Standing on the outside, looking in

The ACT Cross-Country Club grew organically from a handful of runners gathering for cross-country races in 1957 to an entity which nurtured and managed distance running in Australia’s capital city. Nurtured because club members planted the seeds, managed because, in an early example of out-sourcing, the club ran the distance running program on behalf of ACT athletics. The club disbanded in 2010.

Three stalwarts of the club – Brian Lenton, John Gilbert and Charlie Modrak – have collaborated to write a history of the club: We Ran Canberra: The History of the ACT Cross Country Club 1962-2010. Fittingly, the trio decided it would not be a blow-by-blow account, but a compilation of contributions by club members. They range from champions to also-rans. One you may have heard of is Rob de Castella.

I was resident in Canberra from 1984 to 1986 and ran for the Canberra City Harriers in Cross Country Club events. I was also asked to contribute to the history. I was the only outsider which performs a threefold task. It makes my contribution (which follows) a suitable review, renders its title – Standing On The Outside Looking In – apt, and justifies co-opting the Cold Chisel song title.

(We Ran Canberra: copies by application to

A review:

Early December, 1977, I drove to Canberra from Melbourne for the Pacific Conference Games. Without even realising it, I had entered the orbit of the ACT Cross-Country Club, too.

I’d not long been training with Pat Clohessy’s group. Several of my training mates were competing in the Pre Pacific Conference Games marathon, so I incorporated some race-watching into what was a very hot and windy Friday night run around Lake Burley Griffin. On the Saturday, there was a party in Belconnen and on Sunday, a 6km ‘fun run’ in Stromlo Forest. All three events were organised – albeit, when it came to the party, loosely so – by the Cross-Country Club.

Over the next few years, my encounters with the club increased in frequency, culminating in a period of two years’ residence in the ACT from early-1984 to mid-1986 when my wife, Anne Lord, worked as a physiotherapist at Woden Valley Hospital.

I continued to come up most years for the marathon – though it was not until 1981 that I entered for the first time (recording a ‘dnf’, thanks for asking), and until 1983 that I finished (this was followed by an Olympic Trial ‘dnf’ the following year). In 1980, I came up for the Menzies 12km cross-country and the annual running camp at the Cotter. While we were resident I worked as media officer for the local organising committee of the IAAF World Cup in 1985, which is possibly unique as the only Canberra event I was involved in which had no formal links to the ACT Cross-Country Club!

Given all the above, I was (just a little) ‘miffed’ initially to be informed by joint editor John Gilbert that my contribution to this history was as an ‘outsider.’ Notwithstanding, when I consider two years in the ACT against almost 50 years’ involvement as a registered athlete in Victoria, perhaps I should graciously concede the point. In that context, like Jimmy Barnes, I am indeed standing on the outside looking in.

John’s revelation that publisher Brian Lenton was sub-titling the book “Australia’s greatest cross-country club,” is another matter and his query – “I’ll be interested if you find that provocative” – perceptive. As a member of Glenhuntly, I think I’d stand an all-time Hunters’ team of the likes of Clarke, Cook, Coyle, Vincent, Clohessy, Wardlaw, de Castella, Chettle, Paynter, O’Donnell up against any the ACT CCC could offer. (Note: Brian ultimately amended the claim to ‘most famous’.)

A couple of those named would qualify for both teams, I grant you, but under State of Origin rules, The Hunters have first claim.

Brian’s original sub-title also downplays the unique character of the cross-country club. The ACT Cross-Country Club was never an ordinary club, covering, as it did, a complete interest group. So, too, you could argue, did the Victorian Marathon Club, which covered distance runners and did so much to raise the standard and improve the conditions under which long-distance road, track and cross-country competitions were conducted.

To me, though, the distinction is that the VMC was always an add-on to the state association’s program whereas the cross-country club delivered the winter program for Athletics ACT. The winter championship roster – one race, the RG Menzies Trophy 12km cross-country – and selection of teams for national road and cross-country championships was virtually out-sourced, giving the cross-country club a broader mission and unique reach, even for a special interest group. In the unlikely event that Glenhuntly couldn’t find a team to beat the best of the ACT CCC in a race, I’m confident the result would be overturned in the High Court!

But enough of the publisher’s “provocations”. Irrespective of whether it is the nation’s greatest cross-country club, the ACT Cross Country Club is/was a phenomenal success. In one sense, this is no surprise. As a national capital, with a higher-than-average concentration of middle-class public servants and plenty of open space, Canberra is ideal for running.

The capital is also an ideal fit for a DIY-type of special interest group such as a specialist running club. Recreational running is strong among middle-class groups and there is a depth of organisational expertise in Canberra. A club constitution? Someone from AG’s can draft one. Financial matters? A Finance or Treasury boffin is surely to hand. Logistics? Well, there’s always Territories and Local Government.

Events in Canberra were always so well organised. From its inception, the marathon had a reputation as a runner’s event put on by runners. Outside of state championships and the national title, it is the oldest marathon in Australia and, by dint of beating Melbourne and the Gold Coast into existence by a couple of years, was once briefly the biggest Australian marathon.

Stable April weather, excellent organisation, a largely traffic-free course, incentives for the top runners in the form of travel awards – these and other factors combined to make the national capital an ideal place to run a personal best. Plus, it was the only marathon in the country where the drinks station might be manned by a permanent secretary of a Commonwealth Department. Service delivery par excellence.

Like the Victorian Marathon Club, the ACT CCC was a forum for the exchange of distance running information – training, injury management, running shoes, etc. One outlet for such info was John Gilbert’s Running On Air on community radio.

Another was the annual distance runners’ camp. I attended the 1980 camp at the Cotter River. The camp had featured guest speakers including Ron Clarke, Dave Power, Albie Thomas and Trevor Vincent in its previous five editions. Whether it was a comment on the quality of those guests versus the 1980 invitees, I don’t know, but it took four of us – Ken Hall, Bruce Jones, Tim O’Shaughnessy and me – to provide the star power provided solo by ‘Clarkie’. Fair call, really.

On the Saturday we raced in the Menzies 12,000 metres cross-country championship and then repaired to the Cotter. It was the June long weekend, and a crucial one for the Australian Olympic movement as the Australian Olympic Federation debated a call from the Prime Minister to reverse its decision to compete in Moscow. Many words were spoken on this, and other matters, at the camp.

Ironically, I probably ran fewer cross-country events the two years I was living in Canberra than I had in other years, a combination of going back to Melbourne for the main winter races there and the drawing power of ‘Deek’, with whom I, and many others, ran on Saturday mornings. But I did make a point of racing the McInnes ‘10’ just before our move back to Melbourne.

The most enjoyable winter events were the relays and some of the shorter, sharper distance races. Where else but the bush capital could you race up and down the head of state’s driveway as you did on Dunrossil Drive. You probably could have in Melbourne when John Landy was governor of Victoria, but his drive wasn’t long enough!

Women’s running was another area in which the club played a leading role, both at the elite level, where its shorter races were more compatible with the national and international championship distances then run, and the participation level. The regular women’s races on the ‘Jogalong’ course were the entry point for many women into longer distance running.

Not only that, but the circuit was also the course for the fun run on that early visit for the Pacific Conference Games. The ‘McInnes 10’ and the ‘Jogalong’ loop – pretty good bookends for my main involvement with the ACT Cross Country Club, I reckon.

The ACT Cross Country Club is gone, but its pivotal role in the establishment of a strong distance running culture in the national capital is its enduring legacy.