The North Midlands Cross Country league is sort of the premier event for endurance runners at my athletics club, but I’ve never actually been involved before. The combination of recurring lockdowns and my previous job consistently eating up my Saturdays has prevented me from ever being able to turn up.
This means that when I made it to Shipley Park in Heanor for the third round of the competition it was my first XC race in 9 years.
Or is it 10?
It’s a long time, regardless.
When we left the house in the morning it was crisp and cold and clear. Perfect XC weather, if my memory served. As we drove north to Heanor, the sky slowly began to turn overcast. But how bad could it get? We arrived just before the first of the junior races kicked off. The field that the teams were accumulating in was already boggy and churned, the ground holding the water of the week like a sponge.
Okay, I thought, it’ll be a bit muddy.
A bit muddy is a given, really. Although I appreciate the exciting, fast, competitive nature of American XC they do seem to rather miss the point. They sprint across lush grass fields, trimmed to golf green perfection, with hardly a whisper of mud gracing their calves. Where’s the puddles? Where’s the tape around the arch of the spikes, vainly attempting to keep the shoes from being sucked deep into some ominous muddy pool? Where’s the one poor sod who goes down head first into a bog, emerging covered in dark, thick goo like some horrifying cryptid?
The weather, meanwhile, continued its downward turn.
With each passing race, each age category, the sky grew more leaden. All the while the course was being demolished by stampedes of increasingly heavy feet. All those tiny spikes pulverised the ground, turning the earth to mush.
Then the senior ladies took to the course, and it started to rain.
When we senior men kicked off, I started confidently, holding this image in my head of the ideal cross country form: strong, striding, swift!
On the first turn, it was all I could do to stay on my feet. After the first mile the race, for myself at least (I would wager for quite a few others as well) became about survival. Fuck form! Fuck racing! I wasn’t even going quick enough to be desperately out of breath, but the mud sucked the energy out of my legs and, more vitally, my head.
The course lap (we completed three in total, the first slightly shorter than the final two) ended on a gradual uphill, which was particularly slick with mud, into a terrible headwind. I muttered ‘what the fuck’ out loud as I felt myself slowing to what felt like a crawl.
‘That’s what I was thinking’, said the runner next to me.
The course, actually, was great. It undulated in such a way as to be constantly challenging a runner’s rhythm, testing our ability to climb strong, descend fast, and settle on the level. It was just a shame that such a lovely profile was drowning in a sea of mud.
For all the physical struggles that the mud brought to the table, my race was lost in my head – as it nearly always is when things don’t go well. I was only 2 weeks removed from the half marathon and I was looking for a nice, steady effort. The course just did not allow for that, at all, and when I started to struggle I wasn’t mentally prepared for the fight. I threw a little bit of grit on the table to gain a couple of places on the final climb thanks to some much needed encouragement from some spectating teammates and coaches, but I was just trying to get to the end as quickly as possible so I could put some warm clothes on, and go home.
Thankfully my teammates didn’t struggle quite so much, and we still performed well.
The beauty of XC is that it takes the numbers out of running, removes the times, and makes it a game. Individual runners can still walk away happy or disappointed with their individual races, but ultimately it’s a team event and your success or failure is dictated by how well you all do, as a collective. Personally I wanted to offer a bit more, to be a bit closer to my teammates up front, and push down some runners from the other clubs.
But I’m in it now, I’ll get another chance, and hey, it can’t get any worse, any muddier, than it was at Heanor, can it?