Photo: Bryn Lennon (Getty)

Jakob Larsen, director of Danish Athletics, revealed at the pre-race press conference that the guiding concept behind the design of the 2019 World Cross Country Championships course was a scene from the movie Crocodile Dundee. “That’s not a knife; this is a knife,” says our man of the outback in the film’s most memorable scene. Thus, this is not a cross country course:

Photo: Jason McCawley (Getty)

This is a cross country course:

Photo: Lone Dybdal

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World Cross Country (WXC), held March 30 in Aarhus, Denmark, has a reputation as the toughest race in the world, loosing masses of the best runners of every stripe—milers, steeplechasers, mountain runners, marathoners—on long kilometers of grass, mud, water, sand, snow, what have you, all tilted and twisted at unfriendly angles. Back in the day, before cross country came under the auspices of the IAAF, races were held on a farm, the proprietor preparing the course by plowing it up and watering the exposed clods. It’s in March which, depending on the location, can provide oppressive heat, raw cold, and if all goes well, horizontal sleet. The terrain, the weather, the competition—all of that, full strength. It’s brutal and beautiful because nature is brutal and beautiful. No need for Tough Mudder gimmicks.

But cross country courses, World Cross included, have become sanitized of late—flatter, faster, tamer. Partly to honor their bare-chested Viking heritage and partly to get back to the essence of cross country, the Aarhus 2019 organizing committee and Danish Athletics took the area’s natural gifts and used them to forge their knife. WXC hadn’t been held on a course this challenging since the 2008 competition in Edinburgh—competitors volunteered, this year’s course was a beast.

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Aarhus is very hilly to begin with, but runners were given the added challenge of soft sand speed bumps, sucking mud pits, a calf-deep water hole, and hairpin turns designed to break pace and rhythm. The course really opened wounds when it presented a steep downhill and a sharp, outwardly canted (thus, momentum-killing) turn that transitioned straight into a 10-percent grade up the turf roof of Moesgaard Museum, which is built into the side of a hill.

Photo: Lone Dybdal

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After 100 meters of nearly hands-on-knees climbing, runners turned left and may have imagined things would get easier. But what’s this? A big stinking sand pit finished what the hill started. Wobbling knees ricocheted off each other, some Irish dancing ensued, followed immediately by a windmilling descent and hairpin turn at the bottom.

Competitors in the men’s senior race come off the museum roof into a hairpin turn. Photo: Lars Moller

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That’s one 2K lap. Senior men and women did that five times; U20 men took four laps, and U20 women went three times through the gauntlet. A mixed relay (two men, two women) attracted 800 and 1,500 meter specialists who were lured into going full bore since they only had to make one lap.

Reaction to the course from the runners I spoke to was overwhelmingly positive, if respectful. They described the course as “killer,” a “beast,” and, after a bit of recovery,“fun.” One told me it was the hardest thing she’d endured short of childbirth. This, from people for whom ten miles easy is a thing.

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The course claims a New Zealander. Photo: Sarah Barker

“It was nothing but momentum breaks,” said 2:29 marathoner Stephanie Bruce, who was the first senior woman for Team USA. “If anything, the roof was the easiest part because at least it was unchanging for 100 meters. It was a marathon, a marathon that used energy systems like a 10K. Definitely the hardest race I’ve ever done. I thought I went out conservatively in the first lap—maybe 75th place—and I wasn’t passing anybody. Then by halfway, I was about 50th and ended up 33rd, so I’m happy with that. It was great because it was pure competition. Times were out the window. I think I saw a 2K time of seven minutes. I was like okay, what does that mean?”

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Steeplechaser Mason Ferlic, sixth for Team USA in senior men’s race and surprisingly articulate for having just left semi-vital organs out on a Danish hillside, said, “What we can take from this course is that it’s part of the natural environment, and it has cultural significance. Take cross country off golf courses. If the course has cultural and historical relevance, that’s what will make it more than just about performance.”

Photo: Lone Dybdal

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WXC is a spectacle of flags and fans and colorful gear. This year’s event drew 582 athletes from 67 countries including running capitols—Ethiopia, Kenya, USA, Great Britain, Spain—and unexpected quarters—Kirghizistan, Kazakhstan, Seychelles, Malta.

