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 The land owner had withdrawn permission for the race to take place due to poor weather and the race, it seemed, was off.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 was a very special day for me for a number of reasons. The day started in northern Poland, where we had just spent the last week on holiday. With our flight home not until late morning, we got up early to go down to the beach and watch the sun rise over the Baltic Sea. Whilst I’m aware that I’m boasting here, I’m also aware that this is a real treat and not something I get to experience in landlocked Birmingham. It was stunning.
Once the sun had illuminated the Sopot beach, my runner’s instinct kicked in and I took the opportunity to get one more run in before going home. With my shoes already off and my running kit already on, I ran down the beach towards the city of Gdansk. The sea breeze was cold at first but the rising sun soon kicked in and warmed me up as I ran. At 6 in the morning there were very few people around, with the exception of some friends here and there walking home from a night out, or some early morning swimmers wanting to beat the crowds (or bathe in the nude in the case of one elderly man). After turning around at a pier about 4km away, I picked up the pace on the way back and was probably close to 6 minute mile pace by the end of the run. The combination of being tired from lack of sleep and being in beautiful surroundings put me in an almost trance like state, where I didn’t feel like I was consciously running at all. Left foot and right swapped places effortlessly, only breaking stride to cross a stream or move onto firmer sand nearer the water’s edge. It’s not a run I’m likely to forget any time soon.
We packed up our things and drove to the Gdansk airport to catch our flight back to Birmingham, swapping the blue skies of continental Europe for the more familiar grey skies of the West Midlands. It was good to be back. After lunch with my parents-in-law and some time spent unpacking I embarked on the second installment of my running day. Prior to my holiday I had agreed to pace some friends in their attempt to break 16 minutes for 5000 metres, provided I could get back in time. With the race scheduled for 7:20 in the evening I had no excuse. Not that I needed any.
The pace they were trying to run is close to what I want to run for 10k this weekend, so it served as the ideal training run. The added bonus was that it took place at the track on my old university campus; I was looking forward to running around the campus again and seeing what had changed.
Four others from my training group were there, as was Tim’s friend Sarah who was also trying to run a similar time. I ran a few strides before hand just to check the pace and as soon as the gun went, had a big group behind me trying to hit close to 76 seconds per lap. Within 500 metres I was hitting the right pace for them and now had to just focus on keeping it going and not slowing down or speeding up too much. With a group that size, slowing down could definitely lead to falls and collisions. We hit the first km bang on target in 3:10. I find that I can usually hold a pace quite well once I get onto it and we were hitting each split very close to the pace they had asked for. I looked back at every bend to check everyone was still there: Dan, Tim, Chris, Sarah were all there every time and even Mark, who was looking for a time in the 16:10-16:20 range was hanging on to the back of the group. Every lap that passed with the group still intact made me smile even more. Once we got to 4km in just under 12:40 it became clear that everyone was going to do it and the question now was how much would they all break their PBs by?
Dan, who had been on my shoulder for the last 10 laps and who was clearly itching to go faster, took off and soon got a gap on me. I dropped back to Tim and tried to offer him some encouragement as he made his big push for the finish line. I realised from the pace they were all going that some special times were going to be recorded. Dan was the first of our group over the line in 15:39, 24 seconds faster than he has ever run before. Tim, who kicked past me in the last 200, was next in 15:42, followed by me and then Sarah who also posted a PB. As I turned around to congratulate them, Mark and Chris stormed over the line with the number 16 not yet on the clock. All five of them had run personal bests, and all five had gone sub-16.
I know I shouldn’t bask in the glory of others, but I did feel a real sense of pride in their achievements and was pleased to have been part of their great performances. Everyone in our training group has been training really well this summer so it was satisfying to see it all come together for them. Moments like that are rare, and in an individual sport like athletics, feeling like part of a team effort is unusual but very enjoyable. My personal highlight was seeing my good friend Mark holding his arms aloft in disbelief after breaking a PB that had stood since his teenage years in 1994. It was inspirational to see him run the perfect race after training so hard this summer, and to see him not give up on running a time he ran half a lifetime ago. I will bear that in mind next time I complain about having PBs that are more than one year old.
A day of running that starts on a moonlit beach in Sopot and ends on a floodlit track in Coventry is not the kind that happens very often, nor is it one that most people would envisage when asked to describe the ideal running day. It sure was fun though.