History of Competitive Running and Cross Country for Kids

Not for the first time, Charles wondered why he agreed to race today. He could have been asleep in his warm and cozy flat. Instead, he was shivering out here on the edge of the school grounds on a typical drizzly morning in England in autumn.

He should have told his older brother Albert he wasn’t ready to be a Hare. It was such an important job that it was usually reserved for more experienced runners. Like Albert. Albert was the school’s top runner and had won this event – the Royal Shrewsbury School Hunt – for the last three years.

“I want to run a race with my brother,” Albert insisted. What he should have said was “I want to win a race against my brother.”

Either way, Albert dragged Charles to the headmaster’s office who listened to Albert’s argument without interrupting, then finally leaned back in his chair and said, “Well, since I am anxious to learn if Charles has inherited your quickness, I shall agree to let him be a Hare.”

The following day, Charles was paired up with a nice enough lad named Edward. For hours, he and Edward wadded paper into little balls that were now stuffed in knapsacks slung over their shoulders. As they ran, they would drop those balls in order to leave a paper trail for the other runners to follow. 

Most importantly, they would desperately try to stay ahead of the two groups chasing them: the Hounds and the Huntsmen. The Hounds currently stood a few meters from Charles, clustered in identical white knickers and jerseys. Behind them were the Huntsmen. Charles’s pulse quickened when he looked at them. The Huntsmen were led by his brother Albert.

He wore a brown cap and a red jersey and carried a bugle as was customary for the Lead Huntsman. Charles watched, his heart racing, as Albert stepped forward.

“All hounds who wish to run, run hard, run well,” he yelled. “And Huntsmen?”  He paused and the runners grew silent. Then, he fixed his eyes on Charles. “We shall feast on rabbit stew for supper!” The runners cheered loudly.

Charles gritted his teeth. He fixed his eyes on the course ahead. He would show Albert. He would beat all of them.

So when Albert sounded the bugle seconds later, Charles bolted into the forest like he was actually being chased by hounds. He dashed left and right, dropping paper as he went. He jumped over fences and splashed through mud. Even when Edward fell behind, Charles ran.

For nearly three hours, he kept his eyes forward and ran. His legs ached. His lungs throbbed. Only when he saw the marked finish line did he glance back. 

Albert was there, meters away. He was close enough for Charles to see the desperation in his eyes. Albert realized there would be no rabbit stew. He was about to lose his first race.

Charles’s heart pinched. Next year, Albert would head to university. Charles would have two more years to prove he was fast. This was Albert’s last race.

Charles slowed his pace. It took only a heartbeat for Albert to fly past him. But the small nod Albert offered his younger brother was enough. Albert claimed victory that day. But only by a hair.


The organized sport of running – called cross country – only goes back about two hundred years. It started in England at a boys’ school called Shrewsbury after the headmaster rejected the idea of a fox-hunting club. Charles and Albert, from the story we just read, are fictional but real students like them proposed a running race through the countryside. They modeled the sport after fox hunting, which was popular in England at the time. As you learned in the story, they even had names like Hares and Hounds.

Humans have been running for more than two million years. Today, we run for exercise or for sport. But back then? We ran to survive. 

Imagine life for those first humans. Chances are, you would have spent most of the day thinking about how to get your next meal. Inevitably, you would have realized that dinner was not going to be served to you. No! You had to catch it. Bad news: your two legs weren’t as speedy as the four legs that cheetahs and gazelles had.

Plus, it would be a few thousand years before humans figured out how to make a spear or a slingshot to make hunting a bit easier. In order to eat and avoid being eaten in the early years, you would have had to figure out how to move fast. 

However, anthropologists who study early humans believe that those first people came up with something better than speed. They discovered endurance. Endurance let humans run longer and farther than the animals they wanted to eat. So even though the first humans might not have been as fast, they could outrun their dinner. 

Over time, the human body adapted to help people run. For example, humans’ legs grew longer and their feet became lighter. The joints in their legs helped them absorb more impact. These changes helped humans catch bigger prey. Bigger meals meant more calories. More calories led to bigger brains. Bigger brains helped people discover how to survive longer. Good news for all of us.

Running hasn’t always just been about survival, though; it’s also one of the oldest competitive sports. You see, once we figured out how to outrun animals, we wanted to see if we could outrun each other. In fact, carvings on the walls of Egyptian tombs show people competitively running as early as 3100 BC.  In ancient Greece, people raced against each other at the earliest Olympic games. These races were only about two hundred yards in length because they took place in an arena called a stadion. But the winners of those races were seen as the greatest athletes of the games. They got to wear a crown of olive leaves to prove it! 

Eventually, people started racing longer distances. Probably the most well-known of these is the marathon. Today, marathon runners today run exactly 26.2 miles. Seems like an odd distance for a race, right? Well, marathon runners can thank a Greek messenger and the British queen for that.

In ancient Greece, messengers would run miles to deliver important news or information. Pheidippides was one of these messengers, He lived in the Greek city-state of Athens. At the time, Athens was engaged in a fierce war against the Persian army – an army that was bigger and better trained and favored to win the war by a lot. 

In a surprise turn of events, Athens managed to win a key battle in a city called Marathon. The general of the Athenian army told poor Pheidippides to run as fast as possible to Athens and tell everyone there the good news: Athens had won! Pheidippides did as he was told, racing 25 miles from Marathon to Athens. Legend says that as soon as he announced the victory, he collapsed from exhaustion and well . . . .died. But somehow, the idea of running that far stuck around and became known as a marathon.

But what about the additional 1.2 miles? Fast way forward to 1908. The Olympic games were being held in London. The Queen of England, Queen Alexandra, demanded that the marathon start at Windsor Castle and finish directly in front of her royal box at the Olympic stadium. The only problem was that this was a distance of 26.2 miles – 1.2 miles longer than normal. The queen, not surprisingly, got her way and the fate of marathoners was forever sealed. 

In recent years, the number of people competing in running races has grown. So, too have the types of races available. Long-distance runners can train to run a marathon or its descendent, the half marathon which is 13.1 miles. For those who prefer shorter distances, there are any number of 5K or 10K races to enter around the world on any given weekend.

Most people sign up to run for exercise or to show off the medal you get when you finish. Professional runners, however, compete for prize money. Every year, the well-known Boston Marathon welcomes top runners from around the world. The winner of this race often finishes in under two hours and can win about $75,000. 

Maybe you’ve even heard of a few of the more famous runners, like Usain Bolt. This Jamaican sprinter was named the Fastest Man in the World when he ran 100 meters in 8.58 seconds at the Olympic Games. 

Like our ancestors, we’re still testing the limits of endurance and speed. Fortunately, though, dinner no longer needs to be chased down. We can all be grateful for that.