Tuesday, 15 February 2011

English National Cross Country Championships

This Saturday’s English National Cross Country Championships, at Alton Towers, marks my return to racing. It’s now about 3 weeks since I started running again, after a protracted break since last December. The latest issue has been a torn calf which occurred on 2 Jan, just after I’d started a comeback from a knee niggle that stopped me running for the bulk of December. I’m currently unfit, overweight and 46 years of age, so why am I even considering pitting myself against the cream of English athletics over a challenging 12 km cross country course. Well frankly there are easier comebacks, in fact I could have chosen to run a much easier cross country race, closer to home, against people my own age, but I’m not really an easy option type of person, plus there are a few other reasons for wanting to do the National.

For starters the race is taking part at Alton Towers, which is about as near as you could get to a National course from my Cheshire home.

Secondly, it gives me an opportunity to catch up with my club mates and other long term running friends. My club, Herne Hill Harriers, is based in London and I haven’t actually had many opportunities to catch up with them since I moved away 6 years ago.

Thirdly, this is the English National Cross Country Championships, which dates back to 1876 and is firmly established in the athletics calendar. I remember when I first ran it in 1990 at Leeds, I was so proud to compete against such class athletes and although a novice, having started running less than a year earlier, I even made the scoring 6 of my then club, Belgrave Harriers. It’ll still be a great feeling to be ‘competing’ against the best English athletes, though I suspect I won’t make my current club, Herne Hill’s, scoring 6.  

Fourthly, it’s not to late to enter the British Master’s Cross Country Championships. I had written it off for this year as I thought I would be too slow, but depending on how Saturday’s race goes, I may reconsider. If I can make a difference to the team then I may well do it.

Lastly, this could be my last chance to run the race, so, irrespective of the pain, suffering and mud, and even if it rains sleet at me for the 50 odd minutes I expect to be running, I’m going to go for it and I’m going to enjoy it. Plus in the words of a good friend of mine, currently recovering from receiving 4 bullets from the Taliban, ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger’. Here’s to our experiences making us both stronger, and hurry back Ben I need a good training partner.

In the 22 year’s I’ve been running I’ve only run this event 5 times but I have some good memories:

24 Feb 1990 – Leeds, Roundhay Park – 9 miles – 851st – 55:19
It was a journey and a half to get there as the English Cross Country Union commissioned a special train that seemed to go all around the country picking up athletes for the largest field ever assembled in the history of the event. Hill 60 was a tough one to climb 3 times but I was still a newcomer to cross country and took it reasonably steady, so I had a lot of energy left for a good kick off the hill to the finish that must’ve netted me 50 places. The first time I met Paul Evans, whom I have so much respect for, he was first Belgravian in 18th, just before he made it big on his way to the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. I remember how cold it turned on the last lap as it started to hail, big lumps of ice. I was 5th man in for Belgrave Harriers with the team finishing in 59th position. Richard Nerurkar was the winner, an athlete I would get to know better in later years. The long journey home was made less tedious by one club deciding to hold it’s club championships for the fastest time to run the length of the train.

23 Feb 1991 – Luton – 9 miles – 713th – 51:41
Another year of training under my belt and I was able to run hard all the way round. A big improvement for me, though I found this course tough, maybe because I was running harder! This time I was 3rd man home for Belgrave, Mike Webb was top dog for us in 334th with the team, disappointingly, dropping down to 105th, our worst ever position. Not Belgrave’s best years, but they were to come. Richard Nerurkar was champion again.

24 Feb 2001 – Durham – 7.5 miles – 161st 42:03
After 10 years absence, due to other priorities and injuries, I returned to National action for Belgrave. Mind you this one was nearly cancelled due to foot and mouth. A much better performance from me, though I’d been hoping for a top 100 finish. By now I was Captain of Belgrave so wanted to perform well, I was 5th man home for Belgrave, in a much improved team that finished 8th, Lee Hurst was top Belgravian in 49th. Mike Openshaw was the overall winner.

22 Feb 2003 – London, Parliament Hill Fields – 7.5 miles – 106th – 46:29
My best position, on my favourite course. It must’ve been all that marathon training I’d been doing. Still I think I would’ve made the top 100 if that idiot from Kingston hadn’t pushed me into a ditch, winding me on the last lap. I finished 2nd Belgravian, only 14 places behind top man Will Cockerell, oh for that ditch! A momentary blip for the team as they dropped down to 28th. Matt Smith was the overall winner.

21 Feb 2004 – Leeds, Temple Newsam – 7.5 miles – 211th – 48:16
A return to Leeds, albeit a different location, where my National journey began, and where I thought it would end. At 39 I figured one last go before I was past it. Though judging by my position I was already past it, this also being the first time I didn’t make the scoring Belgrave team as I was our 9th man home. Still, mustn’t grumble as the team was on form, winning the National for the first time since 1948. Spencer Barden led the team home in 5th position. Glyn Tromans was the overall winner. This was my last cross country race as Captain, as I’d planned to hand over to Will Cockerell for the start of the following season.

19 Feb 2011 – Alton Towers – 7.5 miles
7 years away and no match for the youngsters of today, even if I was fit I’d be looking at a top 400 place. As it is I know this will be one of my toughest runs. My aim is to enjoy it, push myself enough to know I’ve raced and aim for a top 1000 position. Though if I could beat my position from 21 years ago that would be great. Of course having another Herne Hill Harrier just ahead of me during the race could just be the carrot, even better if it were a Belgrave Harrier or an idiot from Kingston.

Of course I wouldn’t necessarily recommend my course of action to others, but I know my own body, I’ve looked at the risks and I have very good reasons for running. So I’ll see you all on Saturday, look out for the old man in Herne Hill Harrier’s colours, if you’re positioned around the 1000 area, or if you’re watching.

Finally, good luck to all my Scottish friends in their own National championship, taking place on the same day, and enjoy the Trotters party in the evening.

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