Friday, 7 March 2014

Cross Country - A Different Type of Race

Thanks for all the kind comments on here and facebook following my first ever blog last week. For week two, I have included photos and sub-headings, in an attempt to liven things up a bit. I hope you enjoy it.

Colchester Castle Parkrun

So last week's blog was all about how I prepare for a race, specifically when I'm hoping for a decent time. Clearly I got something right, since I managed to knock 23secs off my course pb, and at 20m07 I was tantalisingly close to breaking that 20min barrier, and not far off my 5km pb. Big thanks to one of my parkrun friends for taking pity on me as I laboured round, and giving up his own time to help me get mine, in the true spirit of parkrun.

Danny, a regular sub 20min runner, pushing me at the finish

So an encouraging start to the month, but an unusual weekend - with my poorly son unable to stay over as planned. I went over to see him for the remainder of the Saturday, and he was well enough to humiliate me at various xbox games, as is the norm, but not to come back home with me afterwards. The relevance of this to a running blog being that, after an enjoyable day of being repeatedly shot in the head/thrashed at FIFA, I found myself back home late on a Saturday night, with a completely free Sunday stretched out ahead of me.


So my options for the following day included:

a) doing a long slow run, which I really should have done as part of my marathon training. But I was unable to get in touch with anyone this late in the day to arrange anything, and I wasn't in the mood to run alone.

b) go and help out at the St Peter's Way Ultra. I had some good friends attending, volunteering at checkpoints, and this option promised good company -- but no running. 3 friends successfully completed the 45mile race. Which is nuts. You can read Nicki's blog about this amazing achievement here: St Peter's Way Ultra

so anyway, I went with:

c) answer the call from Haverhill Running Club, for more members to compete in the final cross country event of the winter series, at Nowton Park, just outside Bury St Edmunds. I hate cross country, but the promise of a good pub meal afterwards helped swing it for me.

So, at about midnight, with no proper pre-race dinner inside me *, no idea what clean running kit I had, and not really entirely sure where I was racing and how far, I decided I should probably get a few hours sleep, as unprepared for a race as I've ever been.

* Pre-race meal, - in my defence, eaten with my son before I knew I would be racing the next day. Debate rages amongst the scientific community as to the nutritional value of alphabetti spaghetti on toast. As I type, sadly no firm conclusions have been drawn from the research. At least it is pasta though.


Suffolk Cross Country Series, Nowton Park, Bury St Edmunds

Race day morning then, and I cobbled together what kit I could find - fortunately my HRC vest was clean, since you have to wear this for a club race, them's the rules - and after a slight panic before finally locating my trail shoes rotting in the back of a wardrobe, which explained that strange smell, I was ready for the one hour drive to the race. I usually spend this drive on race morning going over endless calculations in my mind relating to paces and finishing times, but on this occasion I had no idea what I was capable of, and was unusually relaxed about this. I had been told it was "about 5 miles," but I never run well off-road, and how badly depends on the conditions, so I went into the event with no time expectations whatsoever.

A good turnout of club members made for some nerve-settling pre-run banter, and despite the long grassy slope I could see stretching out ahead of us at the start, I felt strangely calm. We set off, and I followed my recently adopted routine of setting into a comfortably fast pace for a good couple of minutes before my first check of the watch. I was pleased to discover I was at about 7m15 pace, and whilst I knew I wouldn't be able to maintain that for the whole run, it felt good and I began to calculate a finishing time which I felt would be acceptable. In the end, despite a poor middle section of the race, I averaged 7m30 pace, coming in at just a fraction over 40mins. Particularly pleasing was my final push, which I began at mile 3.5, and cranked up a bit with what I thought was half a mile to go. Unfortunately, as my GPS watch moved onto 5 miles, the finishing line was not yet in sight, but I was able to maintain my speed until the line came at 5.33miles - further proof that you really can't plan the same way for a cross country event.

One of the benefits of running with fellow club runners is that you get to know roughly where you should be placed, in relation to others, and I was happy enough to be 5th home for the club, and to sneak into the top 100, which represented a marked improvement on my previous efforts at off road racing.

It should be said that the highlight of the day, in all honesty, was the meal in the pub afterwards, but that merely confirmed to me that I'd made the right choice of event, and it had turned into a good running weekend.


So there are two possible conclusions to draw from all this. Given that my preparation for the cross country was completely contradictory to that recommended in last week's blog, and yet both runs resulted in relatively decent performances, it's just possible I haven't got a clue what I'm talking about. You may have reached that conclusion some time back. Frankly, I find that slightly hurtful, but I'll let it go.

I prefer to look at it this way. Sometimes, when you race, it's on a course you know, over a distance you know, and you're after a specific time. So you look to take out as many variables as you can. Hence, eating the same dinner and breakfast as you did before your last good race, wearing the same kit, maybe even following a particular "lucky" routine. We've all seen pole vaulters, triple jumpers, high jumpers, etc, going through their peculiar rituals. Remember the way Jonny Wilkinson prepared in exactly the same way before each conversion? Cristiano Ronaldo stands in exactly the same way before taking every free kick. Perri from Diversity does a weird tapping-fingers-on-head thing before he goes for a somersault. If you don't believe me, you can check out old episodes of Splash! on itv player. You're probably better off just believing me.

I've never done anything quite so strange. Although I did once have a pair of lucky pants that I wore religiously for every race, until that fateful day when, halfway through the 3rd race of the 2013 Suffolk Grand Prix Series, the elastic went. I actually had a decent enough run around Lowestoft that day, but my form went right out of the window.

Point being, some races you know what to expect, and sticking to a routine can all help. Even visualising the race beforehand can be helpful. Cross country, you can't do that. Or at least, I can't. Not knowing the exact distance, not knowing the course, not knowing how tough the conditions will be underfoot, makes it almost impossible to predict a rough pace, let alone a finishing time. Far better then, for these events, not to over-think things, and just go with whatever happens on the day.

So that, I guess, is my conclusion from the weekend. It's not always about chasing a pb. Sometimes, knowing that you will be running a challenging race, with a bunch of good friends, and that the day itself will be an enjoyable social occasion, is more important than spending time worrying about the race itself.

And sometimes, if you don't spend time worrying about the race itself, you may just end up pleasantly surprised.


  1. I adore cross country running, Ian and thoroughly enjoyed reading about your excellent run. Great post but it did get a bit pants towards the end though;-)