Cross Country! – How Did That Happen?

Ian Butler

Over the years I have played and participated in many sports, sometimes with a degree of competence, but often with little success. I was a dab hand at Snooker with a top break of 35, played school and colts rugby, school football, golf handicapped by my club selection, participated in the local squash leagues, I have been in a French hospital from skiing into a tree and I am a qualified scuba diver. I’ve done triathlons and can be a reasonable swimmer, whilst I’ve cycled and fallen off my bike in many wonderful places. Whatever I have tried I have endeavoured not to become an embarrassment either to my teammates or myself and to be as competitive as possible.

Some of these selected efforts have had to be dropped. Squash for instance succumbed to my now wonky knee, an injury inflicted during a ski trip and further damaged following a car chase in Bishop Auckland when I rear-ended the car I was following and shoved it into a set of garages.

Other sports have gone following the slow progress of time and the simple fact I’m getting older. I know I am getting older from my age-related junk email. I seem to be inundated with spam emails offering great offers on bladder relief tablets, on how to check my prostate, offering best prices on Senior Stair lifts, and one from some company called ‘Stuck poop’ telling me how to ‘Eliminate constipation by breakfast’.

I don’t want any of these now, but on getting out of bed in the morning my body tells me differently and I can honestly say that I know I am feeling my age-related aches and pains with daily regularity.

Thus over time my sporting outlook has changed.

However, there has been one position I have always been straight with in my sporting world. My antipathy towards Cross Country running.

I can trace that feeling back to the winter of 1981 when I took part in my one and only school cross country event. During this race across Maltby Common to Roche Abbey and back and wearing my Dunlop Green Flash pumps, I went over in the mud cutting my knee on some hidden glass. I ended up in Rotherham General Hospital having 3 stitches put in and vowed there and then never to run cross country ever again! I still have the scar on my knee…

My problem is that this year I have participated in 10 cross country races for the club, and my question is, why the heck have I done that?

I can pinpoint exactly when my change in attitude and reluctant conversion towards cross country occurred. It happened just before I retired from work when one Saturday in November I was passing through Police HQ at Aykley Heads and looked out to a sea of tents and flags on the adjoining field. I knew this was the Harrier League Cross Country and that the club helped organise it, and I simply became a little curious and vowed to myself that I wanted to be part of this.

After retiring I was able to join Geoff Davis and Elaine Bisson on their Monday lunch training sessions, plus I was able to focus more fully in getting fitter in general and specifically more running fit. These sessions really helped in both gaining confidence to run on rough ground, but also lay the foundation for improved running fitness.

Over the succeeding years I have competed, or I should say turned up at numerous cross country events and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I have never counted for the men’s team points at any race and just managed to scrape a few points towards the Club GP scores. The reality is I am just there to take part and try my best.

Trying to avoid age-related comments, my plans are often scuppered before the start at registration. On numerous occasions I am asked when I sign in ‘I take it you are entering as a MV55 veteran’. I now realise I had qualified for this group without being fully aware of my new status. The trick to getting older is to ignore the passing years. The big problem is that other people won’t let you.

The other thing is that I did not run competitively when I was younger and so did not start my real cross country adventure until my mid-50s. Therefore I have gone very quickly from a rabbit with no idea about racing to being a perceived sage-like veteran without acquiring a real history. I’ve had to quickly learn new skills and the tricks of the trade on a steep learning curve.

This year I have adopted a change to my tactics for cross country, and I think its paid dividends.

Quite correctly, we are told to hog the front line at the start of a race and then run the race as best as possible. The only problem with that is I get carried along with the flow of runners, go too fast and end up knackered at the end of lap 1 of 3. In the process, I am under pressure at the end of the race with a constant stream of people overtaking.

This year mid-season I changed tactics and started a little bit back from the front in the middle of the main crowd. I now run my own race, steady lap 1, dig in lap 2, push hard lap 3. This has worked well as I am now very slowly hunting people down, passing them and pulling ahead, and in the process I am securing much improved personal best times on courses. So something is working!

In the process and much to my pleasure I’ve won some personal battles. The one that gives me most satisfaction goes back to the Durham 10K last summer.

In this race I got a PB, but in the process of running hard and fast into the final 100m I became conscious of someone behind me on the left side. As we got closer he tried to push me out of the way with his arm in an effort to get past. I reacted and without looking I shoved him back into the metal barriers at the side of the course.

Surprisingly he was somewhat annoyed. And so was I! I was the front-runner; it was his job to go around me. If you expect to pass me at full speed by shoving me out of the way, then expect a reaction.

After a full and frank debrief session we went our own ways and on very friendly terms.

The steward’s enquiry after the event came down on my side as a number of spectators I know saw what happened and were in full support of my actions.

It was at Aykley Heads that I first noticed him finishing not long after me. We both took second looks at each other and noted each other’s presence.

I next saw him on lap two at Thornley. He was ahead of me on the long hill just before the wooden jump.

I was feeling stronger in my legs for a lap 2 position having not gone off too fast. I was able to close in on him slowly, then prowled behind him for a minute for a bit of recovery, then sped on to pass him with determination to make it look as if I was running easily.

Great thing is I felt strong in my legs and went on to get a good course PB time, and beat him to the line by over 1 minute.

The change of tactics actually worked and I was enjoying my racing and felt much better with my running.

However good I may feel, one of the aspects of being a new older runner and racing is that I have an over inflated view of my ability, speed and superb race planning. I have an image in my head of a stealth-like runner, covering the ground effortlessly as if flying through the air, passing all comers with ease.

Reality is somewhat different and this was brought home to me last week at the British Master Championships. When at the back of the field I was running downhill towards the finish, I thought I was absolutely cruising home, powering on with speed and gusto. Unfortunately Heather captured this finale on video, which shows me to be lumbering along as if I’m unable to barely lift legs off the ground. Reality can be painful to watch! (Editor’s note: sound on for words of encouragement from Ian’s greatest fan.)

This reality check confirms why I usually come about three quarters down the field at Harrier League cross country events. But you simply have to look at things in a positive light.

For instance, last week I ran in the British Masters Cross Country Championships at Wallsend. In this race I was really up against it, which was evidenced as I watched the Women’s and Men Over 65 race. The speed over the ground of 80 year old blokes was phenomenal.

In the men’s race I came 121st out of 127 competitors. I was no slouch on this day and ran well in my view. I had my battles on the course and overhauled a fellow MV55 year old in the end by 200m, but 121st from 127! Crikey….. What am I doing?

The consolation to this is that Britain has a male population of 33,972,102.

Of that figure some 16,224,613 males are over 35 years of age and are therefore eligible to run in the British Masters Cross Country Championships.

By my calculation I came 121st out of 16 million… that is something to be proud of and makes getting a little older worthwhile.

I am now a Cross Country Convert!

Play Video

Click the picture above to see a YouTube video of the event. Ian appears at about 10 minutes, but plenty of other Striders on show.

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