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 The land owner had withdrawn permission for the race to take place due to poor weather and the race, it seemed, was off.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.
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.
Right from the gun in the first Birmingham League fixture of the season I just felt as though my legs weren’t as light and fluid as I hoped they would be. I tried not to let it affect me, hoping it was just a case of me taking a while to build in to the race and that I would be better in the second half. Unfortunately I wasn’t, and lost several places I needn’t have lost in the last mile. This was particularly galling as we finished second on the day by one solitary point from Loughborough. Whilst 25th in a very strong field hardly represents a disaster, it doesn’t match the shape I feel I am currently in.
I also felt heavy legged on Thursday, and especially so on Wednesday after a session on Tuesday night that led Dave, not someone prone to hyperbole or exaggeration, to declare it my best session ever. On reflection, I just went a bit too hard and probably had some lingering fatigue going into Saturday’s race. Tuesday’s session was a high-volume effort, but one that I should have been able to recover from had I toned the effort down on the last few reps. Sometimes you train and unexpectedly feel great; this often results in pushing a bit too hard to confirm your fitness. Even as someone who has been training and competing for years I occasionally fall into this trap, losing sight of the fact that it’s what you do on a Saturday that shows in the results, not your amazing session on Tuesday.
Athletes have a strange tendency to ask ‘what if…’ at the end of a race or competition.
The process of analysing your performance and thinking about everything that you could have done differently doesn’t start the day after the race or even an hour after the race; it starts the moment you cross the finish line. Yesterday my club finished 3rd in the Birmingham League, winning the team race on the day, and I achieved my highest ever Birmingham League position. Or at least, this is how most rationally minded people would look at yesterday’s race. My take on it was slightly different; as I saw it I could have finished much higher on the day if I had judged the course better and not thought we were at the start of the final lap when we were in fact on the charge towards the finish. I could have pushed on much earlier than I did and would have caught the two runners just ahead of me. Not only would this have given me a better result but the team would have scored well enough to make up the measly two point deficit to the club who beat us into 2nd place overall. My competitors were probably creating their own monologues in their heads at the same time.
This way of thinking isn’t just limited to one race though; I do this kind of thing all the time. Last summer I ran a personal best for 5000m and within minutes of crossing the line was considering everything I could have done to break 15 minutes in that race: ‘if only I had pushed on in that 4th kilometre I’d have been on track at the bell’ It amazes me how quickly you forget the pain and discomfort after a race and assume that you could have just pushed a little bit harder, when in reality you were giving everything you could.
This eagerness to analyse performance and adapt accordingly is undoubtedly a trait that enables athletes to improve; it is also the exact same trait that means we are never entirely satisfied with a performace.
Monday: AM 10km easy / PM 12km easy (22)
Tuesday: AM 10km easy / PM road session – 5 sets of 90s/2:00, strides (27)
Wednesday: 15km easy, drills and hurdles (15)
Thursday: AM 9km easy / PM 10km with 2 miles hard (19)
Friday: rest (0)
Saturday: Birmingham League, Wolverhampton – 12th (15)
This week, whilst idly waiting for the clock to tell me to leave for my latest cross country race I listened to Steve Magness’ latest podcast. This episode, entitled ‘Everything You Need to Know About the 5k’ was a fascinating conversation about preparing athletes to race 12.5 laps of the track. One of the most interesting comments made was to do with athletes’ tendency to want to have a great session a few days before a race as a confidence booster. However more often than not, they argue, the confidence boosting effect is negated by the damage, both physical and mental, that such sessions can do. The two coaches discussed some of their athletes’ best races and how the training that immediately preceded them was often unimpressive on paper. The real work came not days but weeks and months before the target race. The ‘going to the well’ sessions designed to create large adaptations were planned to take place at least 10 days before the race, with everything between then and race day a matter of maintaining fitness rather than trying to increase it.
I found this interesting as it echoes my own experience as an athlete, albeit one at a lower level than those described in the podcast. Maybe I need to stop looking for clues that I am going to race well in the days leading up to a race and trust that all the work done prior to that will pay dividends.
Yesterday I finished 13th in a Birmingham League race, my highest ever finishing position. It feels like the training I did a few weeks ago is starting to take effect!