What Cross Country running feels like!
On Saturday 14th October, I ran in my first Cross Country race of the new season for my running club, Long Eaton Running Club (LERC). The race was the first in the North Midlands Cross Country League and held at Markeaton Park in Derby. I’d run around the park previously a few months ago, using a generous lunch break on a nearby training course. What I’d seen of the park was pretty flat, but I wasn’t going to assume anything, other than that the race was likely to be harder than I might anticipate. I was looking forward to it, but with a rather confused and undecided vision of how I was going to approach the race. The main reason for this indecision was because the next day, I was due to participate in my first ever Duathlon and I had a target time I wanted to hit for it. Therefore, my indecision stemmed from whether to go flat out today and possibly pay for it tomorrow, or take it easier today, saving myself for the duathlon.
When I arrived, it soon became clear that this was a pretty big deal of a race. There were lots of running club tents and banners, plus some businesses with marquee tents out too, taking advantage of the captive audience. More of this later! There were ladies races already happening and I knew that there would be Junior races happening too, as well as the Men’s race. I found the LERC tent and greeted those in the club I knew. It looked like we’d have a pretty strong men’s team out, with guys who had all done the Tuesday night hill reps club session!
I found out that my assumption of a two –lap course was wrong. It was going to be a 3-lap race for the men, following the two laps that the women were currently running. As some of the ladies passed our tent, I could see that they seemed exhausted. Two ladies came past to rapturous encouragement and it seemed it took all they had to even acknowledge us. I knew then that they’d been pushing it and that I was likely to have the same issue when I ran.
For those that know me, taking it easy isn’t really much of an option when racing is concerned. I do find it very difficult not to try to do my best when running against others in a competition. With just one kilometre down, it was clear that I was going to be giving it my all and hoping that I’d have recovered enough for the Duathlon. My GPS watch beeped to notify me I’d covered the first (albeit pretty flat) first kilometre in 3:28. This, I knew, was unlikely to be sustainable on grass for me now for nearly 10km, but at least I’d got myself ahead of a lot of traffic and the field around me was quite stretched out already.
Given the changeable weather, I’d decided to run in my trail shoes as the ground was fairly wet and soft. It was the right decision given the shoes choices available to me prior to the race. More on this later too! Can you see where this is going?!
The weather was unseasonably warm and I’d been out all morning on my feet around the shops. I’d also done little running in the two weeks prior to the week leading up to the race due to illness. The second kilometre took it out of me with its hills and I was breathing hard as I ran down the steep incline to then double back on myself. The third kilometre of the first lap seemed to take an age and I realised that I was struggling to recover from the hills – my legs were feeling heavy already and my breathing was more laboured than it usually is after such a short amount of running.
As I started lap two, I felt mentally vulnerable. Physically I was suffering and the heat wasn’t helping. The cushioned grass was sapping the energy from my heavy legs and I was also fighting my innate sense of wanting to keep up / pass those in front of me, coupled with also not wanting to allow people to pass me. I could easily have given up and stopped. What prevented me from doing so? Two things, which I feel are my strengths and weaknesses at the same time.
- 1. Stubbornness. There was no way in hell I was going to let a course beat me into walking, especially not this early in the race. I’d rather slow down than stop, even if it meant losing places in the race.
- 2. I am an inherent show-off. I admit it. I tend to thrive and perform better in front of people than I do on my own, despite point 1. Therefore, with such a big crowd and lots of fast runners from my running club there, I just knew I had to grit my teeth and dig in.
During lap two I had another decision to make. I had found a runner who was protecting me from the breeze which was great. The problem was, he was haemorrhaging speed. Whilst this helped me recover, it wasn’t the speed I wanted to run at and I didn’t want to complete the run feeling that I could have done better. I was in inner turmoil; wrestling with a decision to move on and cause myself more pain or stay here in the comfort zone following someone else round, who was being buffeted by the wind, protecting me in the process. As one runner, and then another passed both of us, my mind suddenly cleared. I could try to follow them and they would still protect me from the wind! I moved out and worked hard to stay with this group. I was clinging on to the back of the group as we hit the bottom of the longest incline of the course.
I find running up hills such an interesting art form. Yes, an art form. Some people seem to do it so effortlessly and some manage to make it look every bit as hard as it could possibly be. I would say I’m probably somewhere in the middle of these extremes. However, in this particular race, I took the uphills better than those immediately in front of me, passing a few of them. The situation was pretty laughable though, because on the corresponding descent, they got back in front of me! This yo-yoing continued for the other hills as we headed towards the mercifully welcome final lap.