You don’t watch cross country from a seat in the stands, you’re part of it. Spectators dash to different vantage points along the course as runners flash by mere inches away, sweeping you up into the fray. Their struggle is your struggle—that’s your heart pounding and lungs burning as the pack leans into the hill. And after her race, the steeplechase world champion may be standing next to you watching for her teammate. An Olympic gold medalist shoulders into the crowd along the final stretch.

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Impossibly fast and fit as they are, this sort of proximity shows world class athletes as, in fact, human. They grimace like regular people, fiddle with their phones like regular people, and sometimes, agonizingly, their bodies fail like regular people’s do.

In 2017, 20-year-old Joshua Cheptegei of Uganda was leading the World Cross Country Championships by a wide margin with only 2,000 meters to go. Running on home soil in Kampala, Cheptegei had left defending champion and race favorite Geoffrey Kamworor behind, and was leading his team to an upset victory over perennial powerhouse, neighboring Kenya. It was any athlete’s dream. Did I mention it was 82 degrees?

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But just a few strides into his final 2K stretch, Cheptegei was reduced to a stagger. In the literal and figurative heat of the moment, he’d ignored signals to slow down. Edging past 104 degrees internally, his brain made the executive decision to shut down muscular control to save his life. Unbelievably, even though the last 600 meters took him a horrifying four minutes, he crossed the line under his own power and was the fourth scorer for Uganda, giving the team the bronze medal. But still, this is the type of nightmare a runner only has to go through once.

Cut to March 30, 2019, in Aarhus. The U20 Ugandan men had already earned a silver medal and the senior women a bronze, so hopes were high for team Uganda when Cheptegei stepped to the line at 2:00 p.m.

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His teammate, the ever-smiling 19-year-old Jacob Kiplimo, did much of the early work at the front but Cheptegei was there, his face calm. The Ugandans were joined by Kenyan Geoffrey Kamworor, a two-time WXC champion, Ethiopian Selemon Barega and other threats, but this time, unlike 2017, Cheptegei stayed a few steps behind. Kamworor accomplished the first 2K lap in 6:30, Cheptegei in 6:33. And so it went, sweeping around turns, floating over shifting sand, unfazed by the mud, all at a pace so far outside what seems humanly possible, you could only laugh.

Photo: Sarah Barker

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About 20 contenders, all East African, were confident they could hang on for 8K, four laps. That’s just running. But the fifth lap, the bell lap, that’s when the racing started. Oh goodness, the carnage.

Let’s use one brave soul as an example: Kenyan Amos Kirui completed his first lap in 6:35, slowed down slightly on each succeeding lap, and tottered through the last circuit like he had a bear on his back, finishing it in 7:18. He ended up placing 38th, which means he was excellent, but human.

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That’s not how it works up front. Cheptegei (who, by the way, set the world record at 15K in November 2018—41:05), Kiplimo, and Kamworor increased pace slightly (not extravagantly as Cheptegei had in 2017) on the second lap and the third, but of course that increase came off a pace that had already claimed 90 percent of the 140-man field, the best runners other countries could put forward. Cheptegei went 6:16 for the second lap and 6:11 on the third. Kiplimo and Kamworor mirrored within a second or two. Maybe the youngster Kiplimo got impatient, or maybe he and Cheptegei plotted together to get clear of the pretenders, but regardless, Kiplimo cranked a blistering 6:08 fourth lap. Only Kamworor (6:09), and Cheptegei (6:10) answered, and it was a three-man race from there.

Two-thousand meters to go. Memories of 2017 must have weighed heavily on Cheptegei, but this time he was not heading for a cliff; he was in control, executing a plan. The two Ugandans ran side-by-side, the Kenyan in their wake. Then Cheptegei went to the front. It was a wondrous example of thousands of hours of training, and millions of actions and synapses coming together in perfect synchrony—a master in the flow.

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At first the gap was slight, but with every stretch of sand, every bit of awkwardly canted ground, Kamworor looked less smooth. He fell back. The Ugandans had gotten through the water and were working their way up one of many hills by the time Kamworor hit the water. It was undeniable—the two-time WXC and three-time World Half Marathon Champion was beaten.

Kenyan Geoffrey Kamworor with about 1000 meters to go. Right is a lapped runner. Photo: Lone Dybdal

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Cheptegei, still smooth and strong, completed the fifth circuit in 6:30 and won the day. Kiplimo’s final lap, in 6:37, put him second across the line behind his countryman, and Kamworor, accomplishing the fifth lap in 6:47, came home third.

At the post-race press conference, a subdued but gracious Kamworor said, “I was aiming for gold and I gave it all, so I have to be happy with bronze. I have to congratulate my good friend Joshua Cheptegei. Though I didn’t win gold, there is always a next time.”

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Reminded by reporters of his 2017 debacle, Cheptegei laughed: “I can say that nobody wanted this gold medal more than me. I was young and inexperienced, though I was actually in better shape in 2017 than I am now. But now I am experienced.” Asked about the magic that allowed him to prevail over both the course and the Kenyans he said, “My manager and my coach, that is my magic. The course was a beast, a killer for sure. On the last lap, I had to endure. But we are fortunate to live in a place with lots of hills, so my preparation was good.”

There is one more explanation for his magical performance that Cheptegei didn’t mention, the extra mile no one else put in. Like Julius Caesar, he came, he saw, and some months later, he conquered.

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Cheptegei came alone to Aarhus in November 2018 to learn firsthand about the 10-percent grade of the museum roof. He memorized the course with his feet and, crucially, his GPS, and recreated it in Uganda. Over and over again, he practiced the sharp turns, steep climbs, and constantly changing rhythm of the Aarhus course in Uganda.

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By contrast, the Kenyan team arrived in Aarhus Thursday night and first ran the course Friday morning, maybe once. When I talked with a group of four Kenyans the day before the race, they were supremely confident, utterly unconcerned about the course or their lack of experience with it: “No problem,” said Kenyan Elijah Manangoi, dismissively. Though he’s practically unbeatable at 1,500 meters on a smooth track, Manangoi had never raced over the rough.

Kenyan confidence is well-founded—they’ve won more individual and team WXC titles than any other country. The sport originated in England in the late 1800s and was the purvey of Europeans for 100 years. Kenya first entered a team in WXC in 1981, and by 1989 was dominating. The Kenyan men’s team won 18 straight gold medals between 1986 and 2003. Individual medal sweeps (gold, silver, bronze) have been achieved 20 times in WXC history, only by Kenya and Ethiopia.

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Until recently, Uganda lacked the infrastructure to compete with Kenya. In fact, at the press conference Cheptegei credited training across the border in Kenya with kickstarting his career: “When [Ugandan] Stephen Kiprotich won gold in London [Olympic marathon] it inspired us, but we were still in high school. I was lucky enough to train as a junior with Eliud Kipchoge and my friend Geoffrey Kamworor and learn from them. We are just over the border with Kenya. We’re all Kalenjin, we’re brothers.”

Photo: Lars Moller

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Though their friendship seemed genuine, Cheptegei and Kiplimo’s 1-2 punch not only stunned Kenyan star Kamworor, it led Uganda’s senior men to their first WXC team title, glory that’s belonged to Kenya or Ethiopia up until now. In fact, Kenya came away from Aarhus without a single team gold medal, which had to sting. Taken with the team silver for Ugandan junior men, and bronze for senior women, Uganda announced loud and clear that WXC would no longer be a dual meet between Kenya and Ethiopia.

Uganda coach Benjamin Njia explained how that happened: “We’ve developed our sports programs. Athletes used to train just before an event, or they went to Kenya to train. In the last two or three years, the government provided athletes with a stipend so they could train all year round. All the facilities are here now. Global Sports [sports management company based in the Netherlands] has built training camps around the country, including the national camp in Kapchorwa. Within the next two years, we will be like Kenya and Ethiopia.”

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It was a beautiful thing, Cheptegei’s run to redemption—not just an individual gold medal, but a team title, and the sunrise of Ugandan running. But beautiful, too, for all those who leaned into the hills and squelched out of the water, who crossed the finish line muddy, quivering, and spent. Because they’d run real cross country.