US marathon record holder Deena Kastor may well be best remembered for her feats on the road, but the seeds for her success were unquestionably honed in the white-hot competitive furnace of the IAAF World Cross Country Championships.
‘Love’ for cross country early on
Immersed in athletics from a young age, Kastor “loved” cross country in her formative years and won her maiden national cross country title aged just 12.
Later while attending Agoura High School in Los Angeles County she earned a spot on successive US U20 teams to compete at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, where she went on to place 72nd and 40th, respectively, in Aix-les-Bains in France in 1990 and the following year in Antwerp.
Both U20 races were thrilling for the teenager. She recalls her pride at wearing the US uniform and although she has vague recollections of the specific races, she says: “I couldn’t believe that runners surged into hills, on top of hills and again down the hill. I couldn’t believe that mud, obstacles and weather had no hindrance on a blistering pace.”
Kastor was to re-engage with the World Cross Country Championships as a senior athlete some six years later in Turin – a race which was to kick-start a run of racing at seven successive editions.
In Italy in 1997, the then 24-year-old athlete performed admirably to place 29th behind Ethiopian great Derartu Tulu, but she wanted more.
“It was first my goal to lead the US team in an attempt to podium with my teammates,” she says. “Once I could keep up with the best in the world, it became a goal to podium as an individual and a team.”
She proved good to her word, as each year “she got stronger and held on a little longer” making gradual progress. In the 1998 race in Marrakech, Morocco she placed 20th. The following year in Belfast she improved to tenth. Meanwhile, in the 2000 and 2001 races – staged in Vilamoura and Ostend, respectively – she placed 12th on each occasion, inspiring the USA to team bronze in the former event.
Back-to-back silver medals
Having produced the fastest marathon debut by a US female with a 2:26:58 run in New York the previous autumn, Kastor approached the 2002 World Cross Country Championships in Dublin high on confidence and was able to deliver.
“My goal to get in the top five,” she says. “I knew I had it in me and I put myself in an aggressive position at the front of the pack. To my surprise Paula Radcliffe and I dropped the rest of the field after the first loop.”
While Radcliffe went on to win the race by nine seconds, Kastor offered stout resistance and led for two-thirds of the 8km distance. The American was elated with the performance – in which she also helped the US to team silver - and added, slightly surprisingly. “It was one of the least taxing World Cross races I’ve run.”
Twelve months later in Lausanne she returned for another tilt at the iconic race but despite once again winning individual silver - and on this occasion team bronze - she found the experience quite different in Switzerland.
“In Lausanne, I ran as hard as I could from the gun, but I couldn’t shake Worknesh Kidane of Ethiopia,” says Kastor, who after leading for much of the race was outkicked for gold in the latter stages. “Both races ended in a silver medal, but one was like a tempo run and the other an all out assault.”
Kastor then took a lengthy sabbatical from cross country running to focus on her burgeoning marathon career. At the 2004 Athens Olympics she ended a 20-year US women’s medal drought in the event by winning a bronze medal. Then the following year she clinched victory in the prestigious Chicago Marathon before setting a US record mark of 2:19:36, which still stands today, when winning the 2006 London Marathon.
‘My best years as an athlete have been when I’ve incorporated cross country into my season’
Yet such was her passion for cross country running at the age of 40 she returned for one more crack at the World Cross Country Championships, finishing 34th in the 2013 edition in Bydgoszcz.
“I returned to cross because the training and racing are the baseline of all I love about running,” she explains. “I love the rugged terrain, the stiff competition and, sometimes, nasty weather.”
When reflecting on her time cross country running she has little doubt as to its value and importance on his career.
“I think my best years as an athlete have been when I’ve incorporated cross country into my season,” she insists. “The sport makes you strong in your ankles, hips and arm drive as well as spawning a mental toughness that you can’t acquire any other way.
“I would encourage any athlete to participate in cross country because of the physical and mental toughness it develops. And any runner should participate because along with the strength it builds, it’s the only way we can learn the value of teamwork.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF