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Race Recap: Met League XC – Ally Pally 2019

Photo Credit: Tom Hosking Photography

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.

Terrifyingly long spikes. Worth it!

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.

Lap 1. Photo credit: F

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…

Photo Credit: Tom Hosking Photography

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.

Photo Credit: Tom Hosking Photography

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.

Heathside women. Met League Champs for the 2nd year in a row!

The result: I finished the 5.37km/3.34mi race in an official time of 25:33 (4:45/km = 7:39/mi)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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Race Recap: XC “Dirty Double”

Background: I was supposed to run the Perivale 5 road race this Sunday – it has been an annual sojourn for my group of running friends for the past five years. However, this year not many Heathsiders signed up, and I didn’t fancy spending three hours on public transport to get to and from the race. So I decided on option 2: the arguably more challenging “dirty double” of Met League cross country on Saturday afternoon, and Sunday League cross country on Sunday morning. After a long week with minimal exercise due to evening work commitments, I was keen to try my hand at the double, and decided to combine my race reports for a bumper post! Read on to see if I regretted my decision…

Heathside ladies after Met League XC. Some missing. Photo from Emma W.

Race 1 – Saturday: Met League Cross Country in Uxbridge

Why pay £50 for a Tough Mudder when you can do this for free?

Goal: It was my first Met League XC race since February 2017, and I’d never run the Uxbridge course before, so I settled on my usual “under 30 minutes” goal for the 6km race. Also, after seeing the juniors tanking it in the river crossing (check this out if you don’t believe me!), I decided to focus on not falling over in the river, and generally not turning an ankle or getting spiked.

Race strategy: Run by feel and use the downhills. Be smart but not overly cautious in the river crossing. Breathe!

Weather & outfit: It had rained all night and morning and was grey and misting at the start of the race. At least it wasn’t too cold – probably about 12C/54F. I wore shorts, Heathside vest, and cross country spikes (9mm, but 12s might have been better).

The race: We set off on a flat, muddy grass field. This isn’t too bad, I thought. It’s not as wet as the Ridgeway Run was! Pretty soon we started up a long, gradual slope. There were two of those in this race, and we ran two laps so faced the long hills four times. At least they were followed by long descents. I particularly enjoyed making up time on the descent after the short, steep “ski slope” hill.

Yes, this course had a ski slope and a river crossing that we had to contend with. Twice.

First time through the river crossing…

But back to the running. It passed in a bit of a blur. I felt anxious about the river crossing the first time, but managed not to fall over and got out of it well. As we neared the river again on the second lap, I estimated the course would be longer than 6km, especially as coach J called out around 5k that I had six more minutes to run. I’d been keeping half an eye on my splits but didn’t pay them too much attention since the course undulated so much. I did want to keep my average pace under 5:00/km, so that kept me going on tired legs.

I got through the river the second time and was soaked to the waist but I didn’t face-plant! After a few more twists and turns, the finish line was finally in sight and I gave the best kick I could. Unfortunately for me, a long-legged Ealing runner responded to my challenge and just nipped me at the line.

The result: I finished the longer-than-6km (my Garmin showed 6.67km/4.14mi) in 32:09 (7:46/mi, 4:49/km). I was 102nd of 215 female finishers – pleased to be in the top half of the field – and the 21st of 27 Heathside women.

Most Heathsiders before Sunday League in Trent Park

Race 2 – Sunday: Sunday League Cross Country in Trent Park

Back in action less than 24 hours later…

Goal: 1) Finish this race and complete the “dirty double”! 2) Run faster than I did last year on this course, which would mean mean averaging under 5:00/km and beating 39:09 total. After the Met League, I wasn’t so sure, but thought I could probably manage it.

Race strategy: Go out hard and try to keep going. Use the downhills to make up time. Try to pick people off one by one.

