Why do we do it? The winter wet, heartbreak hills, muddied morass?
Runners gather in club colours, young and old, brimming with trepidation, stretching twitchy hamstrings. On a day that started with monochrome skies, wind and hail, the sun seems desperate to break through and help brighten this cold corner of the Heath. A croaky announcer updates us as to who is out on the course, which runners have dropped, who is pushing; mums and dads kept in the loop whilst temple greying coaches in long jackets check stopwatches and tot up scores.
I fully expected a black and white montage of toil and no man’s land trudgery. But after stationing myself between start-line, finish-line and race area – in the trenches rather than out on the battlefield – the whole thing becomes apparently clear and colourful.
U15 and U17 girls and boys races are a highlight. In cross country, as with most running events, there are individual prizes for placing first, second and third. But there are also team prizes; with four of each troop scoring according to finishing position i.e. runner four as important as runner one when it comes to the final result, the lowest collective score winning. Perhaps we become focussed more on individual performance as we age. Perhaps these youngsters, still finding their footing in life, identify more with the success of the group rather than focussing on the unknown of what they might or might not be able to achieve solo.
I listened to runners young and old at the end of their race. Some bemoaned the conditions – the hills, the wet, the cold! But others laughed at tumbles taken, congratulated, consoled. When a young runner came over the line wearing more of the course than kit, not just her team-mates but five or six others gathered around, asked how she was and praised her for recovering and finishing. Then it clicked.
We run cross country because of pride. Because of teamwork. Because of failure. Because of triumph. When watching the start line stampede, the muddied canter for home, the nervous wait at the finish, you realise that stories are being written. And then a rainy Saturday morning in the mud becomes something a whole lot more enlightening.
Results from the Southern Cross Country Championship 2016 can be found here.
Photos and words by Alex van Oostrum.