Observations of an Accidental Cross Country Runner, Druridge Bay & Aykley Heads, Saturday, November 17, 2018

Ian Butler

Not holding hands, but a rolling road block of StridersMany years ago, when I got sent to jail, I didn’t take it at all well. I refused all offers of food and drink, spat and swore at anyone who came near me and burst into tears. That was the last time that I ever played Monopoly with my big sister!

I have always had a very competitive streak, and whilst resorting to tears to gain a win at Monopoly may have shown determination as an 8-year-old, that positive approach to push my self to try and win has stayed with me all my life.

I don’t generally burst into tears now, as a tactic to be used to achieve sporting success, as a general lack of sporting talent and advancing age puts a stop to my unrealistic ambitions. However. I do like to push myself and try new things and the latest outlet for my competitiveness is unbelievably cross-country running and the Harrier league.

For those of you unfamiliar with this pastime, it involves men and women congregating in a wet field in the middle of winter, donning a thin vest with the club name on it, and then running around a series of hills and bogs lined with tape before crossing a finishing line. Some of the more sadistic courses have more mud than others, have heavy rain and gale force winds organised for the day, and include a stream to jump over where crowds of spectators gather to watch some poor runner go headfirst into the mucky bilge. I have it on good authority that next year the powers that be are considering introducing an obstacle to cross while under fire from a machine gun or water cannon.

The basics of the races are that they are divided into men and women’s races. Each race is handicapped, with 3 groups setting off at timed intervals.

The first group off are the normal people or slow group, to go by the official title. Why it’s called the slow group I’m not sure, as looking at the field it seems to have everyone from the carthorses, like me, who plough their way around, to some super fast individuals who run around like whippets. The second group, known as the Middle group, set off a couple of minutes later and in hot pursuit of the slow group. The final group, known as the fast group, consisting of stick thin prime athletes, then set off 2 minutes later in very hot pursuit of the leading groups.

The idea I think is that the handicap system should create a leveller playing field for all, with clubs scoring points by getting their first 4 athletes over the finish line, whilst those, not scoring points are there to generally get in the way of others.

Personally, I think the handicap system should change, as my experience is the fast ones seem to steam past me as if I’m stood still, usually on the first lap of three. My recommendation would be that the middle and fast groups should have to carry weighted rusk sacks and an assault rifle. That would be a fair approach in my view, and at least give me more of a chance of helping out the team.

Previously, I had not run in the harrier league owing to work commitments, plus I was a wuss on wobbly ground from a couple of dodgy ankles caused when I was testing out a pair of Addidas Bambers many years ago. Therefore, when I heard about the cross-country league I decided that I would give it a go, but that I needed both the kit to run securely over rough ground and some guidance from the experts.

The Kit

The kit is basic from what I can tell. All you need is a club vest, (which must be worn during the race) and a pair of simple running shoes designed to disperse and give you grip on mud, water and slime.

The shoes can be picked up quite cheaply from running shops. My pair of cheapo shoes has really given me confidence in mud running, but I still have to look down and really concentrate on the 2 meters in front of me as to where I put my feet.

The Training

I needed to get confidence on the ups and downs of hills and rough ground, and so this year I joined the Monday lunch training sessions presided over by Geoff and Elaine. These sessions I found massively helpful.

Fig 1 – Receiving advice on my race start

The training group tends to consist of like-minded victims, who are generally directed by the Professors of Cross Country to run up or down a hill (Or both) in a set time or for a set distance, in order to gain fitness and improve skill levels on rough ground. Top tips on how to do this without breaking your neck are also freely given. Generally, these sessions turn me into a gastropod, huffing along and giving me a sweaty and slimy stinky sheen.

However, the advice is brilliant, and the benefits are massive, and I have certainly gained benefit from these periods of torture.

The Venues

So far I have done 2 events, Druridge Bay and Aykley Heads.

The experience at both is similar.

