Cross country is often something that strikes dread into the hearts of many when they hear it mentioned, and it used to be that way for me as a child. I was not a fan of school cross country and it wasn't something that I anticipated enjoying in the future. As I got older and wiser though that changed! Now I relish the mud, hills and cake of a cross country meeting and it's something that I think everyone should try...you never know, you might like it!
A couple of my most memorable cross country experiences are from the Nationals in London in 2018. It was the year we had the 'Beast from the East' and the national cross country championships were being held in London that year. For anyone who doesn't know - the nationals rotate between 3 locations each year, London, Nottingham then Yorkshire and anyone can enter. The women typically race around 6 miles and the men around 8.
As I lined up with 1200 other women for a mass start on Hampstead Heath I thought "what am I doing here?!" But I didn't have too much time to ponder before the gun went off and the throng of people surged forwards and off up the hill. It was an exhilarating experience being amongst so many other fellow runners and to be honest my main aim was to get round and don't be last! As the press of runners on each side eased once we were over the hill and I could let myself pick up some speed on the downhill I was grinning from ear to ear and endeavouring to stay upright in the muddy conditions underfoot! The race went all over and around the heath and there were crowds of spectators cheering people on and the sun had come out too, so it was a brilliant atmosphere despite the chilling wind. As I got further around the course, with the wind in my hair and the end in sight and a few encouraging shots from James & Oli P spectating, I started to move through the field and was feeling pretty good. Towards the end of the race, I was tiring but determined to do my best and managed to find a sprint finish to gain a few more places before the line. I finished just about in the top 50% of the field so was well pleased with that result, but it was the experience itself that was so rewarding.
The next time I ran the nationals was in 2020 in Nottingham, about 8 months after having Sylvester. This was a memorable race for different reasons this time. The course was 4 laps and it was very wet and muddy along the whole route. This was a tough one for me, almost immediately you went through a small stream (nothing unusual for a XC there) and then the mud was an absolute quagmire in parts really zapping the energy from your legs. Include a few log jumps and this really was a test of endurance! It was a tough race but afterwards, I was so proud that I had managed to finish it and was ready to cheer James around the course with a few helpful pieces of advice like 'It's SO muddy don't fall over!' and 'at this section stay left!'
The nationals are a special kind of race with a huge field and exciting courses each year. But what I really enjoy about cross country racing, and is common to all league races too, is that it is racing in its purest form. It's just you a pair of spikes and your determination to get round and no race - even over the same course - is ever quite the same. I enjoy pushing myself to run the best possible race, enjoy the scenery and the downhills and endure the uphills. It's always a great atmosphere and the camaraderie with the other runners and, let's be honest, the cake afterwards makes for a great day out. So if you haven't tried cross country before, maybe next season you should give it a try because you just might find that are converted.