I must admit that I am a bit of a cross-country nut. There’s nothing else that ticks all the boxes for me and, after a 10 year sabbatical from the sport where I only did the odd race, I’ve been loving my racing this winter. The news that the Nationals would be on our doorstep this year was an opportunity too good to miss. There are so many things that make cross-country my favourite branch of the sport. I’m much happier on a soft surface, I like the hurly burly of a decent size field and I like (trying) to run fast. Also there is no other running event where you get to watch your kids run, your partner run and also run yourself; all within the space of a few hours. In essence the National cross-country is no different from any other league fixture. The distance for seniors is a little bit longer (7.5miles for men, 5 miles for ladies), the fields are bigger (1000+ in the senior men’s race). The general standard is higher but there is still the full range of abilities so there are still plenty of runners to have a good race with.
I mention the size of the fields – now on a wet day this results in something very different for your average Harrier League. Thousands of footfalls on a wet course= a mud bath the likes of which you rarely experience outside of this scale of event and that is really the story of the National at Herrington Park on Saturday 23rd of February 2013.
If you remember the weather for the week leading up to Saturday it was pretty cold, but dry, so the forecast of significant snow for the morning had me expecting a firm running surface with a nice covering of the white stuff to add interest. The forecast was pretty accurate with a couple of inches lying when we left home and more coming down during the journey to Sunderland. We located the Park and Ride area and were soon heading towards the course on the Shuttle Bus, a journey of about 10 minutes. We walked into the tented village quickly realising that we were going to be pretty filthy by the end of the day! The ground was not firm or frozen, it was rapidly turning into a freezing slurry that soaked through our trainers and splattered our legs. We quickly orientated ourselves – the tented area was between the start and finish areas and the Tynedale banner was spotted flapping in the icy wind. A select band of Harriers young and old were milling around the tent and we exchanged pleasantries as we dropped off our bags and surveyed the scene. Joe had come along to watch and, this being his first experience of an event on this scale, we went out to explore. We wandered over to the finish funnel where one of the girls’ races was finishing and you could see that the surface was already churning up badly (what would it be like by the time we got there!?).
The next race on the schedule was the Under 13 boys and our big hope of a top 10 finish, Max Pearson. We dashed over to the start to see the boys set off. The start area for the Nationals is quite a sight. It must have been 200yards wide with numbers indicating where each team has to line up, 200 odd boys didn’t exactly fill the start area, but it was still an impressive sight to see them all sprinting for the first corner. Max had a great run and his unfortunate story of a misplaced timing chip is told elsewhere. Next came the ladies, no Harriers (Where were you?) but great to see the elite end of the sport battling it out for the coveted title of National Champion. Louise Damen was a worthy winner and looked in great form from the off, quickly building and unassailable lead. By the time she finished 1 minute clear I was changing into my spikes with my 4 teamates, Mike Little, Phil Jameson, Peter Hearn and Richard Parker. It was a shame we didn’t have a full team – we couldn’t understand why so many pass up the opportunity of participating in such a great event when it is so close. I foolishly decided to do without gloves and wore just a vest but as I stepped out of the tent I realised the biggest discomfort was going to be my feet. The feeling in my toes was rapidly disappearing as the wet slushy stuff was freezing our poor feet. I spent the next ten minutes desperately running up and down, trying to get the circulation going but to no avail. Surely when the race got going I would begin to warm up!
There was a great atmosphere as we lined up, wished each other luck and then we were off! We were team number seven of over 200 teams so we got to stand quite near the right flank as we set off. This meant we were able to get a reasonably free run for a few hundred metres until we hit the first ninety degree turn where the course also narrowed dramatically. After this we were fighting for elbow room, slipping, sliding and hoping not to fall beneath hundreds of sharply spiked feet! Once we got onto the main circuit we had 3 big laps to complete over a course that on a dry day would probably have been very runnable with only a couple of shortish hills on each time round. Today was a completely different sort of challenge. My feet by this time had lost all feeling in the icy mud and I worried about turning an ankle on the uneven circuit – this was not pleasant! At best the course was soft and slippery but mostly the mud was getting deeper by the minute and keeping up a decent race pace was a real challenge. Early on I started to spot quite a few familiar faces around me. I passed Will Horsley early on, who I have had many a recent battle with recently, so I knew I was doing OK. Next I spotted Stewie Bell just ahead and this gave me someone to chase amongst the dozens of runners in my immediate vicinity.
The first lap went past really quickly but I can’t say it was fun. My feet were still frozen and I’d regretted not wearing more up top. On the second lap I was right on Stewie’s shoulder and after another couple of sharp climbs at last my feet were beginning to get some feeling back. I actually began to start enjoying it (if that is the right word!) now I was feeling a little warmer. Running was such an effort by the final lap but I was running consistently and began to pull away from Stewie and a couple of other runners I had been running with. Approaching the finish I realised I had made the schoolboy error of not checking the run in, so I didn’t really know where we left the circuit and headed for the last part of the course. Thankfully I was soon on the last few hundred metres and could hear the loudspeakers blaring out as the runners poured through the finish funnel. I even raised one last sprint of sorts to gain an extra place in the last few metres and claim 263rd place in just over 50 minutes of painful effort. This had been seriously tough and I’ve seldom been happier to cross the finish line and know I had given my all.
Looking down at my legs, there didn’t seem to be a square inch of skin that hadn’t been plastered in a layer of mud. I arrived back to the tent surprised to find that Richard had beaten me to it. He’d had a great run to finish about 40s in front of me – I hadn’t seen him at all from the gun, though we’d started together, but he must have sneaked past at some point (probably not that difficult in such a mass of runners!). Phil came in next, followed by Mike and Peter who’d had a great battle by all accounts with Mike coming out on top by only a handful of seconds. Next came the dubious pleasure of putting on tracksuits over mud plastered legs before helping get the tent down (thanks to Peter V for bringing this along). We hurried back to the buses wondering what sort of welcome was awaiting us when we arrived home and presented our filthy selves at the front door! This was certainly a day to remember.