Ah it’s that time of year again. It’s been approaching. Checking Instagram, my running buddies over in the US have been starting their cross country seasons a little earlier than we do in the UK. In the fall, beautiful autumnal browns and golds, grassy circuits scattered with leaves. Sunshine. All athleticism, racing spikes and high 5s. Tanned legs prancing over field and prairie. In Franklin Park, Golden Gate Park, etc. What a treat for a runner.
Now I missed AR Cross Country teams first meet on Wimbledon Common (the home of XC!). Apparently it was all sunshine and hill sprints. Lovely stuff. But on Saturday, it was back to the more traditional UK cross country scenario. Mud, water, rain, dipping temperatures, hills, bogs, elbows, no showers and plastic bags. What a treat for a runner. I’m being sarcastic. But having said that. It was fun! And we won.
Cross Country in the UK is basically a training ground. A battle ground. Events taking place post season, just at the point when you want to rest your legs and eat vegan mince pies and Bisto for 6 weeks. Instead your running coach – or conscience if like me you don’t have one – insists you go and toughen up over the winter in preparation (normally) for a Spring marathon. It makes no sense really if you think about it. I mean you’ve probably run well over 1000 miles for the year already. Why then torture yourself with what is basically all-out elbows-out racing over treacherous terrain? I mean the window for injury couldn’t be any more open. But anyway…
On the day in question – last Saturday – we trudged to a grey and dreary Epsom race course ready for Round 2 of 4 of the Surrey XC league. AR being the new kids on the block, we are in the bottom division, 4. But we are top of that division. So, as well as proving that we are worthy of donning our spikes and rubbing hairy shoulders with the best of the South of England’s running traditionalists, we had some sort of credibility to maintain.
A pack of snorting, muscle twitching mules amassed in club colours on the start line ready for the off. I was slightly nervous. I hadn’t run fast all year. My shorts were really short. Some people were wearing spikes, some trail footwear. But no time for shoegazing, soon the gun and off we cantered to the first corner. AR were running steady. Martin, Skinner and Captain Poole up front, Brojan (in tandem obvs) and then me in behind. Soon to be joined by young buck Brewdog, I ushered him past and told him to run on – he’s got long legs, potential and youthful enthusiasm on his side. I was pacing pretty well in behind those 6 and we were all fairly close together toward the end of the first of two 2.5 mile loops.
But then disaster struck. In amateurish fashion I’d not double-tied my spikes and soon I could feel the lash of an unfastened lace whipping my freezing calves. I thought I might run on, but alas a boggy patch, and I succumbed to knee and heel at the side of the course, hands red and frozen desperately shaking trying to re-shoe. A stream of runners passed, several AR’ers included. My teammates here were the motivation to get back in there and try and work my up the field again – in XC every place counts and with the top 10 runners from each team scoring, you have to try to come as high up as you can.
Back in the race I definitely burnt a match or two trying to get back to the train I’d become uncoupled from. But the race, like my choice in leg-wear, was just too short for me to catch up. I did try my hardest and managed to bag some places in the process, finishing in 2oth (of the Div 4 runners) overall and covering the 8k/5m in 31:05. Which actually I was pretty pleased with. That’s not far off my half marathon pace on the road – so given the terrain and the wardrobe failure I couldn’t be too upset. Plus I hope that the few places I made back helped contribute to our slender winning victory (7 places!).
But it wasn’t all about me. In fact it wasn’t about me at all! The team killed it again. We won our Div 4 match and arguably would have given the Div 3 guys a run for their money. My teammates – those I travelled with, those who finished at the sharp end of the race, those who offered words of encouragement when they passed me and passed them on the course, were awesome. Bring on Match 3.
Cross Country – despite the cold, the mud, the wind, the rain, is seemingly a fantastic discipline for breeding strong runners. This was one of those days that will probably serve me well come April and the London Marathon. Meanwhile, can I have a cup of tea and a lie down now?