Alternative running races: Cross country, Fell, and Track

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Not everyone chooses to race, but we know there are lots of Lonely Goat Running Club members who do participate in running events. Most of these will be road races or trail races as these are the most accessible and most widespread. However, these are just one part of the running event spectrum as you can also choose to take part in cross country, fell, and track races.

Whether you’ve been curious about these events for a while, or are looking for something different to get out of a racing rut, read on for our guide to alternative running races.

Cross Country

What is Cross Country running?

Often abbreviated as XC, the UK*  cross country scene is about as old-school as it gets:

  • Many of the bigger events have taken place on the same courses for decades (eg. Wimbledon Common since 1867!);
  • Races tend to be between 5 and 15km long, on lapped courses, and include mud, grass, fields, wooded areas and hills;
  • They’re typically organised by volunteers from conventional running clubs;
  • In some races your time won’t be recorded, because finishing positions are the main aim in cross country;
  • It’s rare for cross country races to have race numbers, distance markers, timing chips, or medals (except for the winners).

Instead, expect to line up in a field, with everyone haring off at the start to try and get a good position at the first corner/hill/puddle. By the finish, you’ll probably have sore legs and be covered in mud, but there’ll usually be a table set up nearby selling cups of tea.

[*With apologies to international Goats, this article will focus on the British running scene as that is where most members are based. In particular, as Lonely Goat Running Club is registered with England Athletics, the specific guidance will relate to racing in England only. However, the chances are the broad principles apply to other countries, too.]

How to enter a cross country race

The good news is, there are hundreds of cross country races that take place in the UK, usually from September to March. With a bit of googling, you should find some near you. The bad news is, many of those races will be part of a league organised by local athletics clubs and they don’t accept ‘guest runners’ from other clubs. Examples of leagues with this rule are the Hampshire League and West Yorkshire League.

However, there are exceptions to the ‘no guest runners’ rule, the most notable of which is London’s Met League. You’ll have to pay a few quid per race to enter, but as long as you are affiliated with England Athletics, and have a current, valid URN, you can take part in races across the Greater London area. Just bear in mind, cross country has an outdoors, homemade, grassroots culture, so you may have to pay with cash on the day!

The rules on guest runners can be a bit ad hoc, and there often isn’t a lot of information available online, so to save a wasted trip, your best bet would be to email the league secretary and ask if you can take part as a ‘guest runner’.

What about cross country championships?

Above the local league level, there are various championship races that you should be able to enter provided you’re affiliated with England Athletics. The biggest and best known are:

At the time of writing, entry information isn’t available for ‘The National’, as the English Cross Country Championships are known, but it is pencilled in to take place on 22 February 2022 at Parliament Hill.

What kit do I need for cross country racing?

The key piece of kit that differentiates cross country from other forms of running is a pair of spikes. These aren’t essential – as grippy trail shoes will do – but are the footwear style of choice for most cross country competitors.

They’re lightweight, with a knobbly, minimal sole that you can screw metal spikes into (hence the name). They can be uncomfortable if running on hard ground, but offer loads of grip on slippery mud.

Other than that, vest and shorts tends to be the order of the day. You could wear leggings, but it’s easier to wash the mud off your skin than fabric!

Fell Running

What is Fell Running?

At first glance, fell running resembles trail racing or cross country (it’s off-road and you may get muddy), but it is definitely it’s own, distinct discipline. The clue is in the name: The word ‘Fells’ refers to the barren or moorland covered hills and mountains of Scotland and northern England.

Fell races make use of the natural features of the landscape, so expect:

  • Long, hard climbs;
  • Fast, ‘technical’ descents;
  • Difficult terrain.

You might start in a field or a village, head straight up the nearest hill, and then come racing back down. For a longer race, keep adding in more hills!

To make things even trickier, many fell races have just the minimum of course marking, so local knowledge or good navigation skills are needed to ensure you run the fastest route.

How do I take part in a fell race?

Like cross country, fell racing is grassroots and local in nature. And though the races themselves can be difficult, the community is generally warm and welcoming.