Great support from the LERC supporters willed me on as my legs struggled to maintain a forward motion. I knew I was tiring and in this last lap, I just wanted to get to the end of the race without stopping and do as much as I could not to be overtaken by any more runners.
Unfortunately for me, my early efforts were really catching up with me. On the final long ascent, as I crested the brow of the hill my body relented to the pain. I doubled over and dry-wretched a few times. This is not the first time this has happened and actually is the second consecutive cross country race it’s happened at! The last one was back in February. This highlights to me that I haven’t quite worked out my sensible hard effort levels for cross country just yet. I have had the same issue happen in a road race, the Calke Abbey 10k in September 2016. It also seems to happen after a tough ascent of a hill. Perhaps I need to slow my ascending speeds!
After a 20 second delay (which felt interminably longer than this at the time) and being overtaken by 6 or 7 runners, including a LERC runner, I now cleared my watery eyes and resolved to finish the last 2km in as good a time as I could.
I took my time down the hill and up the next ascent, trying to stay in touch with the two runners immediately ahead of me. I just kept telling myself that I was nearly there. My legs felt so lethargic, so light and floppy, as if they could just buckle and fold under me at any moment. I was sweating a lot and kept my eyes on the next guy in front of me.
We all sped up as we got closer to the finish line and I’m pleased to say that I held off the young challenger from the University of Nottingham you can see behind me in the images. He must have been part of their Under 20 team. So, as a 37 year old, I was quite pleased to keep him at bay!
I was so thankful for the finish line and felt like I could have dry-wretched again from that final effort in front of the crowds. I received my token from the marshall, who was barking at us all to have our hands out ready! How insensitive can you get?!! I nearly threw it back in his face, but I just didn’t have the energy.
As I walked back towards the LERC tent, I caught up with two of our quickest runners. They’d both struggled with the run too (relatively speaking). I went for a cool down jog with one of them – a good opportunity to have a chat about the race and get to know him a bit better. Mercifully he didn’t run too quickly as we ambled back along the route of the course.
Afterwards, I walked back towards the car park and noticed ‘The Derby Runner’ tent – a local running equipment shop. I’d remarked to my cool down partner how heavy my legs felt during the race and he’d suggested I invest in some cross country running spikes because of how light they are and how much better they’d suit heavy ground like today. I hadn’t yet bought a pair as I’d done little cross country running and was unsure of how much I’d be doing in the future.
As I approached the tent, I saw one of our other quick runners, who’d just purchased a pair of trainers himself. He showed me what he’d got– a funky pair of Saucony cross country running spikes! I held them in my hands and they barely made an impact in terms of weight. They had a discount off the RRP and came with a drawstring bag too. I decided I was going to have a look around. You might have noticed that I do favour Saucony running shoes. They seem to fit my feet well, don’t have too much cushioning, are really light and always look great. Derby Runner didn’t have too much choice on show, but they did have the pair of XC shoes that my team-mate bought in my size. I tried them on and they felt just like a second skin! So light and a massive difference to running in my slightly ‘clompier’ trail shoes. I made the purchase.
With another pair of running shoes added to my collection, I now have the right tools for a wider range of terrain. Whilst trail shoes were fine for the cross country race, they weren’t the best tools for the job. I don’t want to make excuses for my running performances, but if I want to do my best, I need the right equipment. It is great timing really, as I now have a bit of time to break them in before I participate in the British Masters Cross Country relays for my club this coming weekend!
You want to know about my performance in the race though don’t you?! Well – the first finisher crossed the line in 31:53…31:53 for nearly 10k…on grass!!! That is amazing isn’t it?! I finished in 76th position in an official time of 38:07 out of a field of 283 finishers. The results for this race and previous seasons’ races can be found here. Given how I’d felt and the surface we ran on, I was pleased with the time. It will stand me in good stead for my future road races in November (Derby 10 mile) and December (Bolsover 10 km) as well as forthcoming club cross country races too. My cross country race is on Strava here.
It is hard work, running cross country, but so good as a challenge! I would recommend giving it a go to everyone – particularly if you’re better than me in controlling your effort levels!
How do you find Cross Country running? Do you like it or avoid it? What battles do you face when running on difficult terrain?
Next time, I’ll be sharing my experience of running in the British Masters Cross Country relays, which my running club are hosting at West Park in Long Eaton, Nottingham on Saturday 28th October. My reccy run as detailed in the image above, can be found on Strava here.