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The world’s toughest cross-country courses

A list of the hilliest, muddiest and gnarliest XC races out there

Cross country is not for the faint of heart. Often characterized by cold temperatures, wet and muddy conditions, monster climbs and technical terrain, many regard it as the truest test of a runner’s spirit. With Canadian National Cross Country Championships around the corner, the fall XC season is coming to a close, and to mark the occasion we’ve rounded up a list of the toughest cross country courses the world has ever seen. Do you think you could handle them?

2008 World Cross Country Championships — Edinburgh, Scotland

Lalonde, Tate win ACXC 2019

It’s well known in cross country that if a hill has a name, it’s going to be a monster. Set in the historic Holyrood Park, athletes competing in the 2008 IAAF World Cross Country Championships had to navigate incessantly stick mud, multiple twists and turns, and one giant hill known as Haggis Knowe. This didn’t stop XC legend Kenenisa Bekele, who claimed his record-breaking sixth national XC title that year.

2019 CCAA Cross Country Championships — Grand Prairie, Alta.

Our list wouldn’t be complete without a Canadian course, and while Canada is known for hosting some pretty gnarly cross country races, the 2019 Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) Cross Country Running National Championships in Grand Prairie, Alta. made the top of our list. With all the usual twists, turns and hills that you’d expect, it wasn’t the actual course that made this a stand-out: it was the weather. 15 centimetres of snow fell upon the Muskoseepi Park Course on race day, and when you combine that with below-freezing temperatures and an icy track, it took real grit to get to the finish line.

2019 Australian World XC Trials — Canberra, Australia

At the 2019 Australian World XC Trials in Canberra, Australia, athletes had to navigate four laps of a 2.5km course full of tight turns, twists and big climbs. It’s one thing to have to tackle one tough hill during a cross country race, but to have to do it four times is an entirely different physical and mental challenge.

2012 Gunner Shaw Memorial Cross-Country Race — Vancouver

Our second Canadian race on the list, the 2012 Gunner Shaw Memorial XC race held at Vancouver’s Jericho Beach was one of the wettest courses in Canadian cross country. In fact, the course, which has been used for several XC races over the years, is arguably one of the messiest courses you’ll find anywhere. Conditions here are often wet and rainy, and the 2012 race saw runners up to their knees in water, splashing their way to the finish.

2019 European Cross Country Championships — Lisbon, Portugal

The 2019 European XC Championships saw runners tackle a long, tough climb almost as soon as the race started. The multi-lap course was relentless, with almost no flat sections to be seen. The technical course also included multiple twists and turns, making it difficult for athletes to find and maintain any kind of rhythm.

2019 Mt. SAC Invitational — Walnut, CA

As if starting out on a paved road (while wearing cross country spikes) wasn’t bad enough, this course forced athletes to turn directly from that onto a hill covered in sand. The rest of the course is full of steep switchbacks, guaranteed to sap the energy right out of your legs, a climb forebodingly named “the poopout hill,” more sand and a final stretch of pavement to take you to the finish.

2019 World Cross Country Championships — Aarhus, Denmark

Behind the scenes at the World Cross-Country Championships

2019 was a year of tough XC courses, but the World Championships in Aarhus, Denmark had arguably the worst (or best) of them all — if not in the entire history of the sport. The course was rammed with hills, including an opening climb that saw runners ascend the equivalent of a seven-story building within 400 metres, and a final run up a 10 per cent grade over the roof of the Moesgaard Museum. The course also featured ankle-deep water in some parts and a 60-foot-long mud pit. All this was packed into a two kilometre loop, which the senior men had to complete five times before heading to the finish.