Peter Vigneron offers some ideas on how to spice up the sport and make it more entertaining.

When Dathan Ritzenhein said he thought the cross country world championships weren’t important, the odd thing wasn’t that he said it, but that so many people disagreed.

Asked why he wasn’t running, Ritzenhein said he realized that, “unless I went there and I won the race, it really wouldn’t matter, probably. No one would care.”

He was probably right. The race is held every two years, in increasingly obscure locations, and hasn’t included a Paula Radcliffe- or Kenenisa Bekele-like star since 2009. It doesn’t offer a big prize purse and for American runners, it won’t trigger a big shoe-company performance bonus. Today, two days before the race, the running world is buzzing about news that the 2012 Olympic women’s 1500m winner has tested positive for a banned substance, which is much bigger news. So if nobody is paying attention, it’s hard to get to, it doesn’t pay, and it’s hard to run successfully, why would anybody run world cross-country? No wonder Ritzenhein withdrew.

Don’t get me wrong: this is a terrible state of affairs. If I were in charge, there would be only two events in competitive distance running: the mile and cross country, and everything else would be for fun. But over the past decade, and especially in the past several years, the marathon and the summer track circuit have overwhelmed the other venues, like cross country, indoor track, and shorter-distance road racing (maybe with an exception for the half marathon.)

For American runners, cross country is timed to interfere with both spring track and spring marathons, and many runners rightly choose not to race. (In which case it might even be worth celebrating that we’re sending teams as strong as we are, even without Ritzenhein, Matt Tegenkamp or Shalane Flanagan.)

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I’m not alone in my love of cross country, and I agree that it’s already the most competitive race in the world. What it needs, I think, is not to be included in the Olympics, as some have suggested, but instead to dial up the elements that make it different from track and road racing. Insert “arduousness” requirements into host city selections. Make courses more hilly and more slippery, make runners clear ditches, truck in spectators and put them close to the action. (Much like the awesome, epic 2007 U.S. Championships in Boulder, Colo.) Don’t sanitize courses, like the organizers are said to be doing in Poland, even if there’s grousing from people worried about injury. In fact, ignore them — they don’t belong in cross country in the first place.

Make the prize purse outrageously large. Winners will get only $30,000 this year, $10,000 less than they got in 1999, according to David Monti. Change the course type from one year to the next. Snow, then desert, then mountains — reward runners who are versatile, who have different skills, not just the guys with the fastest 10,000m PRs. That may or may not break up the dominance of the East Africans, but it’ll definitely encourage more pre-race speculation. And once it gets more popular, hold it every year again.

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I’d hate to see world cross country championships turned into something like Tough Mudder or the Spartan race series, but there’s a reason those races are popular, and right now there’s little to distinguish cross country from competitive track or road racing. If that doesn’t change, then Ritzenhein is right — skip it. It doesn’t matter. Just don’t forget that it could.

About The Author:

Peter Vigneron is a senior contributing editor at Competitor magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @PeterVigneron.