Ellis Cross was a prolific junior athlete. A two-time English national cross-country winner in the U20s, two-time BUCS 5000m champ, 15th in the European cross-country champs U23s in 2016.
These were performances which had Ellis quite rightly thinking about a future as a professional athlete. Keep up the momentum and the career would come.
“I was always of the view that you let the legs do the talking.”
A two-year professional contract with Hoka followed, as well as some sponsorship from a sympathetic local company but ultimately the support stopped short of allowing him the life of a fully-professional athlete.
Making the step to the seniors
Ellis graduated from St Mary’s University into the senior ranks in 2019. Like any junior transitioning into the seniors and as outlined by Jack Rowe, developing into a world class 5000m runner takes time. Ellis admits he’s taken time to adjust:
“There’s a big gap between making that jump and then having enough money as a senior athlete because there’s a big jump in terms of the training you need to put in and your life in general. You go from being a student to being someone who has to work full-time, thinking about the future a lot more.
It’s such a big jump going into seniors, I’m still trying to find my feet really in that sense.
I’ve struggled in terms of time to be able to match that training load. It’s easier throughout the junior ranks because you don’t have to do as many miles.”
Walking the tightrope between volume and rest
Ellis is keen to point out he does have those around him who provide good support. His employer at Up and Running in Surbiton is flexible. He also does some coaching work for Kevin Quinn’s Real Runners but ultimately he faces a difficult dilemma.
The biggest weekly miles I’ve ever done is 82 miles, so not that significant. The past few years have only been 70 mile weeks. I need to push it up to 90/100 mile weeks.
But it’s difficult to up the volume when you’ve got less time than you’ve ever had before. Ultimately more stress in training also needs more recovery. It’s a tricky balancing act where Ellis hopes for significant progress in a short period of time so he gets that extra support, but in an event that requires athletes to play the long game.
Being more than just a good cross-country runner
For years some of Britain’s best athletes have honed their craft on the cross-country circuit. Tim Hutchings on the Sunday Plodcast recalls winters touring Europe being paid good sums to run in local cross country meets.
Strength in cross-country ultimately helped Britain’s best get better, get stronger for the track. But that’s changed and with it a key component of Britain’s success has been cut off. Ellis agrees:
“Cross country is seriously neglected in terms of the support athletes get. If you’re a good cross-country athlete there’s a good chance you’re on nothing in terms of money. Whereas if you go on the road it’s a completely different story.
Because there’s a big difference between you turning up to a Parliament Hill cross-country race in a field of 300-400 people to going onto the road. If you do a big half-marathon you’ve got tens of thousands of people that are turning up and are paying money.
These race organisers have got the money to give to athletes in terms of prize money. It’s just not there in terms of cross-country.”
An undervalued market
Ellis compares it to horse racing. Fundamentally what is the difference between horses and humans racing?
“You go to something like horse racing you get a significant amount of money that is there and people are happy to put money on, they can have a full day out and watch it. You turn up and watch people running and you get nothing.”
Cross-country and the same applies for track ends the moment you leave the event. No broadcast, little publicity two things that could be so similar (horse racing and cross-country) could not be more different. Ellis is keen to point out that the interest is there.
“Athletics is out there, if you engage with the sport it’s a brilliant sport, you watch people race it out. Cross-country it’s the most natural form of racing.
Mark Hookway puts out a race on Youtube, such a small race, an U11s, U13s race of just your local cross-country league and it will do well because people want to watch it. People do want to watch it.
The sport in general is seriously undervalued in terms of what it can be.”
Why does it matter?
These things are important. It’s not just a case of not being able to watch something. It’s about potential sponsors to the event simply not having the showcase. Less sponsors, less money. Less money, less professional athletes. Less professional athletes, less success for Britain on the global stage.
In an era in which every other sport has professionalized, athletics is left in the dark ages. Preserving a semi-amateur status may work when other sports do the same but when they move on they leave athletics behind.
Leaving athletics behind means more athletes like Ellis will face the same lack of support when trying to make the senior grade.
Ellis has many years left in the sport, with big goals he’d still like to fulfil but he has a message for those still with the support of a university:
“I’ve been saying to people at university you’ve got to take that opportunity and make every single moment count.
An athlete in our sport, the best part of funding is student finance.”
When’s it’s gone, it’s gone and taking the next step becomes all the harder.
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Featured image from Mark Hookway.