On arrival, the first job is to tackle the maze known as the club village and find the club tent. This tented community is a bit like a disorganised scout camp, where you need a compass, map and detailed grid coordinates to find your club abode. Usefully, all the tents look the same, but luckily each club proudly displays their club flag for all to see, so after wondering around for half an hour, you will find the home of Elvet Striders and familiar faces.

Considering that up to 50 plus Striders may attend these races, and use the tent to shelter from the rain and to change into their kit, then the 10ft by 10ft space is no Dr Who Tardis. However, there is room to take your tracky bottoms off and pin your race number to your vest, so it serves a valuable purpose.

Race Tactics

I think I heard Geoff Davis once say in his best Churchillian accent, ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat’.

I understand he may also have said the following, ‘ We shall go on to the end. We shall run at Wrenkenton, we shall run at Druridge Bay and Aykley Heads, we shall run with growing confidence and growing strength on the hills and across the streams, we will never surrender’.

So, its very clear to all that there is club pride at stake in our participation in the Harrier League, and that the individual participation is for the greater good of the team and the club. That is one of the great things about Cross Country.

Whether you are the faster or slower runner, what struck me is that this is a team game, with strong support for the runners in each race by fellow Striders, both running or spectating. Therefore, the encouragement is there to push yourself and execute your best race.

I have asked several people about tactics to race execution and the basic top tips I got were: –

  1. At the start, get to the front of the group in order to get a clean break rather than getting bogged down in the crowd. That way, you are ahead and other runners then have to make up ground to pass you.
  2. On a 3 lap race, if you can’t do a reconnaissance and run the route beforehand, then on lap one suss out the lie of the land, but don’t compromise your pace to achieve this. Then once the ground is known, really put in some effort.
  3. If you are a slower runner, your contribution is still valuable for generally getting in the way and in pushing down the position of other teams runners, so don’t give up.
  4. Do not get involved with other clubs runners with any pushing or shoving, cause an Assault Occasioning Actual Bodily Harm, or use any Threatening Words or Behaviour likely to cause Harassment, Alarm or Distress to fellow competitors or spectators. Whilst such a demonstration in the heat of the moment may make you feel better about the sod that just cut you up, in the long term you are likely to be disqualified. Basically, don’t get involved in any ‘Argy Bargy’ and save energy for the race. You can always nip into the car park after the race and let down the car tyres of your chief protagonist.
  5. Keep going to the end, and in the finishing straight try and pass others, and don’t whatever you do allow yourself to be overtaken.
Race Execution
1) Druridge Bay

Standing at the start of my first cross country at Duridge Bay, with my competitive juices boiling, I turned around and found a right Bounder stood next to me. A Blackhill Bounder to be precise by the name of Alex.

Alex is a 20-year-old young whippersnapper. I’m a much much older chap. I used to be his boss at work, and during our conversations about important things, like ‘what did you have for your tea last night?” and ‘what did you do at the weekend?’, it became clear that we had some common ground. We both had done some triathlons, run similar races and followed sports in general, plus we knew many common acquaintances and generally got on well. The only problem was that he was under the great misconception that by virtue of my age that I was some sort of sporting guru and athlete, rather than a bit of an incompetent sporting dabbler.

With that in mind, personal pride was at stake and it was clear that I simply had to beat him around the course.

At Druridge Bay, the ground was quite solid, so as predicted I set off far too fast because I never learn, and because the slow pack is not slow enough, and so I got pulled along with the group. I said to my self, ‘YOU IDIOT’, but I ran the first lap quite well and was able to stick with the pace and determine the lie of the land.

I was also conscious that I was ahead of ‘Whippersnapper ‘, but I was not prepared to turn around and see how far ahead I was, so into the second lap I dug in and started to make some ground on others in the slow group. At the same time, several high-speed medium and fast pack runners passed me in a blur, making me feel great.

