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 The land owner had withdrawn permission for the race to take place due to poor weather and the race, it seemed, was off.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.
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.
Yesterday I competed for Warwickshire at the inter counties. Although my relatively poor performance on the mud meant that I did not catch up with many people in the literal sense of the phrase, it was great chance to catch up with friends. Tim and I used to run together several times a week when he lived in Birmingham but see each other infrequently these days. As we were both racing we agreed to meet up afterwards, and in the warmth and comfort of a pizza restaurant in Loughborough, caught up, reminisced and talked about mutual friends. Running a race is a good excuse to get together. In fact, the last three times I have met up with Tim have been in running-related circumstances. Some time soon we should meet up without needing to run or watch athletics before hand, just like normal people do.
Less expected, though, was bumping into a runner I knew at university who I had not seen for ten years. Running together at various stages of the race, we exchanged some knowing glances but did not say anything until we crossed the finish line two seconds and two places apart (he won). “I know you” was the best I could come up with. John replied with “you’re Ed Smith.” He got my first name correct. We chatted, moaned about the course, talked about racing plans and exchanged email addresses. Later that evening I looked at my phone to see an email from John, presumably sent from a coach somewhere between Loughborough and Edinburgh, asking how I was and telling me about his plans.
I don’t just run because it is a good outlet for my spare energy or because of the sense of purpose and achievement it gives me; I like the friendships that are forged on the track, the mud and the road. Runners are just about the only people who understand other runners and I have formed some good friendships through this great sport.
Monday: rest, unwell (0)
Tuesday: rest, unwell (0)
Wednesday: 15km easy (15)
Thursday: AM 10km easy / PM 10km with 2 miles hard (20)
Friday: 7km easy (7)
Saturday: Inter Counties XC, Loughborough – 115th (16)
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)