One of the pleasures of running is that we get to be participants alongside our heroes. At major marathons in Boston, Berlin, New York and Chicago, and at storied road races like Peachtree, Beach to Beacon, Bix or Bloomsday, we toe the same line, run the same course and compete in the same race as world leading professionals. This doesn’t hold true when it comes to world class track, cross country or the Olympics, where we’re relegated to fan status.

Two upcoming world championship events, however, are offering the masses the chance to run the same courses on the same day.

On Saturday, March 30, the city of Aarhus, Denmark, will host the IAAF World Cross Country Championships. The main event features teams of six runners representing their country in what is often considered the toughest competition in the world. The U.S. team was selected at the USATF Cross Country Championships on February 2.

Photo: Lone Dybdal

This year, non-elite runners will also have multiple options to participate alongside the elites. The actual championship race will welcome 200 runners with qualifying times (under 33 minute 10K for men and under 37 for women within the past 12 months) chosen in a lottery. These gifted and lucky few will, as the event’s website states, “run side by side with World Cross Country Championships participants from more than 50 nations.”

Later that afternoon, anyone who registers will be able to run one of several event on the same unique course that includes running up the sloping, grass-covered roof of the Moesgaard Museum, plus a water pool, mud pit and sand stretch. They can choose to “Sprint” one lap of the 2K course, join teammates in a 4 X 2K relay, or tackle one of three “Cross & Trail” races on a 4K loop that include the world cross course plus an extra 2K of “grass, mud, forest paths, dirt roads, scrub, water passages and what our English cross enthusiasts call ‘open woodland.’”

The more extreme course, and adding the chance for runners to participate, are part of a plan to increase the popularity of cross country and the championships, which were reduced from every year to every other year in the past decade. IAAF President Sebastian Coe is leading an effort to return cross country to the Olympic program by the 2024 Games in Paris.

At those games, runners will get another chance to be part of the action. Organizers announced last Thursday that the masses, for the first time in history, will also be able run the Olympic Marathon. While the citizen runner will start later than the elites, they will, the organizers said, get to compete, “on the same course and in the same conditions as the Olympic athletes.”

“By giving everyone a chance to be part of the Games, to experience the biggest sporting event on the planet from the inside, Paris 2024 is leading the way towards new horizons,” said Paris 2024 President Tony Estanguet. Runners, who have long relished the ability to participate, not just spectate, welcome this march toward new horizons for the Olympics. We can think of no better way to celebrate the excitement of watching the world’s best compete than putting on our shoes and experiencing for ourselves the very mud and asphalt they just trod.