I’d not run cross country since a rather miserable affair back at Birmingham in February 2013, when I was 15th or so for Kenilworth Runners, running hurt and running with little enthusiasm. As a second claim member for Grantham Running Club I’m not eligible to compete for them in the underwhelming Lincolnshire Cross Country League, so to get my cross country fix I need to represent the green and black of the club I’ve been with now for 13 years.
The last few times I’ve run Birmingham Leagues at Coundon Hall Park in Coventry, it was just a five minute drive from front door to the course. Now a Grantham resident, it took an hour and twenty to reach Coventry, then, rather embarrassingly, another 30 minutes to find the park, as the hard earned knowledge of Coventry roads in all the years seemed to desert me completely in just the four months its been since I left there.
Arriving late it meant I had little time to say hello to my clubmates, most of whom I’d not seen since saying farewell back in August. I imagine some had assumed I’d left for good, so were a little surpised to see me there, especially as my dislike of cross country is a barely hidden secret. In fact within seconds of walking along just a fraction of the muddy and pretty flooded section of the circuit, I began to wonder what on earth I was doing there.
Running late, the warm up amounted to little more than a 3/4s mile jog. Five minutes before the start of the race, there was a minute’s silence for Tipton Harriers’ Andy Holden, who had sadly recently passed away. It was said we were running as a tribute to his memory and fitting it would be as he was a figurehead of Midlands athletics and grassroots cross country.
Whether his memory would be well served by the Coundon Hall Park course is a mute topic. Essentially a lap is navigating through and around a series of football pitches, pretty flat and featureless were it not for the vast swathes of flooded or extremely muddy sections. There was once a moderately interesting section through a small copse. This, alas, was sacrificed a few years back in the name of health and safety, rendering the course – all three laps of it – a largely tedious affair.
At 2:30 prompt the starting horn was blasted and we were off. Perhaps because the ground was wet and boggy from the off, the usual kamikaze cavalry charge was somewhat less pronounced than in many cross country races. I found myself in the early stages around tenth Kenilworth counter – this for me is something of a very rapid start, preferring greatly to start slowly and come on strongly hopefully in the closing stages.
Despite the lack of warm up, after a couple of minutes running I felt quite sprightly and strong, easing myself past club mates Pete Bryan, Alex Atkinson and Matt Dyer. For the first mile I was within spitting distance of Connor Carson and Stephen Page. They though showed far greater prowess over the muddy conditions and soon eased away.
I set my sights on another team mate Jim Sawle, who was in cracking form for the first third of 2013 before spending much of the rest of the year injured. Approaching the end of the first lap, I was told by spectator Mick Williams I was seventh counter for the club that being the first B Team counter.
Sniffing a possible A team position, I began to close down on Jim over the course of the second lap, overtaking him at the far end of the course. A quick nod of encouragement to each other and it was head down, trying to establish a gap on him and close down guys from other clubs.
It was around about then I began to suffer stomach cramps, nothing too severe, but enough to not want me to commit 100% – they would ease off quite a bit if I likewise eased off the pace a bit. Approaching the end of the second lap I began to tire quite noticeably – the combination of the soft, muddy and wet conditions I’m not comfortable with, and coming off a four week base training block – meant that I couldn’t quite maintain the pace of the opening lap. This doesn’t work too well for me, I tend to run better if I can come on strong in the closing stages rather than battle the demons whilst hanging on as best as possible.
I nervously glanced around and saw it was no longer Jim behind me but Kev Hope – a runner who’d joined Kenilworth in 2013 and was, I believe, making his XC debut for the club. He’d clearly paced the race better than I had and was slowly but inexorably closing down on me.
Around the third lap I pushed on as hard as my tiring body and delicate stomach would allow. I thought with a quarter of a lap to go, I’d maybe put enough of a gap on Kev and would score a rare A team counting position. Alas in the final sprint, he came past me like a train, not just passing me but around four or five other runners.
Initially disappointed to just miss out on sixth spot, I was soon pleased for Kev and the club as he’d been able to make up precious positions that I was unable to take. I was also pleased that this is comfortably the best Birmingham League Cross Country race I’ve done in this second week of January slot, and it all bodes well for the months and hopfully year to come – especially as there was barely a whiff of pain or discomfort in the legs.
Overall the club didn’t have the best of days – three of our strongest runners were missing and the quality at the front of the field was pretty fierce. Still, I was glad I’d made the effort to represent the club, at least once, in arguably the best cross country league in the country.
A couple of miles warmdown with a handful of club mates, and it was time to say my goodbyes and to head home, looking forward to the Nationals in February where I will meet up with many of them again. Stripping the mud sodden socks and preparing a protein shake for the journey home, I thought already of the twenty mile run I had planned for the following morning.