Yesterday was the first race in my planned trilogy that will hopefully culminate with my first marathon. It was the South of England Cross Country Championships at Parliament Hill, London.
Parliament Hill isn’t particularly near the Houses of Parliament, which as an ignorant northerner I had assumed for many years. It is believed that it acquired its current name because Parliamentarian troops camped there during the English Civil War. It was renamed Traitors’ Hill at one point, probably around the time that Oliver Cromwell’s body was exhumed and his decomposed head displayed on a spike outside Parliament. There is one slightly dubious link to the democratic process in the form of The Stone of Free Speech, which still stands in the fields (I leant against it as I did my pre-race calf stretches). This was apparently a focal point where people gathered to listen as various political or religious enthusiasts expounded their views a couple of centuries ago.
The area is a combination of open fields and woodland that overlook London, giving a fantastic panorama of the great city, with many of the famous landmarks clearly visible, at least on a reasonably clear day. It is also the most iconic venue in Britain (perhaps the world?) for cross country running, sort of like Wembley for football (soccer to some) and Wimbledon for tennis. It usually plays host to the South of England Cross Country Championship for two out of every three years, and on the third year is the venue for the English National Championship (the punishment it takes during these mass running events precludes the possibility of holding both in the same year) . Unlike Wembley or Wimbledon, you don’t have to be especially good to compete there, as long as you are a member of an affiliated club.
I had watched my son race there a couple of times before taking the plunge in the Nationals a couple of years ago, and doing surprisingly well, finishing in 1376th position out of about 2328 runners. So I was keen to return to the venue as it held positive vibes for me, and the 15k route (3k longer than the Nationals) through the inevitable mud would be ideal preparation for the longer tests ahead. However, I had an injury setback a week before the race (see my article Dogged by bad luck?) which put my participation in doubt. However, having refrained from running for five days, I did a late fitness test ( a 15 minute jog around the local cricket field) the day before, and decided to go for it.
The race entailed three large laps (presumably about 5k or 3 miles long), starting with an uphill section (some of the “competitors” in the previous race were already walking at this point) and then it was up and down through various levels of absorption, from firm footpaths to six inch deep mud. The challenge, as far as I could see , was to look for the better ground, like the jockeys do in the sprint races. If this meant travelling a bit further then that was fine, and I didn’t usually feel that I lost significant ground when I did go wide around a bend to avoid the deep mud. Also, crucially, its taking less out of your legs, so you’re fresher when the ground gets better. I also find that its best not to push it too hard up the hills and be ready to pick up the pace again when it levels out. The aim is to even out the intensity of effort rather than the pace, an idea that the multiple Tour de France winning cyclist Chris Froome emphasised in his autobiography The Climb. I often find that runners pass or pull away from me going up a hill, but I’m up with them again fairly quickly as it evens out (at other times they simply disappear into the distance). I believe this is a good racing strategy, but in training by all means push it up the hills, and the well paced uphill efforts in races will seem relatively easy.
The first lap seemed to take forever, and I can’t say I felt particularly great. But as I progressed into the second lap I actually felt slightly stronger (maybe the energy gel I had twenty minutes before the start had started to kick in), and I got an added boost towards the end of the second circuit when I saw, on a section where the course loops back on itself, that I wasn’t all that far behind my team-mate Gavin, who is usually much faster than me. So from then on I continued to keep the pace going nicely, and actually had a bit in reserve as I came up to the last hill, meaning that I was able to stride out a bit for about the the last half mile, passing a few runners, and only being overtaken by a couple of young guns who clearly hadn’t pushed themselves hard enough during the previous eight and a half miles. At the end I thought to myself that I could do another lap if I really had to, though it would have be something really important, such as getting away from an axe wielding psychopath …. or a springer spaniel.
As I walked back towards what I thought was our club gathering point, I could see no sign of the stacked together kit bags etc. and became concerned that it had all been carried away in a mudslide. But Gavin’s wife Lyndsey spotted my lost figure and called me over to where all the kit had been kindly moved to a marginally less muddy spot. I then changed out of my spikes, put on my joggers and did a short warm down with Adam, the third (actually first) member of our team. This was when I realised that the groin strain I had noticed during the latter stages of the race was actually fairly painful. I must have incurred this during one of the slips that are unavoidable in these conditions. It was worth it though, and the confidence I got from today’s run (finishing 760th in 1:08:45, with Adam finishing 630th in 1:05:38 and Gavin 713th in 1:07:27) should outweigh what shouldn’t be more than a few days off training.