I Hate Cross Country… But We’ve Got Ourselves In A New League!
Around 10 years ago, as part of my role as writing the newsletter for my running club Kenilworth Runners, I wrote a series of articles over a couple of years beginning with I Hate Cross Country… But I Am Willing To Give It Another Try. In that humorous series I reported on my less than stellar efforts at representing my club in the Birmingham League Cross Country series. Despite my inability to perform as to the standard I had on the road, I was proud to be part of a team that punched well above their weight, culminating with an overall position well inside the top ten of the First Division before I left Coventry in 2013, taking part in one last Birmingham League XC Race in January 2014 at Coundon Park, where I was seventh counter for the team.
In the next three years ten months I took part in just one Cross Country Race – the National Cross Country Championships at Donington Park in 2016, the penultimate time I wore a Kenilworth Runners vest before becoming a first claim member of Grantham Running Club a couple of months later. Being second claim Grantham Running Club in the intervening years meant I couldn’t take part in the Lincolnshire Cross Country League that my current club is a member of. To be honest I wasn’t that heartbroken, the league is a pail shadow of the quality you see race in race out in Birmingham League in terms of quantity and quality and, with four races compacted into just over a month (Plus on a Sunday morning), it is over before you really get into your running.
For a couple of years I’ve pushed my club into considering joining another cross country league and finally for 2017 it was decided we would enter the North Midlands Cross Country League as well as Lincolnshire League. With races on a more traditional Saturday afternoon and with over four times as many people racing as normally found in Lincolnshire races, my appetite was whetted to don the club vest and dig out the old spikes and Walshes (Just in case it was dry) and head to round one at Markeaton Park in Derby.
Arriving with plenty of time to spare, I was able to enjoy the traditional spirit of cross country that keeps it thriving among grass root athletics (The number of clubs joining leagues is increasing apparently, despite the success of rival events such as parkrun). Junior runners were sent on their way, all heading off far too fast; some paying the penalty, the good ones staying strong to the end. I got ready to race, jogging a small part next to the course where I decided that with the very firm conditions underfoot, I would eschew both spikes and my Walsh trail shoes to wear my Hoka Hoka One trail shoes, which are basically road trainers with a slightly more grippy tread. What with the balmy conditions seeing car thermometers nudge 22C, this felt much unlike any wet, cold and miserable cross country race I’d ever take taken part in. Indeed only the Holme Pierrepont 10 Mile race this year was warmer than this one in the races I’ve taken part in.
I saw our ladies head off at the start then went about my final preparations, lining up 25 minutes or so later for a race that finally went off a few minutes late at 2pm. As usual there was the charge for the first corner, made worse by the number of keen young runners from University teams. For the first time I was taking part in a separate Veterans league, so although I was keeping an eye on my overall standing in the race, I was keen to keep those of a similar age to me behind.
As I prefer to do I made a steady start, probably outside of the top 100 in the first few minutes of the race. Although initially frustrated by the crowding on the course, it wasn’t long before the field began to thin out and I proceeded to make by attack from the back and pick off those who went out a little too keenly.
Firm underfoot and mostly flat, there was however one steep climb and one less steep rise immediately after on a switchback on the back of the course before heading back to complete one of three laps in total. This section was the only bit with any real mud, although there was no difficulty in keeping a good footing. Although I hate the hills, I do seem to be fairly strong on them, whether the 7th place of all time on the Switchback Strava Segment is genuine or a quirk of GPS inaccuracy I don’t know, but whatever I continued to make up places while not straining myself too much.
The approximately 10K race continued without incident, nor much of a slowing up in my pace which hovered just under six minute miles for most of the race. I was able to catch and pass everyone I caught up with until the final runner as we entered the closing few hundred meters. He stubbornly stayed just in front of me and when I tested him with a faux sprint finish in the closing meters, he showed he had plenty of gas to spare if I dared to try and force my way past.
So I finished 44th overall and top ten in the Veterans’ race, which ranks among my best ever efforts for cross country. A good day out and about as much as I’ll ever get to enjoying cross country. I hope and pray it is as dry and warm for my next venture, which should be in December, but somehow I doubt it!
This report comes over a month after the event. This is because I only recently found out where I finished…. More of that later. The reality too is that the race was less interesting than the training that preceded it, so forgive me if this is a little heavy on preparation and a little light on race action.
