Thank you to Christopher Peck for this write up of the 2018 English National Cross Country Championships.
I’ve never thought that being a re-enactor of historical battles would be fun, until, that is, I took part in the Harriers’ jaunt to the National Cross Country Championships at Parliament Hill Fields. I used to run on Hampstead Heath at school, and remember seeing the aftermath of this event in the past: a road of mud stretching across the Heath. Now I – along with 10 other Harriers – was here to contribute to the devastation once more.
Toeing the line with 2,300 other people, stretched around 100 metres across, 5 deep, with bellowing chants and whoops, was simultaneously chilling, atavistic and incredibly exciting. The gun was fired and madness commenced. Feet, elbows, a blur of people, flying clods of mud and soon the bite of the hill and the crush, as hundreds of bodies tried to squeeze into a twenty metre wide gap on the slope. Over the first path and a chatter of spikes into tarmac, then cresting the hill, lungs already wheezing, heart rate already over the limit, and down into the first section of mud.
Unlike a road race, where the effort and pain is self-imposed, and measured out carefully, in cross-country it is out of your hands, and no more so than in a championship race, where everyone is blowing as hard as they can, fighting for their club, whether they are 3rd, or 2,003rd. Every runner coming past you spurs you on, each hill becomes an opportunity to take places, each descent the moment get back past the person that just got past you.
Then there’s the energy-sapping mud. It had been fairly dry over the previous week, but the Heath is covered with lots of natural springs which feed into the ponds, and the organisers run the course straight through several of these. With 4000 kids and juniors already tramping through even before the first senior woman, this meant the mud was already ankle deep, and stretched the entire course in width.
The Harriers arrived later than most clubs, and we pitched our tent on the peripheral, windward side of the impressive display of massed tents and flags. We were right on the edge of the hill – there is barely a point higher between here and Russia, and the easterly wind certainly felt like it had come straight from there, but the sun was shining and we couldn’t have asked for more pleasant conditions for the end of February.
The women were first off and so the men had the fun of watching them from the top of the hill – the surge of bodies converging on you is a thrill, and then it goes on and on, wave upon wave rising over the hill. We didn’t have more than that glimpse of the women before it was time to finish our warm up and get to the start, and then our own turn to face that hill.
Most of the first 8k is just a painful blur. Coming up to the end of the first of two long loops I was distinctly envious of the women, who – controversially – only had to face the big loop once. It was great to have the Harrier women cheering us on each time we came round. I was also lucky enough to be constantly just in front of another guy called Chris from a north London club, who had huge support out on the route – support which I casually expropriated for myself.
Alongside several sections of quagmire, much of it off-camber and on turns, there are short steep hills, pinch points, the occasional jump across ditches, and occasional bodies to leap over or dodge. With a mile to go the course flattens off, then starts to descend, and the pace gets frantic: a final steep blast down the hill and 200m flat across the grass as the last opportunity to take a place or two.
Despite being there for the fun of the thing – we did really well: women came 66th/112 clubs, and the men 102nd/162. But the real victory lay in the fact that all of us managed to keep our shoes on all the way round, which is more than can be said for a fair proportion of the participants.
After a celebratory cup of tea and cake nibbled from frozen fingers to celebrate Dan Hull’s birthday, we dispersed… only to reconvene 18 hours later for another day of racing – this time for the final race of the Southern Cross Country League at Hindhead!
If you get a chance to run in the National Championships, I would recommend it to anyone – an incredible atmosphere, a great team spirit, a huge crowd cheering, and what will probably one of the hardest races you ever do. I’ll be there next year!
Full results can be found here: http://www.englishcrosscountry.co.uk/news/saucony-english-national-xc-results-2018/