To find a race, check out the Fell Runners Association website. Almost all fell races take place in the northern half of the UK, as that is where the fells are. However, if you’re in the south, all is not lost, as you can enter the Isle of Wight Fell Series of three races over two days.

To give you an idea of what to expect from a race, many races use a code system to describe the nature of the event:

  • A, B or C refers to the steepness (from hardest to easiest);
  • S, M or L refers to the length.

So a beginner would be better off with a CS than an AL!

What kit do I need for a fell race?

Safety is very important for fell races and most events will provide details of the mandatory kit requirements. This can include water and food, waterproof clothing, map and compass (and the skills to use them!), first aid kit, and anything you could need to get yourself out of trouble if stuck on a mountain.

However, there are more ‘accessible’ fell races, better suited to beginners, that don’t need you to carry so much stuff. For these, a pair of trail shoes is the only difference to your road running kit.

Even better than a generalist trail shoe, would be a pair of specialist fell shoes from the likes of Inov-8 (who offer a 15% discount to Lonely Goats) or Walsh, designed to suit the terrain and conditions of the race you’re entering. If you’re not sure what to buy, jump into the Lonely Goat Facebook Chat Group as there’ll be thousands of people who can give you advice.

Track Racing

What is track racing?

Just like cross country and fell racing, most track racing in the UK is grassroots in nature and volunteer led by members of conventional athletics clubs. It’s the form of running that most people will be familiar with (thanks to the Olympics), but very few people actually do.

The standard distances are 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, 1500m, 5000m and 10000m, all run on a 400m track. There’s also the hurdles and steeplechase if you fancy a race over barriers, plus occasional races over non-standard distances.

Most racing takes place from April to September, but there are occasional indoor races over the winter.

How do I enter a track race?

Again, like cross country races, the vast majority of track races in the UK are run as part of a league. Unless you’re a member of one of the clubs organising that league, you probably won’t be able to run in it.

However, many of these clubs also organise ‘Open Meetings’ which are, as the name suggests, open to anyone.

It can be tricky to find these open meetings, as they’re often low-key affairs, but check out the website, or keep an eye on the websites of whichever clubs train on your nearest athletics track. For faster runners, the most high profile open meeting in the UK is The Night of the 10,000m PBs, in London.

What can I expect at my first track race?

Track races are different to ‘normal’ running races as the number of runners is much lower: Usually no more than 15. To give as many people as possible the opportunity to race, there may be multiple heats of the same event. For example, if 60 people have entered the 5000m, this might be run as 4 heats with 15 people per heat.

To ensure close competition in each heat, they’re seeded according to predicted finish time, based on the details you provide when entering. This can lead to a funny looking situation where a young child might be lining up at the start next to an older adult, but it makes for more enjoyable races as everyone finishes closer together, rather than just running laps on their own.

It should be noted there is the very real possibility, given the small number of runners, that you could be last. Speaking from experience, this really isn’t that bad!

Also, you almost certainly won’t get a medal, goodie bag, or t-shirt.

What kit do I need for a track race?

As with fell and cross country racing, the only real difference is in the shoes. Track spikes are similar to cross country spikes, but usually lighter weight, with a less knobbly sole.

You could wear conventional running shoes, but bear in mind that there are new rules that limit the ‘stack height’ of the sole to 25mm in track races. This is below the 40mm allowed on the roads. However, this is the sort of rule that may not be strictly enforced in a low-key open meeting, so check with the organisers to see what they allow.

Try something new

Hopefully this article has given you an overview of some of the different kinds of races you can do – beyond mass participation road and trail races.

For many runners, these are the kinds of races they most enjoy. They may be attracted by the no-frills nature of the events, the challenging terrain, or the emphasis on head-to-head competition rather than fast times. Or they may just be looking for some variety in their running lives to get out of a running rut.

Give it a go

Though it is probably true that cross country, fell and track races tend to attract quicker runners than the average parkrun, please don’t let that discourage you from trying something new.

Even if the National XC, Ben Nevis Race, or Night of the 10,000m PBs are going to be beyond your current ability and experience level, there will almost certainly be a race available at an appropriate level for you.

And remember, you’ll have the backing of the Herd, here to offer you advice, tips and pointers to help you on your way!

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