If you get the chance to race, take it

“Fancy racing at the Holly Run cross country on the 14th December?”, I was asked by a club mate a few weeks ago. Mmm, let me think about that… a tough cross country race alongside some of my club’s quickest runners or a relaxing Sunday afternoon with the kids following a ‘busy’ week of Christmas parties.

Not a hard decision to make. Thankfully, I didn’t make it and instead failed to commit either way.  However, after a week long battle with my internal “why bother wasting your time racing” monologue, I found myself buying some 12mm spikes in preparation to race on Sunday. What was I thinking!?

The race took place in Reigate’s Priory Park (brilliantly organised by Reigate Priory AC) and included a rather steep hill. 5.6miles in total, with 699ft of ascent, the three lap course was muddy, but nothing to complain about. Once I was there, with my green Guildford & Godalming AC (GGAC) vest on, I couldn’t help but feel pleased that I had shown up. Having bumped into my fellow GGAC runners at registration, I started to have a good feeling about things.

The start line for the men’s race at 2.10pm was full of club vests. A good humoured starter got us on our way and the pace was quick, but nothing silly. That helped when we hit the hill for the first time after a couple of minutes racing. Ouch, it hurt, but it wasn’t just me feeling it as everyone slowed. Thankfully, once the hill was done, there was a stretch of flattish running before a steep descent, down which it was easier to throw caution to the wind and see what happened than try to control yourself. Luckily, I stayed upright throughout.

By the end of the second lap I had moved up the field and found myself in 21st place (according to a helpful marshal who was updating runners). As I passed the leaders at a switchback, GGAC runners were leading the way, with the super-fast Gilbert Grundy in first place, John Sanderson in third and Colin High, Adam Stirk and James Adams all in the next ten places, and James Baggott just behind me.

It’s fair to say that seeing such domination at the front of a race by your teammates makes the last lap a lot easier than it should feel. That boost, along with a decent base of endurance from my recent higher mileage training, saw me take a few positions up the final hill ascent, and I was able to sustain things until the end of the race. And with my family providing vocal support at the finish line, I ran home in 37 minutes 23 seconds, with a smile on my face in a respectable 18th place.

Holly Run

It’s always nice to finish a race feeling like you have done well. It’s even better to finish it and hear about the brilliant performance of your teammates. Gilbert won in 31 minutes 10 seconds and John was third in 32 minutes 11 seconds. Adam was 7th, Colin 8th and James 13th. James brought the team home in 31st. With such a dominating performance, it was no surprise that the team won the team competition (first three finishers) with 11pts ahead of Dorking and Mole Valley AC on 32pts. However, what was a surprise was that our 4th, 5th and 6th runners, including yours truly, had taken third place in the team competition.

That result made my day. I get a lot of medals for completing races, but very few for achieving something in a race. I was absolutely thrilled to be part of our ‘B’ team. It just goes to show that when someone asks us if we want to race there is only one way to respond – “yes please!” Ignore that inner monologue that tries to talk you out of it. If you get the chance to race, take it.

And illness hits…

I ran my second cross country match of the season at Ham near Kingston a few weeks ago. It was fast and furious, and I didn’t sustain the pace as well as I had at the first race.

Looking at my watch is a much repeated mistake after a few hundred yards, and the 4.30mpm pace left me sure I needed to slow down. I did, but I still struggled as the race progressed, with it all seeming harder than it should have on a flat and very runnable course.

Probably implementing the reverse advice of any sports psychologist, I spent the rest of the race trying to work out why it was proving so difficult to smash out the pace required, with the recent Amsterdam Marathon leading a growing list of excuses. It was only in the last 800 metres that I pushed on; in a successful attempt to keep to the club rule of not letting anyone else go past you at this stage of a race.  I finished in 78th place. It hurt though, as this picture (am no.190) testifies:

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A day later I found out why it was all harder than it should have been. A bad cold that had defeated my whole family finally got hold of me. While I wallowed in typically male self-pity for a week or so with very little running as a result, at least I had an excuse other than the marathon for my performance.

And they’re off; cross country is back

My last cross country race had been the national championships in Sunderland in 2013. I ran well in freezing conditions, on a course that featured snow and ankle high mud the whole way round.

A foot injury that stopped me running off road for almost a year wrote off last season’s races, so it was great to be back for the opening match of the Surrey Cross Country League, Division 2, held at Newlands Corner near Guildford.

Thankfully, conditions could not have been more different from Sunderland. In the midst of an Indian Summer, the course was dry and the temperature mild. Poorly, a work issue meant I arrived at the team meeting point a mere 15minutes before the starting gun was fired, despite it being a home fixture. As a result, my warm up was a ridiculous 4.30 minutes per mile pace on a downhill opening section. Needless to say that is too quick for someone like me, and I was in serious danger of blowing up before the quarter mile mark.

Focusing on hanging on from such an early stage of the race was far from ideal, but it ensured there was no doubt about my race strategy; get out hard, and keep going. I found myself running reasonably high up the field for the first lap of the two lap course. However, I suffered on a vicious hill that had most runners resorting to a desperate walk/shuffle for a prolonged section of the route. Definitely more hill work required.

I kept going, and despite losing places wasn’t falling apart in the way I assumed I would. Newlands Corner is a good old-fashioned tough and hilly cross country course, and it hurt. But cross country is a sport in which it feels great to hurt. It’s fast, it’s brutal, and I love it.

Competing for a team is an unusual feeling for runners so used to competing for themselves. As fellow Guildford & Godalming AC runners went past me, I tried to hang onto them for as long as possible. And it worked. Yes, I was losing places, but I wasn’t haemorrhaging them.

Throughout, I was entirely focused on scoring for the team. Aware that other, much quicker, runners would be back at the next race, I knew this was my chance to play a role in whatever we are to achieve this season.

And at the end I did that, finishing as the 7th team member out of 8 to score. I was 57th overall, ahead of around half the field. I was happy with that.

Yes, I can improve on my position with more speed and hill work, but the race represented a good start to my cross country season after so long off. More importantly, the team got off to a flyer, finishing in second place and setting up a real change of back to back promotions in the Surrey Cross Country League. Muddy marvellous.

Got a grip

Mud, sweat and tears face us all this cross country season. Today, I did something to lessen the effects of the first, buying some new spikes.

Visiting the fantastic Run to Live shop, I plumped for a pair of Saucony Kilkenny XC 5 spikes that just happen to match my club’s green vest. They replace a battered pair of Nike Zoom Waffle XC spikes. Time to kick some grass.

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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