When the SEAA Cross Country Championships were cancelled during January’s snowfall I can almost guarantee I wasn’t the only club runner to breathe a sigh of relief. As a relative newbie to the world of running I am still subject to the charm and allure of cross country – the chance to confront your school PE class demons, the chance to give adulthood the middle finger and run through muddy fields with childish glee, and the opportunity to indulge in some good old fashioned sport, the kind of sport that requires a gun shot start and a field full of club flags and banners. Of course, when I so easily conjure up this kind of idyllic picture of English sport it’s easy to forget that cross country racing is one of the toughest running events in the club calendar, sending you up and down hills, over uneven terrain and, as it’s typically a Winter sport in the UK, often in the kind of windy, wet, off-road conditions that would make Bear Grylls quiver on the start line.
My running club, Mornington Chasers, sent the call out for runners late last year and I replied with my confirmation without a second thought. It’s challenging, it’s muddy, and it’s bound to be fun, I thought to myself. After all, I’ve enjoyed the London-wide Met League XC races – even that muddy-as-fuck one at Alexandra Palace. But nothing could have prepared me for the carnage and mud that would take place on Hampstead Heath at this year’s race. The ground was still soft from the week of snowfall, and the rain that followed obviously hadn’t helped much! When I arrived on the Heath I could see that the course had already been trodden out by the organisers to erect a number of tape barriers and course markers, and it was thick with mud. I ventured over to check out how boggy it was and my feet immediately sank into the grass as I left the path. This race is going to be dirty, I thought.
As I walked across the Heath to the race HQ on Parliament Hill Fields I saw the club banners and flags scattered amongst the JCBs and fencing. I had been warned of the construction works that would interrupt planned changing facilities and parking (but obviously couldn’t be rescheduled following the rescheduling of the race), but wasn’t quite prepared for the bizarre scene that sprawled across this London beauty spot – old school sports coaches strolling around with megaphones, information tents and marquees, flags and banners directing runners to their clubs’ meeting points, and a few cranes and piles of rubble. Weird.
But this is the kind of bizarre scenario that makes me love cross country racing and turn up to race despite knowing that it’s going to suck while I’m running. If you imagine that road running is the Ken doll of the running world – smooth, flawlessly turned out, well organised, commercial and often lucrative (those charities are there for a reason) – cross country is kind of the drunk uncle – rough round the edges, scruffy, takes you by surprise (not always pleasantly), and prone to stumbling and falling over.
You might notice that I’m using some fairly male-centric analogies there. That’s not an accident. Cross country racing is incredibly old school and still treats men and women rather differently. We race separately and race different distances. Racing separately is understandable – after all the courses are often very narrow and so the number of runners has to be reduced somehow – but I don’t understand why the women’s races are always so significantly shorter than the men’s. In the case of the SEAA champs, the ladies’ race is 7km shorter – almost half the distance! However, the difficulty with challenging the segregation is that unlike that glorious moment in history when Katherine Switzer outran security to illegally participate in the Boston Marathon, none of us lady runners seem too keen on tackling 10 miles of cross country madness in the name of sporting equality and (for reasons I just don’t understand) none of the blokes want to forgo the glory of the longer race. So cross country maintains a bizarre aura of a school sports day for grown ups, with flags, bunting, freshly baked cakes, good old fashioned competition, and the boys and girls being kept apart.
Apparently Parliament Hill is an iconic British cross country venue. I have not been running long enough or traveled to enough cross country events outside London to confirm this. However, having spent a lot of time running on Hampstead Heath in the last few years I can confirm it is hilly and that Parliament Hill is indeed rather large. Having run in the London Met League XC races I can also confirm that the Heath is as hilly, if not hillier, than other London venues. I’m therefore going to go out on a limb and say that it definitely has the potential to be an iconic cross country venue, if of course ‘iconic’ translates as tough-as-fuck and/or essential-cross-country-hazing.
Also, the course across Parliament Hill is even harder than you may initially think because it doesn’t simply go up and over the peak of the hill. Oh no, that would be far too easy. The Parliament Hill course is tough because it is made up of two loops – a medium and a large loop – (the courses are a combination of these loops) that send you running around the damn hill, via all the other bumpy bits contained within the Heath before throwing you up and over that mighty peak, while you throw up lactic acid on the way back down.
I’ve made it sound awful, haven’t I? I shouldn’t have, because when all of that is said and done I really do think that a cross country race is an experience that no runner can do without. Free of the charity fundraising, costumes and the inflatable clappers of a commercial road race, and free of their timed starting pens and thousands upon thousands of entrants, you actually get to experience racing. I never feel like I am racing other people when I’m running a road race. It’s more of a time trial – just me against my own PB – watching my split times and trying to run a well executed race. None of this is possible in cross country though. The terrain makes it almost impossible to pace yourself and so you just run – hard – for as long as you can. You cling onto the person ahead of you and you race. Even when you’re at the back of the field (and trust me, I’ve been at the back of the field before now) you are still racing. In my experience, running cross country feels so much more alive because you are so acutely aware of the course you are running on and the runners you are racing against. I appreciate that this is a totally subjective experience – frontrunners at a road race will inevitably have a different experience from the average Jo(sephine)s penned further back, but if like me you are one of those penned at the back, give cross country a try next winter, just the once.
I write all this with the benefit of a few days rest, of course. If you’d have asked me whether or not I would run the race again, or indeed if I would recommend the race to anyone, immediately after running I probably would have told you where to go, and in fairly unsavoury language. But that would have just been the calf tightness talking. With a few days of stretching behind me and a few days basking in the glory of having placed higher up the standings than I could possibly have hoped (158th out of 256), I can assure you I will be signing up to the XC team just as quickly and enthusiastically next year. And regretting it immediately afterwards.