I think the face says it all

Alnwick, not Elysium (North East Cross Country Championships 2019)

I always said no to Cross Country. Marathon training was my usual excuse. Saturday is long run day, but really it was the memory of how crap it was at school running along the grassy cliff tops in the cold.

This season though, I ran out of excuses. I’m not marathon training yet and my enjoyment of the fells made me think cross country might be worth a try.

My first two outings have been in the Harrier League, and it turns out this cross country running lark is popular. Wrekenton proved to be a pretty dry and pleasant affair and then, as if to show how grim things can get, Aykley Heads was a mud bath of epic proportions. We’re talking like the fields of Agincourt kind of muddy. There are probably people still out there, crying for help under a foot or two of sludge.

Aykley Heads was a mud bath of epic proportions. We’re talking like the fields of Agincourt kind of muddy. There are probably people still out there, crying for help under a foot or two of sludge.

Last weekend was the North Eastern Championships in Alnwick. It’s an impressive setting for a race, with the tent village that accompanies a cross country meet springing up in the pastures of the magnificent Alnwick Castle.

As is customary for cross country, the wind was blowing somewhere between a gail and a raging hoolie. The only acceptable topic of conversation before the start was whether you need a base layer and a hat, or whether the vest is enough. I imagine this is how Scott of the Arctic felt, only he made better life choices.

Everyone packs in tightly to start and we stampede westwards on the gun, straight into the headwind for about a kilometre. There’d not been too much rain so the first section was mainly grass – bumpy but firm. A couple of hills follow and two gates in quick succession offer a good bit of ankle deep mud. We’re then squeezed out onto a loose stone path for a quick section leading through the forest.

As is customary for cross country, the wind was blowing somewhere between a gail and a raging hoolie.

I started to feel sluggish as I left the forest. There’s a down hill that completes the lap and for some reason I just couldn’t find the pace boost it should’ve given. I’d been running strong up until then but now my legs felt heavy and my mind flooded with doubts as I struggled into the wind. I’ve been feeling slow for a few weeks and I had to fight the urge to quit.

Running along the stones through the forest

Most of the second lap was spent dragging myself around, feeling like I was losing ground, until I hit the stone path again. It was there that I felt the sun filter through the trees and a moment of peaceful calm, out of the wind. Everything seemed to click and, with the runner’s high kicking in, I forgot the world.

I lengthened my stride, the number one weapon in the lanky runner’s arsenal, and remembered Maximus in Gladiator: “If you find yourself alone, riding in green fields with the sun on your face, do not be troubled; for you are in Elysium.” Elysium. I’d made it.

That buzz lasted for about twenty seconds, until I passed a break in the trees. The biting wind surged through and felt like it would cut me in two, footsteps behind me broke my reverie, and a runner from another club overtook. You’re in Alnwick, not Elysium.

The biting wind surged through and felt like it would cut me in two, footsteps behind me broke my reverie, and a runner from another club overtook. You’re in Alnwick, not Elysium.

Still, the adrenaline was going now and I felt I could push harder. I finished the lap a little stronger and started the third with renewed vigour. Perhaps this was that mystical second wind I’ve heard so much about.

Coming along the grassy straight I saw the club captain and one of the coaches and the encouragement always makes me kick up a gear. I definitely feed off encouragement when I’m running.

The top six finishers for each club score points, which seems complex but is good for making you fight for every place. Knowing I was 4th Heaton at that point meant the rest of the final lap was spent pushing as hard as possible to overtake people from other clubs.

I crossed the line gasping for air, shook hands with a few folks and tried not to catch sudden and irreversible hypothermia. It had been a difficult outing and during that second lap I thought I may not get round at all. It felt pretty good to come back from there and finish strong.

Any race that brings a bit of the runner’s high is always going to be a whole lot of fun. It’s surprised me quite how enjoyable Cross Country is. How often, as adults, do you get to stomp around in the mud en masse? It’s a great way to spend a Saturday.