London skyline with 600 runners heading up Parliament Hill in the foreground

XC: X-treme Cheerleading

Less than two weeks ago myself and The Wife decided, at short notice, to have a jaunt into London Village.  We love London and are fortunate to make the relatively short jump of 60-odd miles fairly frequently.  This visit wasn’t for the normal shopping or sightseeing, although we did see some sights; this visit was to cheer on 3000 men, women, boys and girls round a muddy field in Hampstead!

Saturday 25th January saw Hampstead Heath host the 2014 South of England Cross Country Championships.  It also saw a varietous display of weather akin to an eclectic music festival:

The rarely-seen and ageing Sun took to the stage first and put on an unexpectedly-long set to kick off the afternoon.  The super group of Clouds & Wind brought their chilling tones to the second set before Torrential Rain (featuring a guest performance from edgy newcomer Hail) put on a great penultimate set.  Not to be outdone, the heavy rock legends, Thunder & Lightning, turned their amps up to 11, took to the stage and stunned the crowd with a deafening finale, including a blinding laser light show!

Apologies for the whimsy there.  I’d like to say it was inspired by a flashback brought on by standing, inappropriately dressed, in a muddy field but the only festival I went to was a baking hot V festival so I have no personal point of reference.  Anyway, back on topic…

The Wife and I had 3 reasons to go to this muddy field:

  • Ryan Meredith (representing Oxford City): my 1st cousin-in-law once removed, competing in his last year at under-20
  • Steve “Super” Naylor (representing Bedford & County): a close friend and late-comer to running who, at 34, is still one of the quickest men on two feet in Oxfordshire
  • Andrew “Grundy” Smith (representing Headington): the younger brother of a former flatmate but now foremost a local running buddy and thoroughly nice chap

Oh, and a fourth reason, in that we like the odd adventure to watch sport.  Normally “odd” as in infrequent, rather than as in strange, but certainly not limited to that definition!

I knew the course would resemble a ploughed field but I’d woefully underestimated the state of the surrounding areas.  Ignoring The Wife’s last minute decision to grab wellies, I opted for my North Face walking shoes and was instantly attempting to walk as if filled with helium just to keep the mud from swallowing me up to my ankles!

We managed to locate some terra firma that was actually firm and surveyed the younger age group races, gradually catching up with our 3 “reasons”, as well as Ryan’s parents, Jackie and Steve.

There was some awesome racing on show around an intimidating course amongst terrible conditions.  Some runners seemed sure-footed, some resembled Bambi on ice and others were decided the conditions were so unbelievable they wanted a closer look!

It was inspiring to see the efforts going in by the competitors.  Well, I say inspiring… let’s not get confused here:

I am not, in any way, pledging to take on the 9 muddy miles that is Parliament Hill next year

Although, I would love to be coaching runners there in 2015 (although this may be ambitious) and beyond!  And I may be tempted to enter some local cross country events next winter.  We’ll see.

Ryan Merdith running
Ryan making good progress in the 2014 SEAA XC Under 20 race

After cheering Ryan round to a good performance and shouting encouragement to the senior women we prepared ourselves for the charge of the light brigade: approximately 600 senior males stampeding up the first hill to embark on their 3 laps of Hampstead Heath:

Steve Naylor running
Naylor runs a strong 9th despite falling

Steve made a good start and got some space, well inside the top 10.  He was going well and pushing for a top 5 position until he had a tumble.  Picking himself up he managed to continue to a more-than-respectable 9th place, helping to secure Bedford & County the silver team medal despite a few absent faces.

My biggest shouts were saved for Grundy, tackling only his 4th (or maybe 5th?) ever cross country race!  Grundy is a running inspiration for me – nothing phases him.

Andrew Smith running with other runners in background
Grundy runs up the hill to start lap 2

By the time we saw him at the end of the first lap, he’d already explored a little of the course on his hands and knees.  But he was still smiling.  The second lap started to take it’s toll and, after another fall at the start of the third lap, I could see his smile had slipped.  Along with The Wife, and Steve & Jackie, we cheered him enough to tackle the final lap.  We had to keep him going; I knew he’d hate to have a DNF on the results, although just giving it a crack was an achievement in itself.

After seeing Grundy off on to his third lap we relocated to the finish line to cheer home Naylor.  And then waited.  And then the rain started.  And the hail.  And then the thought crossed my mind:

I hope he hasn’t decided to abandon on the far side of the course?!

I think Steve and Jackie were probably thinking the same thing.  The fact that they were standing in the cold, literally getting soaked to the skin, for a man they had only met a couple of hours prior is testament to what kind, friendly people they are.

Peering through the hail and rain being blasted into our faces, we finally caught a glimpse of Grundy coming down the final hill.  I threw my loudest cheers into the wind in the hope that it would spur him on to the finish line which, had been hastily dismantled due to the wind.

A very grateful and proud Grundy thanked us for cheering him on and told us that he wouldn’t have made it round the third lap without us.  We then hot footed it back to the car to see just how comfortable it would be to travel the 90 minutes back to Oxfordshire in sopping wet clothes.

Now I don’t want you to get the wrong impression here.  I had a fantastically fun day out.  I love watching athletics and when I can cheer people on, helping them go further or faster it’s even better.  I guess that’s why I so passionately want to coach.

What I really want people to take away from this post is threefold:

1. Watching cross country is great fun, the athletes appreciate the support and best of all, it’s free.  I would heartily recommend it.  The Nationals are coming up in Nottingham and I’ll be heading (extreme weather permitting) to the Inter-Counties in Birmingham for the third successive year next month.  Most local leagues will have one race still to go too so check it out!

2. It was disappointing to see such a low number of senior athletes from my native Oxfordshire.  Admittedly, the weather was terrible and the course is tough, but that’s cross country.  Headington’s team (and Woodstock Harriers sole entrant) attempted to fly the flag for us!  As a county, Oxfordshire seems to have relatively low aspirations when it comes to road and cross country running.  Come on Oxfordshire – we can do better than this!

3. It was disappointing that there wasn’t more social media coverage of the event.  I appreciate it was just one of a number of regional championships but there was barely a whisper from England Athletics and even the organisers of the event, SEAA Competitions Ltd, made only scant reference to it.  There is great power in social media and athletics needs to harness it!

To finish, I would like to dedicate this post to all cross country runners across the country.  I stand and  applaud your bloody-minded determination and my cap is well and truly doffed in your direction.

And to all those coaches, parents, friends and onlookers who are stupid enough to join them from the sidelines.  Keep up the good work.  You really do make a difference.  Grundy said so.

Do you run cross country?  Or perhaps you prefer to join in from the sidelines?  What’s your experience of Parliament Hill?  And what are your thoughts on athletics and social media?

For more videos from the day see the Athleticos website

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