Six miles is a good distance for me, as through racing I now know I can keep a decent pace going, and even push on a bit towards the end. On entering the third lap I felt quite good and began to make ground on a couple of others, but there was a group of 3 or 4 runners who I just could not catch. As I accelerated, a little so did they and I simply could not close that 20 to 25-metre gap. However, I was spurred on and remembered the rules I had been told, namely don’t get overtaken, and don’t give up, despite the pain.

By some miracle, as we moved into the last 400m I found myself making ground on the 3 others directly ahead, and as I moved into the final straight I saw that I was closing rapidly. I then sprinted (not really) the last 20 meters, pulled an effort making face, and just as we reached the line they each slowed down allowing me to pass them just before the finish line and take the win in a loud grunting and gasping shout.

Fig 2 – Crossing the line at Druridge Bay

Take it easy and steady-on there lad!’ shouted the man with a clipboard at the finish. I’d got them on the line as directed to do so, and the man called me a lad, so I was happy. Additionally, I had beaten the Whippersnapper.

My competitive juices were well and truly oiled and I looked forward to my next test at Aykley Heads.

2) Aykley Heads

I know the lie of the land very well here, and that was the problem. I know it can be a complete ‘b_ _ _ _ _ _ d of a route, with many ups and downs, grassy molehills, mud and general rough terrain. Therefore, it is a great lung bursting challenge and not one to be missed!!

I followed race tactics as planned, namely, I again went off too fast, but was able to keep a steady pace going. even on the undulating sections after the first mile or so. However, I was very unsure going downhill, on rough ground and my natural instinct to hold back to protect my ankles certainly slowed me down. Unlike others, I simply did not trust my ability and speed downhill; hence I was overtaken on the down sections, whereas on paved surfaces I have much more confidence with speed.

This was really the story of laps 1 and 2 for me.

The most notable aspect of the race was the support given by the marshals and spectators to Striders as we ran around the circuits. It was truly inspiring to have that support. Shouts of ‘Well done Striders’ or ‘Come on Striders’ were heard around the whole course, In addition, shouts of ‘you’re looking good Striders’, although descriptive, certainly did not tell the story of how I felt at the time.

The most curious shout came on the third lap. By this time I was wondering what the heck I was doing here on a Saturday afternoon. But by this time all the faster runners had passed, and I was in a sort of bubble of other similar runners who had gone around together and kind of formed a brotherhood in adversity. This group included a bald-headed bloke in a luminous vest, a Red Kite Runner, and a chap in a red-hooped vest who looked like a bumblebee. In support, I found my self-running alongside fellow Strider Daniel Mitchel and we kind of kept each other supported as we dragged over the undulating sections.

As we ran downhill side by side, a helpful Strider marshal shouted ‘ Stop holding hands and get on with it’. Little did this fellow know that we had applied race tactics and formed a Strider running rolling roadblock, aimed at preventing others from passing, and threatening our faster teammates ahead. This tactic actually worked and kept others at bay for quite a long time until the final leg uphill leg along the railway line.

Then it was an uphill slog over the hill and down through the woods to the final ascent of the finishing climb, which I managed to plod up. Once on top of the hill and on the flat I saw a few of our bubble of runners ahead and somehow managed to overtake them. As I entered the finishing straight, I was really conscious of someone on my inside trying to pass, but I managed to put in a real spurt and hold them off over the finishing line. I felt that I had won the Olympics, and not come in 421st out of 570 finishers.

It’s fair to say that Cross County has met my competitive urges. It’s certainly better than playing Monopoly and running the risk of being sent to jail.

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2 thoughts on “Observations of an Accidental Cross Country Runner

  1. Absolutely brilliant.
    As a mature XC participant myself and relative newbie to this field-based lunacy I can sense that slight bewilderment of an undertone: is this really a normal way to seek pleasure on a Saturday afternoon?
    I’ll share a secret with you Ian and that is, now they’ve got to you, you will be back for more. The bonus is it that takes a lot less time than a game of Monopoly.

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