Weather & outfit: Even warmer than Saturday, at about 57F/14C. A hint of sun peeking through the clouds, but also some lightly misting rain during the race. I wore shorts, Heathside vest (yes I washed it in between races!), compression socks (placebo or real effect to support tired calves?), and my XC spikes. A lot of people wore trail shoes but I remembered slippery, sticky mud from last year so opted for the spikes.

Sunday League, Trent Park. Photo credit: Andrew W.

The race: I set off well and was glad to have spikes on for the first two kilometers, as we looped up and down a grassy, muddy field. 4:26 and 4:45 for the first 2k – not bad. Entering the woods, I was less satisfied with my footwear choice: my spikes grated on the gravelly paths. I tried to stay near the edges on softer, leafier ground.

The third, uphill kilometer was my slowest at 5:14, but I tried to make the most of the downhills in the next 2k to pick it up. I set a goal to keep clubmate Sif in range, and caught up to her around the 5k mark. I didn’t have enough in the tank to pass her or stay with her, though, as we started climbing again on the second lap and my legs complained about yesterday’s Met League race.

With less than 2km to go, I managed to pick my legs up and surge down the descent, although the final steep, muddy (spikes were useless at this point) hill nearly defeated me. My glutes screamed and it was all I could do to hold my position. I did somehow find a mini kick to pass one man just before the finish.

Last hill. Shattered legs. Photo credit: Andrew W.

The result: My Garmin had me at 36:47 for the 4.75mi/7.65km course (7:44/mi, 4:48/km). Somehow slightly faster than the previous day’s Met League race, even though the Sunday League course was longer! Either I didn’t run hard enough yesterday, or the river crossing really slowed me down. In any case, I was pleased to run this Trent Park course much faster than last year, and with a small negative split despite my tired legs. I was 169th out of 445 finishers, 23rd woman out of 171, 23rd/37 Heathsiders, and 7th of 14 Heathside women who finished.

Post-race: Cakes all around! A Sunday League tradition. I enjoyed one of Emilia’s delicious peanut butter swirl brownies. A latte and some yoga upon arriving home helped jumpstart my recovery.

Next up: I must get in a long run next weekend, then I’ll probably run the next Sunday League in two weeks’ time.


Race Recap: XC Met League – Ally Pally

Yesterday was the final fixture of the Met League Cross Country League season. A nasty virus kept me out of commission for almost a month over the holidays, so I missed the January XC race and was eager to lace up my spikes and put on my Heathside vest again this month. Even better, this fixture was at Alexandra Palace — Ally Pally, to us locals — which is a 12-minute jog from my flat. Can’t beat that!

The weather was cold — about 2C/36F — and a bit windy. A few snowflakes flurried around in the air. I debated all morning about what to wear and settled on capris, gloves, and a long sleeve top under my vest. I had memories of running the Ally Pally Met League a few years ago, when the bottom part of the course was so waterlogged it was lake-like. This year, there was lots of thick, sticky mud and many squidgy puddles of ice cold water.

My goal for the race was to run steadily, not walk, not fall, and just finish. Having been off for so long in December/January meant that I lost a lot of cardiovascular fitness, and it has been slow to come back as I have deliberately taken a gradual approach to running again.

After all of us women jogged down to the swampy start, we huddled together for warmth and then the gun went off. Gabi and I ran together for the first lap, letting our ankles get used to running in spikes and stabilizing on the uneven terrain. By the second lap, I had lost Gabi but kept thinking she’d catch me, as our amazing Heathside rabblers would cheer me on and then immediately cheer her on! Going down the big hill for the second time, I gritted my teeth and wished I had gotten some longer spikes for this race — my 9mm ones weren’t cutting it, as I worked hard to keep my footing.

Everyone always dreads having to run up the long, steep Ally Pally hill. While it was hard, I actually felt strong running uphill. I think it’s largely thanks to the core class that F and I have been attending once or twice a week at the gym. I was able to keep my body upright, lift my knees, and keep my arms pumping to propel me up the hill little by little. I wasn’t fast, but I must’ve been relatively efficient, as I did pass a number of runners on the uphills. That said, I then needed the flat “backstretch” of the course to recover from all the ups, downs, and ditch hurdling!

