British Kids’ Game Became International Sport Known as Cross Country

Notre Dame Cross Country Invitational

Photo by Phil Roeder [Flickr: Creative Commons]

All of my kids have been, or still are, harriers on their school cross country team. What’s a harrier? A long-distance runner who competes across open country.

Back in the very early 1800’s in England, school kids developed games that imitated the adult pastimes of hare hunts and steeplechases. The games became known as hare and hounds (harriers), as well as (the original) paper chase, where some of the kids would run ahead leaving a trail, such as pieces of paper, and other kids were the hunters. These games took place in the countryside, and the runners had to deal with things like hedges and streams.

The game caught on and became more organized. In 1877, England had its first national competition. Soon France and a few other European countries had joined the competitions.

Now, the races are often held in parks or golf courses, and the runners may run anywhere from 3 kilometers at the middle school level to 12 kilometers at the international level. Every course is different. Some are relatively flat; some are very hilly. It’s a fall sport, so at least in the upper Midwest, runners may run in extreme cold or heat, wind, and precipitation in various forms.

The runners compete at the individual level, but there is a team aspect, too. The runners receive points when they finish the race that corresponds to the place they come in. For example, the first finisher receives one point, the second receives two points, etc. The team with the lowest point total wins.

Cross Country has become an international sport, with the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) first World Cross Country Championship in 1973. According to the IAAF website, it has had world champions as young as 13 (female) and as old as 38 (male).

I was never a long-distance runner. Two miles were my longest track workouts. (By the way, track is a completely different sport.) I admire kids who discipline themselves, mentally and physically, enough to finish a cross country race. That’s quite an achievement!

Sports books are kind of sub-genre in children’s books, and many other kids’ books have characters who are athletes of some kind. But, I’ve only read two children’s books that have characters who are cross country runners: Wednesday Wars and First Boy, both by Gary D. Schmidt.

For more information about cross country:

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Running Times

International Association of Athletics Federation

(I originally posted this article Oct. 21, 2014. If you get the chance, go watch a high school cross country meet, but wear your running shoes. The spectators often do a good deal of walking and running, too.)

Are you or have you ever been a harrier? What other kids’ books have cross country athletes as characters?


  1. Marcia Strykowski

    This is interesting! Sounds like there’s a need for another kids’ book about a cross country runner (maybe you could fill it?). Great how your own children have all participated in this healthy sport. I just looked up the topic for fun and found two books: SECONDS by Sylvia Taekema, and LOSING IT by Erin Fry.

    • Deb Watley

      Both of those books are new to me. Thanks for the suggestions! And I’ve thought the same thing that it could be an opportunity for me. I’m going to have to do some more thinking….Yes, watching the kids is inspiring–they are so persistent and self-motivated, and the team members support each other in wonderful ways!

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