running is an individual and team sport for runners who run outdoors over natural terrain that can include grass, hills, and woods. Outdoor racing dates back millennia, but the rules of contemporary cross country running were first developed in late 19th-century Britain. Women and men compete in races that typically take place during fall and winter when the regular track and field season is closed. Runners can be exposed to snow, rain, and hail. Most courses are between 2.5 and 7.5 miles (4 to 12 kilometers) long.
This track and field sport, as it is known today, was developed in Britain in the 19th century. The first official national championship was held in England in 1876, although the race was declared void because all the participants left the designated course. In 1898, England raced France in the first international cross country running competition. The official international championship was inaugurated in 1903 and renamed the World Cross Country Championships in 1973, when the event came under the jurisdiction of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).
The IAAF has not developed an international standard for cross country running courses in large part because the natural terrain varies significantly. In general, international event courses are loop courses that incorporate existing natural objects but avoid high obstacles like deep ditches and dangerous areas. An ideal cross country course does not cross a road and is undulating with smooth curves. Runners begin together at the start line, and the race may be restarted if some fall and collide within the first 328 feet (100 meters).
A cross country running team in international competition usually consists of six runners, of which only a certain number, often four, will score. An individual runner is awarded points based on his or her position after crossing the finish line. The points are added together, and the lowest-scoring team wins.
Due to the different running surfaces and terrain, teams will adopt unique strategies for each race. In some cases, it may make sense to sprint at the beginning to get clear of the crowd of runners at the start line. In other cases, runners will maintain an efficient and steady pace. Some teams will run together as a group while other teams encourage their individual runners to run their own races.
Runners who participate in cross country running events are often challenged mentally as well as physically because they subject their bodies to the course, their fellow competitors, and the elements. They often have to run through mud or snow and endure extreme temperatures without special equipment or clothing. Additionally, in many races the runners will be running in close proximity to their teammates and competitors.
Many cross country runners also participate in other road and long-distance track events during the spring and summer. Some compete in mountain running, a variation of cross country in which competitors complete difficult uphill and downhill courses. Others can test their endurance by competing in ultrarunning, or races that are longer than a traditional marathon.