Lisa Cross’ life has had many twists and turns in her almost 40 years. Now the mum of two says she’s never felt better running at the world cross country champs for the first time.
When Lisa Cross was an apprentice jockey, she became attuned to the puffs and blows of the horses racing around her. She recognised those who were about to make a sprint for the line, and those who’d already run out of steam.
It’s a skill she’s honed as long-distance runner, too, reading the breathing of her human rivals.
“It was always interesting riding in a race, you could pick the horses that were fatiguing based on their breathing. They’re generally only good for sprinting 600 metres, so you could gauge whether they were poised to make a run or not,” Cross says.
Now the former jockey and policewoman is preparing to run at her first world cross country championships – in Bathurst, Australia, this month – and hopes she can predict her opponents’ intentions by listening as they inhale and exhale.
“It’s actually the main thing I focus on when I train my athletes when I run with them,” says Cross, who’s also a running coach.
A mum of two who turns 40 next month, Cross says she’s never felt so strong, heading into these world championships at Mount Panorama – better known for racing cars than pacing feet.
Her goal: “To not be more than five minutes behind a Kenyan, or not get lapped by a Kenyan. That would be cool.”
Kenyans, after all, have been the dominant force in the 50 year-history of world cross country championships.
Cross also hopes she can inspire other women “who thought they were destined for the broodmare paddock” after having children.
Lisa Cross takes her family running – husband Mike, son Fletcher and daughter Scarlett (Facebook)
Her daughter, Scarlett, is now six and son, Fletcher, is five. While she was a champion runner before they were born, Cross says being a mum has only enhanced her athleticism.
“I guess everyone’s childbirth experiences are different. I just found it made me stronger,” she says. “When you’re out running a marathon it’s like ‘This is easier than looking after the kids’. So I’ve really enjoyed it.”
Not that Cross had easy labours – both children were delivered by emergency caesarean surgery.
“But I still managed to bounce back from them. I did a 10km race six weeks after my first caesarean and I did okay,” she recalls.
“I remember before the start of the race breastfeeding in the bushes then handing my daughter over to my husband for half an hour while I went for a run. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Cross also ran 6km around the hospital roads in the hours before Fletcher was born. “There’s no stopping me,” she laughs.
She was also known to go for a run between races when she was a jockey – in the days when she somehow managed to juggle both sporting passions.
Cross was a late-comer to running. As a kid growing up in south Auckland, she played representative football. But while training to become a police officer, she discovered she had the ability to run fast.
The 2.4km police trial run had to be completed in 11m 15s – Cross did it in 8m 40s. She was encouraged to find a coach, and started working with former Commonwealth Games runner John Bowden.
She won her first New Zealand title in 2011, at the national 10km road championships, and followed that up by winning the Auckland Marathon – in her first attempt over the 42km distance. She also broke the course record by almost four minutes.
Two days later, she rode her favourite horse, Running Down a Dream, to victory at the Melbourne Cup Day meeting at Ellerslie Racecourse.
Those two results were just reward for Cross, who’d taken two years’ unpaid leave from the police force to finish her jockey apprenticeship and spend more time running.
She rode five winners from around 100 races in her career, working with thoroughbred trainer Caroline Pomare in Papakura. But after her marathon victory she decided to pour all her energy into trying to qualify for the 2012 Olympics in London.
While Cross never got to an Olympics, she forged ahead with her running career, winning the 2012 Oceania half marathon title and then after having her children, claimed her first national cross country title in 2018.
She sometimes misses life as a jockey. “It was really fun. And great cross training for running,” she says. “I have a Kaimanawa pony now, so I still get my pony rides in – but it’s nothing like racing.”
Cross also left the police force after her second child arrived. “It worked out it would cost just as much in childcare as what I was earning, so I decided I’d rather bring the kids up myself,” she says.
That’s given her more time to run, too – with help from her family. Her husband, Mike, converted part of their house in rural Ararimu into a unit for Cross’ parents (her mum, Grace, and dad, Ross Robertson, a former Labour MP).
“It means I can get up and go for a run while the kids are asleep, but Grandma is there. Or it would be near impossible to do, I think,” Cross says.
Scarlett and Fletcher understand how important it is for Mum to go running, having grown up immersed in it. “They were either in the buggy being pushed while I ran, or in a jolly jumper while I was on the treadmill. That’s all they know,” she says.
“Because I coach running as well they come along and they’re coached by me too. It’s early for them but they both love it. Scarlet has won the sports award at school for two years in a row.”
Cross coaches young runners at her TTT Running club in south Auckland, and also takes a lot from it.
“It pushes me out of my comfort zone because I’m not really a people person. So it’s good for me to step up and tell people what to do,” she says.
“It been good for me to jump in and run with them, to pace people and help them reach their goals. I also get to see the mental side of people’s psyche when they run, which has been a good learning curve for me.”
Cross works with fellow TTT coach James Kuegler, who’s had her running around his Bombay farm and doing intense trail running “to toughen me up” before the world cross country championships.
(In the past week, she’s been running around rotting onions strewn across Pukekohe roads by floodwaters).
She’s looking forward to running on the Bathurst course, on February 18, where she expects it to be similar terrain to last year’s national cross country championships in Taupo, where she dominated a class field from the get-go.
“I just had a field day there, so I think this race will be great fun too. I’ll probably run the whole way smiling – unless it starts hurting,” she laughs.
Cross knows pain only too well. She suffered a pelvic stress fracture back in 2020, and still has no idea what caused the injury.
“I’d just finished a run one day and about an hour later I had chronic back pain. I managed 13km the next day before I couldn’t move, and James had to run back and get a car to pick me up off the side of the road,” she says. It took her six months to recover.
“I honestly thought my hip was the end of me, given my age and all. So I was quite chuffed I pulled through. It taught me a lot.”
Will this be her one and only world cross country championships – her running swansong?
“My mum is like, ‘Are you going to retire after this?’ But it’s hard – this is probably the best I’ve ever been,” Cross says.
“I say ‘This is it, this is it’, but we’ll just see what happens. I’ll keep running because I like doing it, and whatever comes my way, comes my way.”
* Cross isn’t the only mum in the 26-strong New Zealand cross country team heading to the world champs in Bathurst. Emily Roughan – whose partner Matt Baxter is also in the team – returned to running after having their son, Miles. And Sarah Drought, the national 10km silver medallist, has two sons, Freddie and Jacob.