Tuesday, 1 March 2016

The National Cross Country Championships

I've got a bit of a love and hate relationship with cross-country races. When I tried it for the first time 2 years ago, I fell in love with it. Being able to run in the mud, in hard conditions, wind, rain and freezing cold was like fulfilling every boy's childhood dreams. Stuff we wanted to do when we were 6 years old, but mum wouldn't allow us. It turns out it's a pretty normal activity for grown-up adults. You can even be actively encouraged to do it.
On top of that, the highly competitive nature of cross country races makes it even more appealing. Because XC is all about the team you're running for. Your time doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is your position, how many people you can beat. Scoring system is simple - you're earning a number of points equal to your position. The first 6 (or 4 or 9, 12, etc.) runners from your club scores for the team. The team with the lowest score wins. Easy.
So in the beginning I loved XC. Even if I was scoring for the team B or C, it still mattered. So you really race, no matter what is your standard - there are always people at similar ability around you, that you can beat (or get beaten by).
But this year my love towards XC running started to fade. I've run 6 races this season, and in all of them (maybe apart from one) I'd run like a total twat. Slow, without pushing hard, without the will to do well.
Anyway, I signed up for Nationals as I've heard it's good fun - going away for the weekend with clubmates, racing together, than sharing stories, food and drinks. Quite a few drinks, as it turned out...
And - of course - National XC championships is a really big and prestigious event, a part of running tradition and history, with some of the greatest British athletes running and winning it in the past.

There were about 40 people from the club going there together on a coach (plus quite a few driving there on their own). We met at 8:30am at our club HQ, boarded the bus and off we went.
After less than 3 hours drive we've arrived at the venue of the race - Donington Park near Derby. The place that is famous for Donington Park Racing Circuit - the home of British motor sports. Donington Park is also the venue of Download Festival - a major rock/metal festival, that this year will see Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden as the headliners (I guess that's going to be my next visit to that place then). Maiden have played there many times before, they've even recorded a live album there in 1992 (during the Fear of the Dark tour). But let's get back to business.

XC race like that reminds me of a medieval battle (not that I remember how actual medieval battle looks like! I'm not that ancient...).
There are clubs from all over the country. You name the city or county - you'll find them there. There are tents aligned in ordered, even rows. Banners waving in the wind, club colours on runners vests and hoodies. And this tension in the air, everyone is waiting for his race, knowing that it's going to be something important. Quite like medieval warriors awaiting the battle.

When we arrived there, first races were already going on. U13 boys, U15 girls, U17 boys, U17 girls. Finally, two main events - senior women's race - 8 km and then, at 3pm - senior men, 3 laps over the hilly course. 12km of hills, grass and mud.

The massed start of the race resembles a battle as well. Unlike any road race, where the start area is quite narrow and people are forming many, many rows (and it sometimes takes up to half an hour to actually cross the start line), here we are forming a long line, several hundred meters wide, only 5-6 people deep. There are starting zones, so every club starts together.
Gunshot, and off we go - like warriors to the battle, galloping through the field. But there is no other army coming from the opposite direction. It's just us against each other, and against our weaknesses. No blood will be spilled, no lives will be taken. Seems we've civilized ourselves a little since middle ages after all. We run through the field, fast, trying to get the best position before the course gets narrowed and we'll have to slow down in the crowd.

Women's race start
Women's race start
In the beginning I'm doing well. For the first 2km, when we run on fairly even surface, my pace is  around 3:45/km. Which is quite good for me, especially on that surface - soft, but not muddy nor hilly. Yet. Although turnip field is still not the fastest surface to run on.
Then we hit the hills and the mud. I'm slowing down dramatically. And this time it's not even the hills (that I traditionally suck on), but just the mud. Whenever we get to more muddy part, people start to overtake me. Whenever we hit a bit more even and harder surface - I'm fighting back. But it's an uneven fight, there is more and more mud. More than 3000 people have run this course today before us. And now it's us - nearly 2000 men, running the course 3 times. It gets worse with every lap.
More-less in the middle of the second lap I'm already pissed off. It's not running, it's a fight to get your legs out of the sucking mud, just to put them there back again, only a stride further. It has nothing in common with light running, good technique, fast cadence. It's tough, hard work, and the results are more than questionable.
While I run, my hatred grows. "Kurwa mać!" escapes my mouth every couple of minutes (whenever I'm recovered enough from swearing to swear again. Keep forgetting it's not that easy to talk during the race). It's hard, but that's not what makes me angry. I'm furious because I can't run fast, because once again I got defeated by mud, reduced from a runner to a plodder.
Finally we're getting to the last stretch before the finish. I'm really pissed of, but I'm deciding to go for a sprint finish, let's have some fun at least at the end. Making up around 20 positions on last 200 m, not that bad. Would be great if I could run properly for the last 10km as well, though.

After the race, when I'm walking to our tent, I'm thinking that that's it - I'm done with XC. It's ridiculous, I can't run it, it's clearly not for me. I'm a road runner, I'm a track runner. I'm not a mud runner.
Next morning I decided it's a bullshit though. I'm not giving up. I've lost a battle (well, quite a few battles to be fair), but the war is not finished yet. If I quit cross country, I'll do it on my own terms. So the next season I'm planning to deal with this unfinished business.

Overall it was a great experience though. I'm not happy with my run, but it was great to be a part of this event. It was great to see some of the slower ladies, who were still on the course, when our race started. They were moving slow, they were struggling, but they were not giving up. And at least one of them was in her seventies! Really inspiring.
It was great to see that GH (one of our club's top runners) finished in high place (3rd Serpie), even though he injured his back quite badly during the race and could barely walk afterwards (he needed someone to support him). That's a fighter! Hope you'll get well soon dude!
Overall our women's team (4 to score) finished in a very high 5th place, and the men's team (6 to score) - in 9th.

After the race we went to our hotel. Hot shower and a cold pint are among the 2 of the best things that can happen to you after an XC race. Simple pleasures.
In the evening we had time to relax, socialize, and explore Derby's night life.
To end this post with a positive thought, let me just say that "Ye Olde Dolphin" is a very decent pub.

Ye Olde Dolphin. The oldest pub in Derby.

And the next day was even more fun - more on that coming soon!

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Congratulation on doing that. I don't think XC is something I wanna do though, it looks too hard and I know running the the mud is frustrating.
    I could see myself in the Old Dolphin though...