The Cross Country and Ultrarunning Connection

Cross-country and ultra racing might seems worlds apart, but Tom Evans, Max King, and others are finding success by doing both.

By on June 5, 2024 | Comments

[Editor’s Note: This article was written by guest contributor — and cross-country running fan — Lydia Thomson of the U.K.]

“Who’s the guy in the white headband?”

The 2024 British Athletics Cross Challenge London senior men’s cross-country race at Parliament Hill in London, England, starts as many would predict. Top British cross-country runners Mahamed Mahamed, Hugo Milner, Jamie Crowe, and Jack Millar are all in the lead pack. Also, there is a face perhaps unknown to many of the staunch followers of British cross country, that of British ultrarunner Tom Evans.

From the gun, Evans tucks in neatly amongst the front runners and actually leads for a time. That confident stride is all too familiar to the followers of the ultra scene, but to the average spectator at Parliament Hill on Saturday, January 20, he is a wild card in a white headband bearing the logo of one of his sponsors, Red Bull.

Spectators this day may not know of Evans’ win at the 2023 Western States 100 or third place at the 2022 UTMB, not to mention his wins at the 2020 Tarawera 100k and the 2018 CCC.

2023 Western States 100 - Tom Evans Finish

Tom Evans can not only win the Western States 100, which he did in 2023, but he can also mix it up at the front of a British cross-country race. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

And similarly, followers of ultrarunning may have yet to learn of his involvement in cross country. But Evans is not new to the cross-country circuit. An idle browse of his Power of 10 profile, a results and ranking website run by British Athletics, shows that he’s been in podium positions in cross-country races since his pre-ultra days.

In his latest cross-country season, he started with a win at the 2024 Leicestershire and Rutland County Championships men’s race in early January. His wife, triathlete Sophie Caldwell, won the women’s race. His Power of 10 profile shows five cross-country races for the season, including two wins and two second places. His cross-country season culminated at the 2024 World Athletics Cross Country Championships in Serbia, where he represented Great Britain and got inside the top 50.

But back to the British Athletics Cross Challenge London race. Indeed, commentators on the race’s livestream speculate about how long he would remain in the lead pack, referring to him as an ultrarunner who is “very familiar with the ultra distance.” In the race’s final stages, they concede that he is a silent assassin “biding his time” on the heels of triathlete Milner.

Ultimately, Evans finishes in second place, just three seconds behind Milner, with Mahamed in third. Revealingly, Mahemed went on to place fourth at the TCS London Marathon on April 21, 2024.

In a post-race interview by Andy Hobdell, who coincidentally was Evans’ previous coach, Evans shares that he was doing cross country to get really fit and strong ahead of UTMB later this year. He says he’ll be going for the win at UTMB.

Ultrarunning and Cross Country: Two Different Disciplines

But why cross country? Ultrarunning and cross-country running are not common or natural bedfellows, particularly at the elite level.

We know many elite middle- and long-distance athletes use cross country to build strength for road and track races but ultras? Surely cross country is too short and spicy for an ultrarunner to excel at.

Not so, say Evans and several other elite runners who mix ultrarunning and cross country quite well. For Evans, the benefits include improving “speed and ability to run fast over changing terrain (mud, hills, and more), as well as practicing the race craft and tactics. You can’t afford to make one mistake in a 30-minute race.”

If you can extrapolate that mentality to a 100-mile race, suddenly, those ultra tactics are exponentially fine-tuned. Evans also used this season to stay fresh while he prepared for the summer on the trails. “Cross country was the main goal,” he says, “but with the bigger goal of getting fast and shifting thresholds to better prep for the mountains without doing crazy volume and vertical over the winter.”

American multi-sport athlete Max King, who is dizzying in his athletic diversity and competes in everything from steeplechase to skiing to ultramarathons, is also no stranger to a cross-country season. He’s done everything from placing second at the 2021 Canyons 100k to winning the 2018 Broken Arrow Skyrace 26k. He’s also tried pack burro racing.

“Do you need to race cross country to help your ultrarunning? Probably not,” King says. “Do you need to work on that speed and faster endurance to succeed in ultrarunning events? Absolutely. You may not need to race cross-country events, but you do need to work on the same physiology systems at some point in the training cycle. Ultrarunning is getting fast, and you need to run fast to keep up with the pack.”

British ultrarunner and coach Robbie Britton will typically compete in both as long as they fit together well. He says it “feels like it makes me strong and fast for the year ahead.”

Likewise, British ultrarunner Richard McDowell says, “I pretty much always race a full season of cross country for my club during the winter.” However, in a more recognisably ultrarunner fashion, he would “frequently run to and from races if viable to get some decent miles in on top of the race.”

Richard McDowell racing cross country

Richard McDowell (wearing bib 334) is one of several ultrarunners who’ve also found success in much shorter cross-country races. Photo courtesy of Richard McDowell.

Adaptation, flexibility, incorporation. The approach of integrating a cross-country race into a training plan may be familiar to the wider trail running and ultrarunning community. The slightly crowbar commitment might also be quite specific to the British club cross-country scene, where the opportunities to race are frequent, and participating as a way of representing and giving back to your club is a huge part.

So when Evans puts on his Lewes Athletic Club vest to compete in Britain’s top cross-country races, it’s kind of a big deal.

History of Cross Country

Cross country originated in Britain in the early 1800s as what was called “hare and hounds” racing. The hare runners would set off a few minutes before the hounds, sometimes leaving a literal trail of papers for the hound runners to follow.

