I’m a late convert to cross country, a born-again cross-tian if you will. I didn’t always love it but turned up and got it done in the knowledge that I was helping my team and with the awareness that it was probably doing me some good, if nothing else.
This started to change about three years ago and now cross country is my sole focus during the winter months. Rather than having goals centred around times in road races I strive to achieve certain positions in cross country races, where time is irrelevant and head to head racing is everything. For a few years now, my goal has been the same: top ten in a Birmingham League race. The Birmingham League is arguably the strongest and most competitive regional cross country league in the UK as, despite what the name suggests, it encompasses a wide geographical area including Birmingham and the surrounding counties. The strength of the league also owes to the fact that two of the top sporting universities, Birmingham and Loughborough, compete in it.
I remember my first top hundred placing ten years ago and shortly after, my first top fifty and then top thirty. Progress is not linear though; each ten gets progressively harder to crack, and for two years my PB (personal bests are places in cross country, not times) has been stuck at 12. Today I finally did it with a strong run on a very wet and muddy course in Coventry’s Coundon Park, a course I have raced on many times before.
It nearly didn’t happen. On Thursday afternoon I switched my phone on after work to find a series of messages about the cancellation of Saturday’s fixture, due to take place in Great Malvern. The land owner had withdrawn permission for the race to take place due to poor weather and the race, it seemed, was off. I was very disappointed, having worked towards being in good shape and well rested for this race for weeks. Fortunately, by the following day the league had managed to persuade one of the other divisions to host our race on the course they were using anyway, and the race was back on.
I ran the race the way I usually try an run a cross country race, starting way back and picking people off in the second half. By the end of the first of the three laps I could count the number of people ahead of me. Seventeen, then fourteen and then eleven. I knew I’d get in the top ten with a strong final lap. I made up ground on the firmer sections of the course and tried to hold my position on the muddier sections. In the final kilometre I was as high as eighth and had a good battle with two other athletes, one of whom held me off in the final hundred to claim the ‘last guy with single digit position’ prize. Nonetheless I was absolutely delighted. This was the best performance I have had in cross country and only serves to motivate me further. This should give me belief and confidence going into the next race, safe in the knowledge that the higher places are something I can achieve.
The National Cross Country Relays is usually the main curtain-raiser for the English cross country season. A relay consisting of four legs of 5km each, it takes place in the first weekend of November every year and is always a good opportunity to brush down your spikes and remind yourself what pain feels like. Fortunately, with the legs being just half the distance that would be covered at league or county level, it is over quickly but it is long enough to give you a chance to test yourself on the mud. The relay format also adds a team element to the racing and means that you are rarely running in a group or with anyone running the same pace as you.
I took part today, as I did on the same weekend last year, and was faced with a very different course. Last year I wore my 6mm spikes on a hard and fast course that was essentially a series of dirt tracks and firm grassy sections. Today I wore my 12s on a course that was boggy and loose underfoot and sapped energy from you with every stride. My time from last year would have been one of the quickest of the day today, such was the difference in times. I was about 55 seconds down on last year despite running what felt like a good leg. I started in 26th and, reeling people in one by one, I passed nine runners whilst only getting caught by two, giving us a net gain of seven places. I didn’t know this, of course, as in reality I was passing significantly more runners than this. The two-lap nature of each leg means that you are often lapping people, particularly on your second lap. It felt good to be the chaser rather than the one being chased.
Next week the season starts properly with the first league fixture of the season. We won the league last year and I want to play my part in helping the team repeat the feat this winter.
My ninth consecutive Warwickshire Cross Country Championships ends with a fifth place finish, and I finish 13th in the following week’s Birmingham League. Both of these positions equal my personal bests. A good start to the year.
Despite overestimating the course length and not starting my finishing kick early enough because I thought we had an extra lap to run, I still manage 12th in the final league race of the season. After four races, we miss out on second in the final standings by just two points. Naturally, I blame myself.
Dubbed ‘the Beast from the East,’ an unseasonably heavy dumping of snow at the start of the month causes me to spend a week running on the white stuff and trying to avoid slipping on ice. The Beast’s little brother arrives two weeks later to provide a snowstorm backdrop to the Midland 12 Stage. This is literally the coldest I have ever been during a race.
My newfound inability to keep my left calf uninjured rules me out of the National 12 Stage. Having just run a parkrun PB I was hoping to put in a strong performance. Two weeks of jogging and strength and conditioning work put me back on track.
I race four times on the track in May but only remember one of those. My 14:59.96 at Watford allows me to tick off a significant life goal. And then promptly revise the goal downwards.
It’s turning into a year of firsts. A week after breaking 15 minutes for 5000m for the first time. I have my first ‘Steeplechase Fail,’ to borrow a phrase from the many Youtube videos I have watched in which people mistake the water jump barrier for a diving board. Yes, the summer heat wave gets the better of me and I go for a mid-race swim in the steeplechase pit. I resolve to work on my water jump technique when I get back to Birmingham. Oh, and I do my first ever 400 hurdles, with predictably terrible consequences.
After last month’s resounding success, I comprehensively fail to fall at any of the seven water jumps. Instead I run 9:31, a personal best by three seconds. I end the month by running 8:42 for 3000m at Stretford. A good month.
After one more steeplechase and 5000m I take an end of season break and reflect on a successful and enjoyable track season. Stephanie encourages me to take my trainers on holiday so she can kick me out for a run when the lack of running renders me unbearable to be around. As with most things she is right. My runs along the Atlantic coast of France are stunning and memorable.
