Splashing through the clart

The Dark Mud Rises - National XC Champs 2020

Clarty. There’s no better word to describe the conditions at Saturday’s Saucony National Cross Country Championships. It was right clarty. Back to back winter storms had seen fit to empty the heavens, leaving the course a mess of mud and sludge. Or, as I like to think of it, perfect cross country conditions.

This year’s championships were at Wollaton Hall in Nottingham, used as Wayne Manor in The Dark Knight Rises. An Elizabethan Country House surrounded by 500 acres of park land, it made a fantastic venue for racing.

A good friend from the club had told me that I had to experience the nationals, and he was spot on. The atmosphere is great with thousands of runners coming from across the country. Tents spring up in club colours, with flags fluttering outside to show their crests.

There are ten races across the day, ranging from under thirteens to seniors. I’ll be writing about the Senior Mens’ race, because that’s my experience. The course doesn’t discriminate - it was this grim for everyone.

The course doesn’t discriminate - it was this grim for everyone.

In the Harrier league we start in waves but this is an all out race, every one starts on the gun. That is as exhilarating as it is bonkers. Almost two thousand runners stood five or six deep along a huge start line.

The start was a little like I’d imagine the French charge at Agincourt; there was ardour, exertion – and industrial quantities of mud splashing around.

I took off as quick as I could manage, eager to get around the first corner and avoid any bottlenecking. The first five hundred metres passed at what would be flat 5k PB pace. For the briefest of moments I imagined my increased training had worked miracles. Could this be the new normal? Needless to say, it wasn’t. I soon slowed down to my more usual race pace.

For the briefest of moments I imagined my increased training had worked miracles.

The men’s race was four laps of ever increasing size, the first of which was the best possible kind of carnage. With the field yet to thin out there was a full on stampede through calf deep mud and flooded sections of course.

I’m finding in cross country I tend to fair better on the challenging parts. I lose ground on the flatter and drier sections, probably due to my lack of speed work, but tend to make it up through the mud or up hill.

The third lap took us up to the back of Wollaton Hall itself, followed by a sweeping downhill with a log to jump before you descend back into the waiting clag.

By the final lap I’d found my favoured route through the worst of the flooded sections and the muddiest bits. I was finding it quicker to take harder lines – muddier or longer – rather than contend with the busyness of the course.

Like all good cross country courses, it demanded a steady flow of shoes be sacrificed to the muddy depths. Runners would emerge from the tumultuous mire missing one or both shoes, and lost shoes lay entombed in a layer of grime.

Like all good cross country courses, it demanded a steady flow of shoes be sacrificed to the muddy depths.

As I passed the 12km mark it was clear there was still some way to go, which made it hard to know when to give a final push. The finish eventually came into view but there was one last quagmire to charge through before the relief of the line.

I’d pushed hard the whole way and felt good about my pace. Feeling in good form combined with the mud, pools and logs to jump made this one of the most enjoyable races I’ve ran. Already looking forward to next year at Parliament Hill.

Many thanks to Saucony for the photo.