Mentally enthused after success at Thorney in August, I visioned a good month of training before the end of September race in Nottingham. I had no races planned, other than the club handicap 10K which, on a lumpy course, I ran at marathon heart rate in 36 and a half minutes. Although there were the odd exceptions, the training focused on big efforts over the weekend with easier paced running and cycling during the week. The Saturday in particular became the focal point of the week – the first two of them of them I competed a ten mile ‘straight outta bed’ run which averaged something pretty close to sub six minute miles. The following week I ran Melton Mowbray parkrun in a slightly disappointing 17:28, but the following Saturday, straight out of bed once again, I kicked off with some Stravalek intense effort before running around six minute miles until seven miles, when I ran Belton House parkrun in 17:30, closing the run with five K in something close to 18 minutes again. It all felt very easy as I ran a half marathon with minimal interruption and effort in 1 hour 19 minutes.
What made me even more enthused is that for all the straight outta bed runs on the Saturday I backed that up with a run of at least 13 miles at 6:40 pace or quicker. I felt like I was running into the sort of form I had when I bagged the 1:14 at the Grunty Fen Half Marathon at the same time of year two years previous.
And then just like two years ago and last year, four or five days before the half marathon I came down with the first of the winter colds the kids brought home with them from school. To feeling fantastic to feeling lousy in no time at all. Just like last year the worst of the cold had past come race day but I wasn’t feeling by any means fantastic.
As I’d been burnt before by the pre-race traffic jams, like last year I arrived over two hours before the start of the race to ensure a good easy parking slot. I took a little walk around the race village, laughed at the insanely high prices of goods on Sale at the Sweatshop tent, used the toilets a couple of times and went for a one and a half mile warm up along the Trent which was wholly unremarkable except for a very pleasant calf stretch which rid me of the niggly Achilles discomfort for the entirety of the race.
A little fortuitously I bumped into my fellow GRC runners who were having a pre-race photo, and I was able to dive in for one last pic. With that done I returned to my car to have one last swill of drink before making my way to the start. I lined up just behind the elites, of which there appeared to be just two or three – a little disappointing for a race which has the subtitle of the British Half Marathon Championships. I didn’t spot upon the eventual race winner Chris Thompson, who brought a bit of quality to the race as a bonafide worthy recipient of National Half Marathon Champion.
The start was the usual affair of some trying to go off at a steady but brisk pace while those around me either shot off and all around at a pace that would never be sustainable or went so slowly as to strongly suggest they had no place standing so close to the start. The opening few hundred meters are in the heavy shade of tree cover on the Victoria Embankment, it wasn’t long before we turned left onto a wide main road and I could assess the race situation and settle into the run.
In the first mile I closed on and passed the eventual women’s winner Emily Waugh, who looked serene running at 1:16 pace. The Dubai based runner (I soon followed her on Strava) was running with her Rugby & Northampton AC team mate, who shortly after the opening mile (5:42) cruised alongside and past me, wishing me well as he did. He would be the only runner who passed me.
The opening mile and a half is pleasant enough, but as in 2016 it wasn’t long before we were sent off the path of the old course and up past the castle. By no means a savage climb it is nevertheless steep enough to undo all the good work in the opening mile. The second mile was a 5:57 (5:38 on Strava GAP). The next mile and a bit must rank as some of the least satisfying in city marathon history. Of all the comments I read on Strava they all described this section in less than complimentary tones. Rhythm sapping is the most polite I can call it, something like a road based version of a twisty, hilly cross country course, as we tackled numerous short sharp climbs punctuated with sharp descents and tight bends. The course was the same as last year, I had blocked out how bad it is. That said, I fared better than others and picked off a fair few runners en route to a 6:03 mile (5:33 GAP) and an 18:27 first 5K.
As if to apologise for the twists and hills of the past mile and a half, the fourth mile is a mostly flat, fast downhill drop to the University campus. I pulled up to another runner and sat briefly in his shelter before pulling past and clear as the road flattened. A 5:30 fourth mile was followed by a 5:42 fifth mile as the field really thinned out and all I had for company were the odd runner somewhere far in the distance and, it must be said, really good crowd support as they enjoyed the great weather conditions for spectating.
The sixth mile (5:50) was literally a long drag, somewhat spirit crushing as I made my way to and into Wollaton Park and the big hill that I had managed to forget about running last year. I went to take a drink from the pouches handed out, cursing loudly at the uselessness of them as I battled in vain to get any more than a dribble from them. The hill comes after a tight left hand bend, the crowd that lined either side of the climb very reminiscent of cycle fans clamouring to see the suffering on a tough climb. I dug in deep and made my way to the top, happy in the knowledge that, for the most part, the course is much easier in the second half. What was less happy was my stomach, which was rueing the too long queues for the portaloos before the start of the race and beginning to send some ominous distress signals.