I get my first ever taste of B team running at the Midland 6 Stage. My club win the race but there are 6 athletes better than me, leaving me in the B team. I need to get better.
Winter training starts after the National 6 Stage. The regime consists of regular doses of what Dave calls ’10 and weights,’ which is exactly what the name suggests and leaves you walking funny the following day.
I’m not really a fan of this time of year, but the start of another cross country season is just enough to make the darkness and poor weather bearable. I compete at the National Cross Country Relays and help my team make a good start to the Birmingham League season
The final month of the year has the usual highs and lows, the high being a strong cross country performance that helps the team move up to first position in the league, the lows being a DNF at Telford and a laughably bad case of poor race organisation at the Gloucester 10 mile race.
I had heard stories like this from other runners before but never thought it would happen to me.
This was the first time I had done the Gloucester 10 mile race, a small event taking place on the Sunday between Christmas and New Year. After a couple of weeks of really good training I was looking forward to getting one final race in for the year and hopefully posting a fast time.
Within half a mile I was off the front with Dan and it was becoming increasingly clear that one of us was going to finish first and the other second. My legs felt great and I had just gone through a mile in close to five minutes feeling comfortable. To make up the full race distance, the course does an out and back section on an industrial estate before heading out on to country lanes. We completed this section and at the second time of arriving at a roundabout, were directed my the marshals to go round again. This was surprising, but I followed their instructions as I didn’t know any better. It very quickly became clear that we had been sent the wrong way.
Sadly, the lead car, which had pulled over prior to a narrow part of the course, was nowhere to be seen. Runners were backing up behind me and the marshals had no idea where to send us. Our chance of a fast time already out the window, Dan and I decided to abandon. We both agreed it would be best not to confront the organisers until we had had some time to calm down, so we went for a run of our own and discussed what had just happened. We were both very frustrated by the poor organisation that had cost us the opportunity to run a good time and most likely win some prize money.
The email sent by the organiser later that day did little to resolve the problem. The blame was pinned solely on the one marshal rather than the race director themself, there was no acknowledgment that this had caused huge frustration for a significant number of people (many others also stepped off) and there was no offer of a refund, something I had assumed would be a given in these circumstances. Furthermore, they published results despite an estimated 10% of the field running off course and the remainder covering a variety of different distances. They also gave prize money out, in what can only have felt like a hollow victory for its recipient. A poor showing from the organisers.
I am not annoyed because someone made a mistake; this happens all the time and is completely normal. What bothers me was the way in which the mistake was atoned for – or not, in this case. Dan and I have both contacted the race director asking why prizes were given out and how to claim a refund. We are both awaiting a reply.
Saturday, 13th January 2007 – Wyken Croft Park, Coventry
I don’t remember much about it, but the records show that I took part in my first ever Birmingham and District Cross Country League race for my university. Aged 19 and competing in division two I managed a lowly finishing position of 87. This was probably no more than I deserved given the half hearted nature of my training at the time. Running was, at the time, vying for space on my schedule with maths lectures, travelling to Birmingham to visit my then girlfriend (now wife), playing football, watching football, seeing bands, working a part time job and going out like any self-respecting undergraduate does.
What I do remember, though, is that it was painful and humiliating. My memory of the day is largely in black and white, though I appreciate that this may be as much due to the passing of time as it is to the fact that most Saturdays in January tend to appear this way when I look back on them. I was unfit and underprepared. Eighty six people beat me and I didn’t make Warwick’s scoring six.
Saturday, 1st December 2018 – Warley Woods, Birmingham
Hoping to make amends for some poor pacing that cost me several places in the field and my club the win on the day three weeks earlier, I set off conservatively, allowing myself to drift back to around 50th at the end of the first lap. Division one in this league is a high standard of competition, but I know that a lot of the athletes ahead of me have overcooked it and will come back. On the second and third laps I move through the field, picking one man off at a time. Ahead of me I can see five other runners from my club occupying positions in the top ten. We are bossing the race at the front and I now need to pick up as many places as I can to keep our team score as low as possible. I continue to move up and into the top twenty. I am starting to run out of room to catch all the guys ahead who are coming back to me. I cross the line in 18th regretting not having taken a few more places in the last mile. Those 18 points contribute to a team total of 48, more than enough to take us to the top of the league. We’re going to be hard to catch now.
Sunday, 9th December 2018 – Telford 10k
I stepped off the road in a race this morning, the first time in many years that I have ended the day with ‘DNF’ next to my name. I never really got going and started to struggle with the pace well before half way. I hadn’t felt right all week and took a gamble on trying to compete. Save it for another day; there are more important races than this one.
When I started running eleven years ago I didn’t realise it was possible to run 15:43 for 5k, let alone go through half way in a 10k with that split whilst feeling terrible. I had no idea I’d be able to get to a stage where I’m making the scoring six for the team at the top of Birmingham League Division One. I didn’t know what steeplechase was, let alone think I could rank in the top 50 in the country for it.
As a teacher, I often encourage my students to reflect on how far they have come in their lives and in their education. Stopping to look down the mountain at everything beneath you gives a great sense of accomplishment as well as the motivation to continue your ascent of it. Now I need to do just that. I had an awful run this morning but I am in great shape and need to remember all the progress I have made. I have improved so much since I started and will continue to do so.