By Benita Willis

The below article was first published in Australian Athlete Magazine.  For a detailed training diary from Benita, click here..


The 2004 world cross country (WXC) in Brussels was certainly the highlight of my career. It was my 4th world cross country (my first time in the 8km race) and without a doubt, going into it, I was in my best shape of my career to date.

I had always doubted my ability in these big races, i.e. Olympics, world track and field champs, world indoors etc, but for some reason, when I ran in the WXC, I always knew I belonged at the front. In the back of my mind in WXC races, I knew I could beat everyone (even the Africans) if I had a good day. I had no fear and always raced aggressively, putting myself in medal winning positions even at my first one in 2001 (where I placed 6th). I was incredibly consistent at the WXC year in, year out. I was never able to achieve this consistency on the track or road.

I guess a fire was lit inside me for the whole year following my run at the Lausanne WXC in 2003 where I almost won Australia’s first ever medal (I was in the bronze medal position with 50m to go when I saw two shadows either side of me and in that moment, couldn’t go any faster, I ended up in 5th).  I was so annoyed about narrowly missing a medal (although it was a fantastic result) that it fired me up so much for the WXC in 2004. I had a great year in 2003 running 8th in the world championship 10,000m in Paris in a new Aussie record of 30:37, then going on to win a bronze medal (coming from behind) in my first ever half marathon at the world half Marathon champs in Portugal. I was running great on the track which I think is key going into any cross-country season as this speed transfers to the cross-country terrain given you are strong enough for the hills and uneven surfaces.

I went to Falls Creek for a training camp as I always did in November (’03) and then again in Jan/ Feb (’04). I did all the usual ‘traditional’ sessions at Falls with the Melbourne Track Club (MTC). Our sessions included 8 x 1km reps on Tuesday at Langsfords Gap, quarters on Thursday, Fitzy’s Hut on Saturday, an easy long run (but very hilly) on Sunday and easy runs all the other days. I’d say we were running about 160km/week. We used a very old school makeshift gym (which I believe may not be there anymore) for some strength work a few days a week as well. I didn’t take any days off and ran twice most days except Sunday (where I just ran once for the long run) and sometimes just ran once on Friday. Falls Creek didn’t have a whole lot (when compared to what’s at say St Mortiz in Switzerland) but I loved the simplicity of it and enjoyed being there.

Australian running legend and 2004 World XC champion, Benita Willis trains at Falls Creek, Victoria

I didn’t race a lot from the end of 2003 until March 2004.  However, I did do the 5000m national championships at the Melbourne GP (which I won after running hard the last 2km). I also won a cross country race in Chiba (Japan) where I raced Deratu Tulu from Ethiopia  (she was the current 10,000m Olympic champion from the Sydney Olympics and also won WXC twice). I beat her in that race over 8km quite convincingly and I remember warming down with her after and she was asking me which race I intended to do at WXC that year. I told her the 8km and she told me she was relieved not to be racing me (as she was in the 4km). This made me think, “I must be in good shape if someone who is one of the best athletes in the world is not wanting to race me.” My last race before WXC was the Athens Olympic trials over 10,000m held at the Sydney GP. As the WXC was my goal race (this trials race was about two weeks before WXC) but I had to run the Athens Olympic trial over 10,000m to qualify for the Olympic team.  My coach and I decided to do this as a training session. I did the race as a session of 12 x 400m with 400m float. I won the race and did the session in about 31:40.  I really enjoyed it, and this sort of session in incredibly beneficial.

Heading over to Europe, I arrived in the UK about a week before WXC. I remember doing some km reps as my last session before the race (Tuesday before WXC) and feeling crap. I actually felt pretty rubbish on many of my runs leading up to the WXC. But over the years of racing and those long-haul flights, I came to realise that I was not always going to feel awesome leading into races (and this had no influence on how I’d race come race day). So, I didn’t take any notice of it as I trusted my fitness and knew that if I got it right on the day, I could be right up there.

Once in Brussels, I did my last little taper session a few days before the race (light tempo run + strides) and felt a bit better. I remember having a look at the course the day before my race and really liking the fact that it was hard (there was a big hill at the start of each 2km lap) and there was plenty of corners and mud! Many others weren’t too impressed but in the back of my mind, I knew this sort of course was perfect for me. As I had just missed out on a medal the year before, I attended the IAAF press conference and didn’t say much other than I was going to have a really good go and see what happens. But in the back of my mind, I knew it was my chance. At the top of our sport, you don’t get many chances in races like this and I knew I was going to make the most of it.

It rained as our bus drove to the course in Brussels. I had 15mm spikes in my shoes ready to go, screwed in with plyers. It was cold, so I took a little longer than usual to warm up. I read some trashy magazines to pass the time before I warmed up (something I usually always did when racing especially in Europe). I felt good jogging on my warmup and doing strides, then when it was time to go into the call room, I remember being really nervous. I was jumping around to keep warm right up until the start. Once the gun went, I sprinted straight to the front, feeling as though I was on autopilot. I remember Melissa Hauschildt once asking me “how do you get out so fast (from the start).”  I truly have no idea, something inside me just clicks for the WXC and I am able to respond to the gun quickly and get out hard.

2004 world XC. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

My plan for the race was to stick in there for the first 3 laps (6km) then when I felt the girls were tiring, make my move and try to gap the field. In previous years, I had lost contact in the third quarter, so I had this in the back of my mind and really worked hard to stay with the leaders from 4km to 6km, where I almost dropped at one stage. Going into the last lap, I felt the girls were tiring. I decided to make my move here, going really hard up the hill and to my amazement, I was leading at the top. But then it sunk in that I was leading the WXC with 1500m to go. That last part is really tough as I was running scared – I could see and hear everyone on the sidelines cheering for me which was awesome but with the wind, rain and noise, I couldn’t tell how close the Ethiopians were behind me. In the final straight (it was very long, at least 300m), it was really windy, and I just ran for the line as hard as I could. I was absolutely exhausted when I crossed the line and just so elated to win. It took a long time to sink in what I had done that day.

That WXC race in Brussels was still the hardest race I ever did (sometimes the races you win feel easy but this one didn’t)! So many people along the way helped me achieve this victory and I thank you all so much. I hope I can help our Aussie distance runners in the future do the same. We are a country full of talent but it’s unlocking your potential and really believing in yourself, being resilient, dedicated, taking risks in races and being willing to fail sometimes – that I believe is needed in order to achieve the great heights.