I was knackered by the end of the race and was glad it didn’t end up being a full 6km — it was only 5.3km. I didn’t have anything left for a kick, so a couple of runners sprinted past me to the finish, but I did hold one off at the last second (sorry, Laura, I think that was you! Love your blog). My official time was 29:58 (a sedate 9:03/mile, 5:38/km pace), putting me 126th of 170 women finishing. Pretty far back in the pack, but I’ll get my fitness back eventually.

As usual, the Heathside support was incredible. Lots of our runners were marshaling, as it was our home turf, so it was motivating to be cheered on all the way around. The cowbell-ringing and yelling crowd at the bottom of the hill was amazing. Well done to everyone on a great cross country season!


Race Recap: XC Met League – Stevenage 2016

Last time I ran a cross country race was almost exactly a year ago, at the Start Fitness Met League Stevenage race — same time, same place. I looked forward to lacing up my spikes again for this season, having missed last month’s Met League race due to illness. The weather report for Saturday looked grim all week, and it didn’t disappoint: cool, grey, and raining. Now that’s proper cross country weather! Fortunately, the morning’s downpour had slowed to a steady, misty drizzle by the time J, C, L, and I arrived at the Stevenage field for the 1:55pm race.

Uphill. Photo credit: Noëlle O'R.

Uphill. Photo credit: Noëlle O’R.

The course was similar to last year’s, without the woods we used to enjoy but with one mini-lap added before the two larger laps. I like half of the Stevenage course: the undulating, curvy first part is enjoyable, but the flat backside of the route is long, straight, and dull. I didn’t have many expectations for my own race, it being my first XC outing of the year and my not having done much speedwork recently. My goal was to enjoy it and embrace the wet weather and possibility of mud.

The mud ended up being less prevalent than we thought, which meant the grassy terrain was actually quite grippy and nice to run on. The start was quick, and I got swept up in it to tick off my first two kilometers in 4:34 and 4:31, respectively. Slow down a bit and stay steady — you still have almost 2 laps to go, I reminded myself. You can pick people off in the second lap if you feel good.

I felt really strong down and up the hills; I don’t chalk that up to my running mileage, but rather to the 20-minute core class that F and I have been doing at the gym twice a week for the past month or so. I felt like I had a lot more body control and could hold my form better on the hills.

Around the final bend. Photo credit: Noëlle O'R.

Around the final bend. Arms out for balance! Photo credit: Noëlle O’R.

As I settled into my rhythm and warmed up a bit, I occasionally overtook other runners as I made my way towards the finish. I couldn’t quite catch two women in front of me on the final straight, but I finished with a much quicker average pace than any recent race I’ve run, so was quite pleased about that. The fitness is somewhere inside me! To compare, my pace was 4:48/km for last month’s Regent’s Park 10k, and I finished this 6.25km race with an average pace of 4:39/km. Not bad! My final time was 29:12 (7:32/mi pace), good for 120th of 182 in the women’s race and 22nd Heathsider of 29 ladies running — just outside of scoring. No matter! I like to think I helped our faster runners to better finishes by beating people from other clubs.

We capped off a damp afternoon of XC the only proper way: with tea and banana bread at the car:

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Race Recap: XC Met League #2 – Stevenage

Saturday 7 November saw the arrival of the second Start Fitness Met League Cross Country fixture of the season, in Stevenage. The course used to have a lovely section through the woods — many were dismayed to learn that this year the woods had been taken out (something about permissions for using the area and the woods getting too torn up by XC runners…what, us?!).

So this year the course at Stevenage was run solely around the undulating grassy field — two laps for the women and three for the men — with some snaking back and forth to keep things interesting. Although the women’s course was advertised at 5.8km (3.6mi), it ended up being 6.6km (4.1mi) according to my and others’ Garmin watches. I believe the men’s course was also longer than usual.

