Benita Willis winning the 2004 world cross country title in Brussels (© Getty Images)
Benita Willis created history in 2004 to become Australia’s first – and so far only – world cross-country champion. Here Willis offers her take on a competition which helped define her.
Early on, little cross-country background
Perhaps unusually for an athlete who boasted such strong cross-country pedigree on the global stage, Benita Willis had little background over the surface as a child growing up in Mackay on the Queensland coast.
She only raced cross county “maybe once” at school because the season often clashed with her hockey commitments (Willis was an Australian junior hockey international). Yet looking back, her background provided the perfect foundation for cross-country running.
“I didn’t wear shoes until year nine (at school) and growing up by the beach I did a lot of sand hill running,” she says. “My body awareness was always really good. I never rolled my ankle or had a problem running in cambers, so when I ran in cross country people used to say it looked like I was running on the track.”
World Cross debut
Willis competed in the 5000m (failing to advance from the heats) aged 21 at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Keen to further test herself on the international stage, she made her IAAF World Cross Country Championships debut in the short race at the 2001 event in Ostend, Belgium.
Earlier in the month the Australian had set a national record of 8:42.75 to finish sixth at the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Lisbon, but despite her good shape, Willis knew Ostend was a journey into the unknown.
“I’d never competed at a World Cross as a junior, so I didn’t know what the event would be like,” says Willis, who today works as the recreational running manager for Queensland Athletics.
“I knew I had to get out hard and I remember the older girls (on the team) said I had to be in the top 50 by the first turn otherwise I wouldn’t finish anywhere. It was muddy, windy, cold and wet but I finished sixth (nine seconds shy of the podium) and I was proud of how I performed.
“It was a cool experience. I had enjoyed competing against a large group of people and I enjoyed the fact that each cross-country course is unique and different.”
Her greatest triumph
Quickly drawn to the quirks and charm of cross-country running, Willis returned for the 2002 and 2003 editions in Dublin and Lausanne. But although she performed with distinction in the short course races to place fourth and fifth respectively, she was left hugely frustrated to miss out on a podium spot.
“Top five was good, but I wanted a medal,” she recalls.
She would return in 2004 – but this time in the 8km long course race.
Encouragingly, Willis earned her breakthrough first international medal with bronze at the 2003 IAAF World Half Marathon Championships in Vilamoura. Swelled by a new-found confidence just one month before the 2004 World Cross Country Championships, she claimed the scalp of two-time Olympic 10,000m champion Derartu Tulu at the Chiba International cross-country meet – a defeat which prompted the Ethiopian to ask which race (the long or the short course) the Australian planned to contest a few weeks later in Brussels.
“When I said I was competing in the long course, she said she was glad because she was running the short course,” explains Willis. “After that race, it gave me a lot more confidence. I knew I could win a medal at the World Cross, although I never spoke publicly about it.”
Instead, Willis worked hard, fine-tuning her World Cross strategy with her wily coach, Nic Bideau.
“I knew I was fit and running well, but I also knew I had to hang on (to the leaders) during that third lap (of four) and make sure I never got dropped,” she says. “My coach described it as like holding on to the monkey bars at the top of a 20-storey building. That was the analogy I thought about the race. I then hoped to make my move on the final lap, where I thought the Africans could be vulnerable.”
Willis had the belief, the desire and the strength to go with the top African runners from the outset and clung on to the Ethiopian duo of Ejegayehu Dibaba and Werknesh Kidane who had set a fearsome pace on lap three to drop everyone bar Willis and Kenyan Alice Timbilil.
Then, at the beginning of the final lap, Willis unleashed her victory bid to kick clear of the field.
“I noticed I had a gap, which was a bit scary because I knew I still had about 1500 metres to go,” says Willis. “I just had to run as hard as I could. It was one of the hardest races of my career.”
Willis could not be caught and she ran out a decisive 12-second winner from Dibaba with Kidane in third.
To this day, she still recalls the thrill of coming down the final stretch knowing she would be crowned champion.
“It was very emotional,” she says. “To get it right meant so much to me because I realised I might not have that opportunity again.”
The later years
Willis went on to compete at a further four World Cross Country Championships but could not repeat the success of Brussels. At the 2006 edition in Fukuoka, she finished an agonising fourth in both the short and long course events, although she had the consolation of earning team bronze for Australia in the former race.
She made her last World Cross appearance in 2010, finishing 17th. Reflecting on her time in the sport, she has little doubt the surface best suited her strengths.
“I had good results on the track, indoors and road, but I had my best results in cross country and it is where I felt most comfortable,” she explains. “I was the sort of girl who couldn’t run 14:30 on the track (her 5000m PB was 14:47) for 5000m but I could beat the 14:30 girls in a cross-country race.”
Setting up her career
There is little doubt in Willis’s mind that her best years on the track and on the road often followed an outstanding cross-country campaign and the World Cross Country Championships always represented a key event.
“Training for the World Cross helped set me up for the rest of the year,” she insists. “It kept me focused during the summer (the northern hemisphere winter) particularly over Christmas and New Year when, without the focus of World Cross, I might have just cruised along.
“I also think it is good to be able to run on grass which is less demanding on the body. I often think people become too focused on road (training) and break down with injury. So, as an elite athlete, I absolutely think you should have that focus on competing at the World Cross.
“I enjoyed all the different places I travelled to (with the World Cross) and the different courses and challenges I faced. It was also great to be part of a team and it was great to test myself against a big field of top-class athletes from around the world.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF