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As a competitive sport, cross-country running began in England with a game called "hare and hounds" or "the paper chase" in the early 19th century. In this game, a runner or group of runners laid a trail by dropping pieces of paper or other markers while following a random course, and a second set of runners then set out in pursuit, trying to follow the paper trail.

The first formal competition was the Crick Run, first held at Rugby School in 1837. Many other public schools soon established similar events, followed by Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Although hare and hounds continued to be popular at schools, in important competition the game became a cross-country race along a course laid out in advance over open country.

The English national cross-country championship was established in 1876. Two years later, William C. Vosburgh of New York introduced the sport to the United States. In 1887, the National Cross-Country Association was founded, and the association held its first championship event. The Amateur Athletic Association began conducting the national championship in 1880.

Also in 1880, cross-country running was introduced at Harvard as an autumn training event for track and field distance runners, and other colleges quickly followed Harvard's example.

City College of New York, Cornell University, and the University of Pennsylvania took part in the first intercollegiate meet in 1890. The sport became especially popular at Cornell, which took the lead in organizing the Intercollegiate Cross-Country Association in 1898.

International cross-country racing also began in 1898 with competition between England and France. An annual championship meet involving England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales started in 1903 and became a true international event in 1907, when France sent a team to compete. Other European countries followed during the 1920s.

Cross-country was on the Olympic program in 1912, 1920, and 1924, but it was dropped after that because it was considered unsuitable for summer competition.

The International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF), which governs track and field worldwide, took over jurisdiction of cross-country in 1962, establishing rules for both men and women. The first women's world championship meet was held in 1967, a year after the AAU established a national championship for women.

The annual NCAA cross-country championship grew out of a meet inaugurated by the Central Intercollegiate Conference (CIC) in 1926. During the 1930s, so many schools began entering teams that the NCAA took it over as a national championship event in 1938.

Although most cross-country competitors also run distance events in track and field, the two are separate sports. The cross-country season is still the fall and events are run through open country, often over rather rude trails, not on roads or tracks (although major races often begin and end on a track inside a stadium).

There is no standardized cross-country distance. IAAF rules specify minimums for international competition of 12,000 meters (about 7.5 miles) for men and 2,000 to 5,000 meters (about 1.25 to 3 miles) for women. Since distances and difficulty vary, world records are not kept for the event.

Team competition is very important in cross-country. Teams are made up of five to nine runners and the order of finish is determined by adding up the places in which team members finish - that is, 1 point is awarded for a first-place, 2 points for second, and so on. The team with the lowest score wins.

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