The sport developed over the coming years into the iteration we now recognise running a marked route across country fields and the first English National Cross Country Championships were held in 1876. USA Track and Field hosted their first USATF Cross Country Championships in 1883. By 1973, the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) established the World Athletics Cross Country Championships.

The sport has come a long way, but in Britain and elsewhere, the scruffy, scrappy roots of the sport still ring true. Whereas advances in technology and science have led ultrarunning toward something more precise and engineered, the biggest gear decision you make that will impact your performance on cross-country race day is the length of your spikes. Nuance can actually be applied even here: former women’s marathon world record holder and avid cross-country runner Paula Radcliffe reportedly sometimes runs with longer spikes in the front and shorter spikes in the back.

“Cross country is the main stepping stone for endurance in the U.K.,” says Evans. “County, regional, and national championships always draw a really strong field. Having the European cross-country champs is a huge driver, as it’s the perfect winter race for track, road, and trail athletes.” This has historically been the case and shows no signs of slowing down.

2024 U.K Inter-Counties Cross Country Championships

Fast forward to mid-March, and here we are at the 2024 UK CAU Inter Counties Cross Country Championships. The first-place finisher is guaranteed a spot at the 2024 World Athletics Cross Country Championships. The next two finishers are eligible to be considered for selection. Runners are aiming for the win and settling for the podium.

Conditions at Wollaston Park in Nottingham, England, are favourable. After a damp winter, there has finally been some drier weather. There’s even a bit of sunshine. It’s going to be zesty.

The lead pack goes out hot and the race quickly strings out. Evans puts himself in the front right from the start. The wall of runners surges uphill and tapers into a natural order. Jack Millar and Jamie Crowe are in the mix again, along with Scott Stirling, another top British cross-country runner.

It’s a 10-kilometer course with two short laps and two long laps. By the last lap, Crowe has fallen off the front and Millar seems to have run out of steam. From the back of this lead pack, Calum Johnson, who’s been successfully in British cross country since he was a youth, creeps to the fore.

Evans has a new sparring buddy, but in the final stretches, the elastic between them extends uncomfortably. I can’t watch. There’s a hill, and I expect ultrarunner Evans to make his move here, but Johnson flies ahead, leaving Evans grimacing.

“It’s not over yet,” declare the commentators. It’s a long downhill to the finish, there’s time yet for things to change. Indeed, there is from behind, where Stirling is gaining on Evans.

It’s no longer just a battle for first but for the whole men’s podium. Ultimately, it’s Johnson’s grin that breaks the tape. Evans seems to be losing second place as Stirling strides up alongside him, but mere metres from the finish, Evans digs again and holds his second-place position by milliseconds.

It’s all just so close. It is exhilarating.

Success in a Variety of Distances and Types of Races

For some, it’s this neck-to-neck racing of cross country that appeals.

Max King has been competing in cross country since high school and says, “I’ve always gravitated toward it and its simplicity. I’m also a competitive person, so I’ve always liked the aspect of cross country where you’re directly racing other people.”

He points out that this is where ultrarunning and cross country can really differ. In an ultra, hours can go by out on the course where you don’t see anybody. Indeed, your nearest competitors are imaginary demons, entities only in time splits if you’re fortunate enough to get them. Yes, many faster ultras can give us nail-bitingly close competition for miles at a time, but it’s not the mass huddle of spikes and elbows that cross country inspires.

Max King Racing Cross Country

Max King has been racing cross country for a long time, including at the 2011 World Cross Country Championships. Photo: Mike Scott

In the middle of the following week, it is announced that Evans has been selected to represent Team Great Britain a few weeks later at the 2024 World Athletics Cross Country Championships in Serbia. This is where it all starts to feel a bit bonkers, having a highly successful ultrarunner make a cross-country national team.

No doubt, this means more to Evans than the professional achievement alone. Shortly before the cross-country season began, Evans was due to compete at the 2023 Ultra-Trail Cape Town 100k, but while on a training run in South Africa, he was attacked and mugged at knife point. He returned home and did not compete in the race. He says, “I wanted something to focus on after what happened in Cape Town, and qualifying for world cross felt like a great goal. My wife is a pro triathlete training for Olympic selection, so it was nice to stay at home with her and help with her training over winter, too.” Nothing can make up for experiencing a trauma like that which occurred in South Africa, but what a comeback.

Attempting to compile a list of ultrarunners who have competed at the World Athletics Cross Country Championships is not a particularly easy task. It appears that each year’s roster includes perhaps one or a couple of ultrarunners, however.

For a couple of recent examples, in 2023, Chinese athlete Miao Yao was among the selection and finished 66th. She went on to have phenomenal success the rest of the year, winning the Ultra Trail Ninghai 100k and placing third at the OCC. So there’s a method in the madness. The pursuit bears fruit.

A few other trail runners were at the World Athletics Cross Country Championships this year. Christian Allen, winner of the 2023 Speedgoat 50k, came 37th. Allie Ostrander, who won the 2023 Three Corner Rock PCT 50k, was 30th and second American. Evans finished 49th, third British runner.

Max King after taking seventh at the 2019 Transvulcania Ultramarathon. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

With the cross-country season over, the focus has moved on to warm, dry trails instead of chilly quagmires of mud. But all that work, slipping and clipping alongside competitors while heaving frosty breaths into lungs to push just a little closer to the line, is all in the system now.

As Tom Evans rolls into the first mile of his 2024 UTMB lap around Mont Blanc, I wonder if his mud-splattered club vest will cross his mind.

Call for Comments

  • Do you mix up shorter races into your schedule to prepare for ultras?
  • What other ultrarunners are finding success in cross country? Share their stories in the comments section.
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