After 6 years as a regular runner I finally acknowledged I should be taking on the cross country season. This afternoon it was time for me to embrace the filth!
There are many reason not to run cross country, not least the mud. I know because I’ve seen many cross country races first hand while supporting friends who were stupid enough to run. I have been more than happy to be a spectator but after a slightly disappointing end to the year I knew it was the right time to get involved!
As I wrote a feature about cross country running for new running website Running Stories I was actually getting excited to start a new chapter in my running career. This morning, however, the excitement was beginning to turn to nerves. as I drove to the Horspath Sports Ground in Oxford.
Seeing the club flags fluttering over the tented village made it all real. Once I’d got my race number and catching up with some friendly faces I started to relax.
The under 17 boys were about to start so I headed round to take a look at the water jump that sits just 600 metres into the course. The boys attacked it in all manner of ways; keeping left, keeping right, splashing through the middle or trying to clear the couple of metres of muddy water in one bound. Unfortunately one of them landed awkwardly and despite trying to hop and hobble on, made the right decision and pulled out of the race.
Hmmm. After some debate with fellow observers, the consensus was not to jump and just get stuck in. Once you’re wet, you’re wet.
With the women now on course it was time to switch the wellies for spikes. After a short trot to warm up we gathered at the start line to await the gun. Knowing that there were two big ascents and with the water jump playing in my mind I’d already decided to hang back and relax into the race.
The start was nothing like the road races I’m used to. I’m not sure what I expected but standing in the middle of a field provides a lot more space than cramming between two curbs. And the first few hundred metres was strangely quiet.
A crowd had gathered at the water jump however, slightly disappointingly, it came and went without incident. I don’t even really remember how I tackled it!
Heading away from the relatively solid sports pitches we were now heading in the boggy surrounding fields and I felt in a comfortable rhythm. The same couldn’t be said for everyone as someone took a tumble just in front of me, presumably the boggy ground grabbing their feet. That made my knees lift just that little bit more. I was here to embrace the filth but I wasn’t intending on getting on all fours.
Just as things were getting too comfortable the first main ascent was upon me.
Everyone had told me about the hill but after the Watford half marathon last year, “how hard can it be?” I’d thought. Turns out, the mix of firm, angled ground, slushy mud and tree roots combined with a 1 in 10 incline was a little leg-sapping! It was a lift to see the friendly face of our club’s Junior Coach towards the top to shout support and to remind me to use my arms more. Oops! I definitely need to remember to practice what I preach.
As it levelled off, I was able to relax slightly but not for long. The level ground at the top of the hill was anything but level. The soft mud and molehills had been churned up so that every step left my ankle at a different angle. I tried to think of the great benefit this would be to strengthen my ankles and legs in general.
Re-entering the woods was where it got interesting! My mate, Gravity, tapped me on the shoulder and encouraged me to go for it. I put faith in my spikes, concentrated on picking my feet up and took off down the woody track.
It got a little dicey toward the bottom as the track narrowed ready for a tight right turn across a concrete gateway. Thankfully I navigated the turn safely only to find another hill in front of me. It was satisfyingly grassy, firm and short! And it provided another fun downhill; this time on soggy, boggy mud but just as fun.
The excitement of the downhills soon disappeared. The realisation of a second lap hit me just at the point of seeing my wife cheering me to “embrace the filth”. At this point, the filth was fun. It was my legs that were shouting at me to stop. I grinned as best I could although I’ve been told afterwards that I certainly didn’t look like I was enjoying it.
I began the second climb of the steep hill with a certain determination. That particular determination drained away rapidly and I succumbed to a spot of walking to compose myself. I managed to keep myself going almost as quickly and only one or two people passed me and I soon got myself going again.
As we approached the top for the second time I was dreading the uneven ground so I decided to take a slightly longer route to pick up a small track, slightly further away from the treeline. It was still a little lumpy but it allowed me to relax more and, looking at my data, kept my pace up. It even allowed me to look forward to the forthcoming fun of the downhills. As my mind wandered scuffed my spikes and nearly took a tumble. Out loud I coached myself to pick my damn feet up! Easier said than done with tired legs!
At the end of the second lap we turned away from the previous course and hit a very muddy section. I didn’t mind the mud itself but it lay level like a puddle, hiding the uneven ground below. My ankles yelped a number of times although I was lucky not to twist anything.
The comparative quiet of the hill loops was replaced with cheers from club supporters as we re-entered the sports fields. I was tired but the level, relatively firm ground was being eaten up by my spikes and I was able to ramp up the pace. As we approached the final corner and 300m to go I was catching a small line of 5 runners.
It was time to dig for my usual sprint finish and with the cheers from Anne, who I coached to do the Snowdonia marathon last autumn, I found a burst of speed that dragged me up a couple of places. I was concentrating so hard to keep going I didn’t here my wife cheering me across the line!
I slowly stumbled my way back to the club tent to exchange experiences and start to get warmer, drier and cleaner. It appears I wasn’t alone in enjoying the downhills. There was quite a buzz about it.
As I’d now lost my cross country virginity, I was asked how I felt. Despite it being the hardest 9k I’d ever run, I had loved the experience. I’m already looking forward to embracing the filth next month!