Post-race. Photo credit: Ken T.

Post-race. Photo credit: Ken T.

The most interesting part of the race had to have been the weather: windy, wet, but oddly warm for November. Proper cross country weather, some called it. There was plenty of mud to slog through and water to slosh into spikes, not to mention a brutal headwind over half the course. The Heathside ladies’ contingent stood shivering together after taking off our layers and waiting for the start, but once we started running it was quite warm.

The first bit of the course’s large lap had some ups and downs with muddy corners — spikes were a necessity — before it flattened out along the backside of the loop. When my Garmin ticked off 3km just as we finished the first lap, I knew the course would be longer than advertised. No matter, I thought, just keep running. I didn’t feel particularly energetic after a busy week with no running and not much to eat the evening before, so I didn’t push very hard but tried to run steadily and notched pretty consistent splits per kilometer: 4:42, 4:41, 4:32, 4:53, 4:43, and 4:20 pace for the last .6km to the finish. I came well back in the results, at 133rd of 218 women and the 27th of 37 Heathside ladies finishing, but am pleased and in retrospect enjoyed it.

We certainly looked a bit bedraggled and wet-rat-like after the race (see photo above), but we also felt tough and virtuous after braving the less-than-ideal conditions. Well done, Team Heathside!

Next up: Perivale 5 road race in early December

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Race Recap: Return to Cross Country! Met League #1 (Claybury)

Ah, Autumn. Crisp, (ideally) sunny mornings, warmish days, and cool evenings. I love this time of year, as it evokes thoughts of warm, comforting vegetable dishes (sweet potatoes, squash, you know), sweet apple desserts, and of course cross country running! After taking part in a bunch of cross country (XC) races two years ago, I missed all of last season due to working full time while doing a DELTA course. Needless to say, my new spikes and I were keen to get back to the muddy, hilly trails. Here’s my recap of this season’s first Start Fitness Met League cross country race:

Heathside ladies out in full force (photo credit: Cathy J.)

Heathside ladies out in full force (photo credit: Cathy J.)

The first Met League XC race took place at Claybury Park in north London. Two years ago, I ran in regular running shoes (or “trainers” for you UK readers) on what I recalled to be quite a muddy afternoon. The course was much drier this year, so some people even opted to keep their trainers on, but I was excited to don my spikes — and am glad I did.

One could only describe the Claybury course as undulating. There’s one long, steep uphill in the woods that we had to tackle twice — the downhill is equally as steep, and uneven enough to merit caution while descending. As you can see from my splits below (click the image to enlarge), the kilometers including the steep hill were my slowest two of the race.

ClayburyXCsplits-10.10.15

The start of the race was much too crowded: a mass of women running downhill through a narrow passage between the trees. There was a good deal of jostling and trying not to step on other runners. After the first half kilometer or so, though, the field spread out enough to settle into a consistent pace.

Blurry me in the foreground (photo credit: Dulce)

Blurry me in the foreground (photo credit: Dulce)

I wasn’t sure what to expect from my body after racing twice in the past few weeks, but the change of terrain and atmosphere seemed to be good and I was pleased with my pace throughout. I ended up alternating leading and chasing another Heathside runner for the second half of the race; she would bound effortlessly up the hills and I would catch up with her on the flat sections. We used great teamwork in the last couple of kilometers to gain on non-Heathsiders and she encouraged me up the last hill to the finish, where she just edged me out. I was pleased with my time of 27:03 (7:15/mi or 4:31/km pace) for the 6km/3.73mi course and felt good. My ankles needs to get used to running in spikes again, though!

Loads of Heathsiders turned up to run for the club; I think at least 30 women and even more men came out. Everyone ran well, and in cross country each person scores points, so the more that show up the more points we take away from other teams! I was 83rd out of 198 ladies but just missed out on scoring for Heathside’s C team because so many fast women came out to run. I’m already looking forward to the next XC outing.

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