I went through 10K in 36:14, laughing again at how the gates for the park exit had again not been opened, forcing us off the path and over some heavily rutted ground thanks to an abundance of tree roots. At least the seventh mile marker was somewhere near accurate – once again the fifth and sixth mile markers were so far out as to be totally useless. For a big city race to not correct on obvious mistakes from the previous year is not acceptable really.
Back on the open road and the seventh mile covered in 5:52, I tried to push on like I did last year. It was made tougher because of the dodgy tummy and the lack of runners to run with (Last year – I got into several useful trains which helped keep the pace ticking). I was though closing and passing runners which kept the incentive to keep pushing high. Mile 8 was 5:37 and now we were running alongside runners heading in the other direction, which I always find inspiring. Mile 9, back through the University and an awkward out and back via a tight hairpin, was a 5:44. I passed a Strava ‘friend’ Craig Taylor, who beat me at the Rockingham Duathlon last year. He would go on to run just under 1:18. Interestingly at the Great Eastern Half a couple of weeks later, he ran 1:14:30 or so. Food for thought as to how slow this course is and what I could do on a quicker course.
The tenth mile has the penultimate drag of the race, I survived that with a 5:45. The last comes when we rejoin the old course. My stomach was at its worse and I went through a little bad patch, but managed to drag out a 5:50. I don’t remember this section last year, but we were pulled off the main road down some quite residential streets to make our way back to Victoria Embankment. Passing another couple of runners as we continued to twist and turn, the twelfth mile was a pleasing 5:36.
The first half of the final mile saw me being inadvertently paced by a car that had found itself on the closed roads (I think it was being guided by an official car out of harms way). I found myself almost on its bumper before it thankfully pulled off the road I was on. Coming into the final stages, like last year, I was reeling in another runner. With the memory that last year I passed the moved up into the third V40 spot with my final overtake, I kept pushing. The last mile was slow at 5:50, but the lure of another position saw me run the final stage of the race (0.3 mile on my Garmin) at 5:15 pace. I left it late but a sprint on the final straight saw me pass the runner who put up no resistance.
I finished in 1:16:43. This is 13 seconds down on 2016,but given the paucity of runners to race with, in many ways it felt a better performance. I rushed through the post race medal and goody bag collection as quickly as possible to find the nearest portaloo. With the relief of a calm tummy I managed a mile warm down. The legs felt good, a sign that perhaps, with less of a tummy issue especially I could have gone quicker.
Knowing that the traffic out of the race can be a nightmare, I didn’t hang around and left not long after my warm down. Later that evening provisional results were posted on the Nottingham Post website. Pleasingly I was twelfth, much higher than in 2016 with a slightly slower time. My suspicions that plenty had shunned the race, either due to the new course, or because no details of any prizes had been forthcoming, were borne out.
A day or two later the provisional results were posted on the website. It confirmed me as twelfth and had me as second V40. I was happy with this, one place better than last year. I also noted that the first V40, Alastair Watson, not only finished over eight minutes ahead of me, he finished the race third overall. I know my races well enough these days that normally if Vet runner finishes in an overall prize giving position, the Vet place rolls down to the next runner. I looked forward to receiving my prize!
Three weeks later and with no confirmation of any prize, I emailed the organisers to clarify the prize structure (Still not made available) and the prize winners. I was swiftly emailed back to be told the results were hopefully going to be made official in the next few days due to issues. A week later the official results were finally posted in Athletics Weekly, complete with fairly damning criticism of the time taken to produce results for a race which was called the National Half Marathon Championships, and a race which still had no team results.
Another week later and I was beginning to give up hope of seeing any prize, when an anonymous looking envelope appeared in the post. Thinking it may be a race number, I opened it immediately to find a letter from the Robin Hood Half Marathon explaining I’d received a prize, with a hand written 1st, V40, scrawled unceremoniously on it. Attached to the letter was a cheque, made out to me for £100! So the longest wait for a prize was kind of worth it as it was the most I’ve received for my efforts.
That said, my patience with the Robin Hood race I think has worn a little too thin. I don’t like the course, it’s not quick, and the length of time to produce results is not good enough (Plus the lack of any details of what the prizes would be). Chances are though, depending on my calendar, I will probably be back to defend my dubious title of National V40 Half Marathon winner!