Background: It’s the tail end of the cross country season here in the UK. I joined in a few times back in November and December but took break from XC in January to focus on longer road stuff: the Fred Hughes 10 and the Watford Half Marathon. The former went well and the latter got cancelled, so I was excited to lace up my spikes again for a very local cross country race just up the road at Ally Pally!
Goal: Is it really possible to set a time goal for a cross country race? Not for an average runner like me. Every course is different, and the same course varies year to year depending on the weather the week before the race. My glutes were sore on Saturday from the many 1-leg squat variations prescribed by the physio, but I made a couple of general goals for myself: 1) Don’t turn an ankle/trip/fall/get spiked, and 2) Expect mud, embrace the mud, and enjoy it.
Race strategy: None, really (see above), but I did decide to treat it like a very muddy parkrun, have some fun, and try to save some energy for the finish.
Weather & outfit: A warmish 9C/49F but very windy. It rained a lot in the week leading up to the race, so mud would definitely be on the agenda. I wore shorts, Heathside vest, and my cross country spikes (15mm for the expected mud levels). No need for any extra layers, even with the wind.
The race: I’m glad I had reread my race recap from the last time I ran this course, two years ago. According to that, the course was quite a bit short of 6km. That said, the start this year seemed further back than I remembered, so I mentally prepared for the race to be at least 6k (there’s nothing like assuming a course will be short and then having to run further than anticipated!).
I knew the first long straight would be gradually uphill and into the wind, so as we set off I went with the flow and used the time to test the terrain and warm up my calves and ankles. I found myself in touch with Jen and Alice, so breathed encouragement to them and pushed on. Short strides up the hill. Use your arms, I reminded myself as we were tested by the first short rise. Alice and I rounded a corner and had a brief respite from running uphill.
Then we crossed the paved path, hurdled a ditch, and dug in up the long, steep hill for the first time. This three-stage hill is killer: a longish steep section, a turn left onto a slightly more gradual (but still very much uphill) section, then a right up a short, sharp bit to the top. This hill alone made me really glad I’d put 15mm spikes in my shoes. The long spikes gave me enough traction to maintain control while clawing my way slowly up and up and up…
Then the descent started. The course wound around some trees until plunging back down the first section that we’d run up. Another ditch and paved path later, we were back on firmer, slightly downhill terrain. Behind the cricket pitch, it got sloppy: thick, soupy mud with a few more ditches to cross. I enjoyed hurdling the ditches – it reminded me of my track days from university and distracted me from the exertion.
Soon it was back out to the long straight for the second and final lap. I was tiring, but the cheers from the Heathside supporters as we ran between the club camps – Come on, Heathside! Go Tammela! – were amazing and helped me summon some extra energy. A fellow Heathsider kept passing me on the uphills (impressive!) but I tried to keep her within range. Tackling the long, staged hill for the second time slowed me a lot, but I reminded myself to raise my knees and keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Back down the hill and over the ditch, I knew it was only 1-2km to the finish and the course would, indeed, be shorter than 6km. I passed a few runners in the boggy section behind the cricket pitch, including a couple of fellow Heathsiders. Come on, we’re almost there, I encouraged them. Surprised to catch one of our speedy vets, S, I knew she’d probably respond to my challenge and stick with me.
A marshal called out that we had 800m to go. You can do this! Just a few more minutes, I said to myself. My legs felt so heavy and I felt a bit sick. S caught me up and we pushed each other through the final 500m, passing a couple of other runners along the way. A yell from F, who had come to watch, helped me find a tiny kick to the finish, just in front of S.
The result: I finished the 5.37km/3.34mi race in 25:29 on my Garmin (4:45/km = 7:38/mi – official results not out yet). I came 78th of 244 women finishers and ran my fastest time on this particular cross country course.
And by coming 16th of 35 Heathside women finishers, I actually scored for the C team!
Cross country scoring can be baffling, so here’s how one of our club coaches explains it:
The first 6 women to finish score for the A team, the next 6 for the B team and the 5 after that for the C team. Additional finishers count towards the C team: although they don’t score, they can push back members of other teams, making the points for the team more valuable.
I don’t think I’ve scored for Heathside in a Met League XC race in over five years, so I am chuffed to have squeaked into the C team! I felt strong and was mentally in the mood to race.
As an added bonus, the Heathside women’s A team were crowned the Met League Champions for the second year in a row. Amazing running, ladies!
Post-race: A women’s team photo, catching up with Gabi, Caroline, Jo & co, then walking back home with F to de-mud my spikes and take a hot shower.
Next up: I think I’ll go back to some shorter, sharper running now that my long goal races are out of the way. I’ll try to keep doing a longish run most weekends, but I want to make sure my knee/ITBS pain settles before ramping up the distance again
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- Five Years Ago: Chocolate Beet Cake with Beet Cream Cheese Frosting – just in time for Valentine’s Day, if you’re into that sort of thing
- Seven Years Ago: Leftover Mashed Potatoes & Cooked Cabbage? Make Pyrizhky!