National Cross 2015

Yesterday I went to the National Cross on Hampstead Heath to watch thousands of runners do battle with the hills and mud. What became pretty obvious, was that I prefer to be behind the camera than pulling on my spikes and struggling around. I should probably have been running, but I’m really happy with the shots that I took and to be honest I’d have probably been last had I been running, so I probably swerved a bullet there! Hope you enjoy the pics (click on them to enlarge) …

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Finally getting to grips with the ‘cross?

I’ll readily admit that I didn’t start out as much of a fan of cross-country when I found running all of seven years ago. In fact I wasn’t much of a fan of running off-road at all. I remember going for long runs along the Regents Canal and cursing as I leapt around like a demented trout trying to avoid running through the puddles. In fact I avoided cross-country when I trained for my first few marathons because I thought all that slipping around might be detrimental to my road running. No! For me, it was all about the road – the clean, flat (if possible), smooth tarmac.

Then I met my coach Nick Anderson and found out – too late – that he is a huge fan of cross-country, having raced it himself and then managed a national cross-country team! So there was little likelihood that I would get away with it for much longer.

So what was my problem?

My two main problems with the ‘cross can be described thus: first, it is bloody hard work. Second, I don’t feel good running cross country.

The ‘bloody hard work’ thing is really about how hard it is to judge effort. Running on the road – especially if one can find a nice flat course – is predictable. And I like that. I know fairly accurately that I can maintain a certain speed for a certain distance. For the marathon, I might really want to hit 6 min/mile and hold that for 26.2 miles, so I will finish in 2hrs 37min 15secs (actually I don’t – I want a bigger PB than that, but my point is about locking in to a pace) and it doesn’t really matter what anyone else around is doing, I just have to concentrate on the pace I have trained for.

The thing about not feeling good whilst running the ‘cross is linked to my previous complaint – there is very little about my running in the mud that is elegant. Sure, the best cross country runners make it look almost smooth, but I lurch from side to side, slipping and wheeling my arms around. On the road, I like to imagine that I am almost machine-like, with a smooth gait and tall stance, compact, efficient and smooth.

What has changed?

The big change that has happened this season has been about acceptance. Accept that it is going to be hard, accept that it will be muddy. Deal with the fact that despite running really hard, I might only scrape into the top 100 of a race with 400 runners. Accept that I will get covered in mud, and that the mud might smell of cow shit or worse. Deal with the fact that everything will get mud on it and that the mud will NOT come off easily.

I have also accepted that cross-country is a different sport to road running. It is a little like the different between skiing and snow-boarding. Sure they both involve going down a mountain on smooth wooden planks – in the same way that road running and cross-country both involve covering distance in the fastest way possible – but there the similarity ends. Cross country and road running have many differences, including:

  • it being all about beating the person in front of you
  • cross country requires running tactically, eg. not running too hard in the first lap and then collapsing in the last lap
  • unlike running marathons, etc cross-country is a team sport
  • times don’t matter – conditions on the same course vary from season to season. The only thing that matters is ones position
  • not all great road runners are great ‘cross runners and visa versa

So I have accepted and even embraced cross-country. I have started to understand how much my running will improve with the strength that comes from cross country running. I have discovered the delight of simply trying to catch the person in front. I have worked out that the tougher the conditions, the more the runner benefits psychologically from running in them.

Oh, and I have discovered the utterly amazing feeling of peeling off wet, muddy, smelly kit and slipping into a hot bath, with a cup of rooibos tea and a toasted crumpet stacked with cheese when you get home after a race… now I just have to convince someone to clean the bath for me afterwards!

Wonder if they want their mud back...?

I get knocked down… and then what

Reading about the fall-out from UK Sport’s decisions about funding for the different governing bodies in this country on the BBC website today, I was sad to hear that some sports – handball, basketball, table tennis and wrestling – have lost all of their central funding up to Rio in 2016. The headline news story on the BBC, which you can read here, is the reaction from a GB handball player, saying that he feels betrayed by UK Sport because, in his mind, their actions go against the legacy aims of the London Games.

UK Sport and the government say, however, that the GB Handball team came last in their group and have very little chance of qualifying for Rio in four years time so the money is better spent on sports that might have a chance of winning something.

Paula Radcliffe winning World Cross Country Champs in Ostend (© Allsport)

So what does this have to do with running. Well, the point I want to make is this: life will not always run smoothly and there will be setbacks. I was told a while ago about Paula Radcliffe’s first race at a national level, when as a 12 year old in 1986 she placed 299th out of around 600 in the girls’ race of the English Schools Cross Country Championships. Fifteen years later, Paula won the World Cross Country Championships.

I am sure that coming 299th was a disappointment for Paula but she was not deterred. She worked harder and trained smarter until she became the best in the world. GB Handball could take a leaf out of her book.

No one, and no National Governing Body, has a right to succeed – it always comes down to a few things:

  • hard work
  • luck (and it is funny how the harder you work, the luckier you get!)
  • support from people who believe in you
  • self belief
  • hard work

So when you are faced with a set back, don’t grumble and don’t fold. Regroup, take a deep breath and think about how you are going to take a step forward. Then take that step forward. Finish the next race in 298th place and keep going forwards until you – whether ‘you’ is an individual, a team or a national sport – is standing on top of the podium having achieved what you set out to achieve. It can be done, I promise.