Not everybody hurts

The leaves are turning brown and the air is getting fresher. It can only mean one thing; the cross country season will soon be upon us.

I love the concept of cross country. Running becomes a team sport, in which you can compete despite not being one of the ‘fast’ crowd. At my club, Guildford & Godalming AC, we have a motivational team-talk in advance of each race, and a lot of cake and laughs once it’s over.

Last year, I missed the whole cross country schedule due to an injury that prevented me running on uneven surfaces. While I am desperately looking forward to pulling on a new pair of spikes in a few weeks, I will do so with some trepidation.

For a month now, I have been thinking I should focus on cross country for the winter, ignoring PB chasing on the roads. I would still run in road races, but my priority would be the National Cross Country Championships at Parliament Hill, London, on 21st February 2015.

At this historic occasion, up to 2,000 club runners compete against each other in what can only be described as a scene from a 16th Century battlefield. Imagine them all sprinting off in a battle to get to the top of the first hill first, gaining maximum advantage when the course narrows. It’s an amazing sight.

I have run this race twice. Once at Parliament Hill (in 2012) finishing 852nd, and once in a very snowy, muddy and cold Sunderland, finishing 518th. Competing in such a huge race is awe inspiring. All the greats of British running have competed in this race over the years, with the list of previous winners reading like a who’s who of elite running.

However, the prospect of cross country, not least the ‘nationals’, is filling me with dread. As any club runner knows, to run well you need to hurt. And hurt bad.

For too long I have been in a comfort zone, failing to push myself hard. That dawned on me a couple of weeks back at the wonderful Isle of Wight Fell racing championships (yes, there are big hills on the Isle of Wight) in which my mind just wouldn’t accept that I needed to suffer to compete.

Since then, I have been reading up on the concept of suffering while running. Matt Fitzgerald has written of the “tyranny of the comfort zone” and how endurance athletes “embrace a certain kind of suffering, which is the grind of high volume, but they shy away from exposing themselves to much acute suffering of burning lungs and legs that is experienced in challenging high-intensity workouts”. He added, “the endurance athlete who is serious about realising his full potential in competition must suffer for the sake of suffering in training”.

That got me thinking; when was the last time my legs felt they had worked hard after a training session? The truth is, I can’t remember. For too long now I have been avoiding my club’s Tuesday night track session, convincing myself that I didn’t want to get injured again by upping the intensity of my training, and instead running reasonably paced 7 to 10 mile efforts on my own. I now realise I have been wimping out.

The Australian Herb Elliott, who won a gold medal in the 1500m at the 1960 Olympics, trained both mentally and physically. He regularly picked the toughest sand dune on a local beach and ran up it 100 or more times in a session. He wholeheartedly responded to his coach’s demands to “thrust against the pain – love the suffering”.

I need to do what Herb did, training my mind as well as my body. I need more difficult training runs, with more intensity. And hills. Lots of them.

One of my running club friends, Adam Stirk, is a brilliant mountain marathoner and ultra runner. When asked how one might get faster running downhill, particularly on fells, his typically gruff response was “grow some”. How true.

It’s time for me to “grow some” and start suffering on the roads and hills of Surrey. Only then will I give myself a chance of running competitively on the muddy cross country fields. Bring it on; it’s time to hurt.

Suggested further reading:

The psychology of mental toughness – willpower, self-control, and decision making
How pain tolerance affects running performance
The tyranny of the comfort zone
The science of suffering

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