In defiance of the old jokes, children across the land are getting into cross-country running, says David Bocking
It's 10 o'clock on a chilly, winter Saturday morning. Other 10-year-olds are settling down with their Cheerios, but Lauren Stone and Rebecca Newton are standing on a muddy school playing field on the edge of the Peak District. Through the mist and drizzle they can just pick out the cones marking the first climb of the day, where they'll have to sprint up a steep path. After that, there's a long downhill, a punishing stretch over the lower playing field, and a steep muddy climb through the trees. Then they have to do it all again.
The two girls from Shooter's Grove School in Sheffield both idolise runner Paula Radcliffe and share an ambition to run in the Olympics. On race days, however, they're rivals, and find it hard to talk much beforehand. Alongside them are another 122 girls in Years 5 and 6 from 36 Sheffield primary schools, who are also planning their strategies, with a picture in their minds of a pink numbered cloakroom ticket.
Every two or three weeks during the autumn and spring terms, 500 children take to the fields in Sheffield's primary cross-country programme, watched by 1,000 or more parents and teachers. It's the city's biggest primary school winter sporting fixture, and although cross-country running is becoming popular around the UK at primary level (Liverpool, Southampton, Essex and Leicester all have strong leagues) the Sheffield competition is one of the largest in the country.
And little pink tickets are the key to the Sheffield programme's success. Each runner is given a numbered finishing position ticket after they cross the line, and ticket 98, instead of 101 from the last race, can be just as big a victory as a second place instead of a fifth.
"Everybody counts," says Sue Hopkinson, deputy head of Dobcroft Junior School, and the primary cross-country secretary of Sheffield's Federation of School Sports. "Some children finish well down the field week after week, but they keep coming to move up those few extra places, and in the end they do."
Year 5 and 6 children run as individuals and as part of a school team. The positions of a school's top four runners are added together to work out the team score (and the next four, if a school has enough runners - some schools have A, B and C teams). Year 4 children also take part in shorter races, but not in a competitive league.
After every event, Sue Hopkinson posts the results to PE teachers, local papers and on the internet. Cross-country running may be a joke to many - everybody has stories of hiding in the bushes with a cigarette while everyone else disappeared over the hills. But the joke is lost on Sheffield's young runners, whether they're from state or private schools, in the inner city or the affluent southern suburbs. "We love cross-country," say the Sheffield children. "Running is fun," they insist. Especially when it's muddy. "Instead of being at home watching the telly not getting no fitness into you, you could be running round a field," says Liam Morrison from Limpsfield School.
The Sheffield primary cross-country programme goes back at least to the end of the Second World War, and over the years the league has seen the first steps to athletics glory for a number of world-class runners, including current 800-metre England international Rebecca Lynne and former world-record holder Sebastian Coe. But the participation level now - 600 at some races - is higher than it's ever been.
Sheila Sherwood, PE teacher at Sheffield's Brantwood School and a former Olympic athlete and medallist herself (a silver, for the long jump) says:
"Cross-country is popular because it's quick - parents can bring their kids on a Saturday morning to have some exercise and then after an hour they can go home again and they've still got a weekend. And if you look round there are very few of these kids who are overweight. It's important to get them into good habits like this, and to learn to enjoy running and exercise."
"It's a simple sport," says Pete Delamere from St Marie's Primary School. "You put one foot in front of the other and run as fast as you can. The kids might say it hurts when they're doing it, but when they've finished they can say: 'I've done that, you didn't do it, I did it, and I improved by two places.' "
The Year 56 girls' race is over and Rebecca has won while Lauren finished fifth. Most importantly, Shooter's Grove remains at the top of the girls' league. Though dirty and wet, Lauren and Rebecca are glowing with elation, and they're thinking about Monday's assembly, when they know their efforts will be praised in front of the whole school.
Contact Barry Parker (North of England Athletics Association) Tel: 01332 753933
* A field (maximum variety, minimum tarmac)
* 20 or so volunteers from the host school to marshal the course and finishing line
* Conestape to mark the course (1-1.5km for Year 4, 1.5-2km for Year 56)
* Numbered finishing tickets
* Open-ended webbing funnel at the finishing line to hold children until giving out the position tickets