So here it is, the Big Event. Thousands of runners, just as with all Big Events. (This is very big – 9,472 runners registered). But there’s no medal. No goody bag. No one on a stage leading a warm up. No-one wearing charity vests. Not even a runner in a “Where’s Wally?” costume or a tutu, let alone a rhino outfit. No running gear merchandising outlets, no food (but there’s a Mr.Whippy van as this is a park). No route past tourist sites or through a city of bemused shoppers and kids with sponsor’s balloons. None of that. In short, this is a 100% razamatazz-free zone. There’s not even a bag-drop, for heaven’s sake! So just what’s so Big about this, then? What’s brought all these runners here? It’s the National Cross-Country Championship is what. Lots of athletic people in colourful vests with Somewhere “A.C.” or Someotherplace “Harriers” on them. But here am I too, on a cold Saturday afternoon on Hampstead Heath, looking forward to a race for the elite of the country looking to get the title of National Champion for 2018.
But I’m not here as a spectator. I’ve got my club vest on too. And I’m wearing that “Joggers” vest with just the same pride as if it said “A.C.” or “Harriers. For I’m here to do, at its most basic, what they are here to do: to simply run the best race I can. I’ll line up shoulder-to-shoulder with them on exactly the same start-line –no ‘elites’ pen here– and set off with them. The clock counts down to 3pm. I look left and then right. All I see is heads and vests stretching out and away on both sides, though not behind me. This is a new set-up for me. Unlike most other events from the smallest local race to a major marathon like London, the runners aren’t in large pens going stretching back and waiting to eventually hear the beep or loudspeaker that tells them their race has finally started. Instead, we are spread left and right for about 250-300m, all 2300 of us, right on the start-line. Ahead of us is a vast expanse of grass, rising gently at first but then with ever-increasing gradient, narrowing at a tree-line on a hill several hundred metres away. The gun goes and we’re off to the cheers of the crowds on the tapes lining the route. It looks like a battle charge.
Even with so much distance to the the tree-line on Parliament Hill and the stretching of the field as the climb starts to test everyone, the narrowing course means that when I get there we have slowed to a walk in the final 20m. Much as a gasp or air is welcome, it’s a bit disappointing to feel that in a National Race, your pace is forcibly set by the size of the field. But I realise later that I’m not caught in a logjam, I am the logjam, for this race is open to anyone at all and this is what has made it so big. The ability to take part in it is why I’m here. (When asked by non-running friends, I impress them by telling them I ‘qualified’ to run, I just don’t say that qualification is achieved simply by paying your EA registration fee). I’ve never been in the National final for anything, and this is the only way I can imagine I ever will. So with that starting gun, a bucket list item has been ticked.
Straight after the climb, a descent into a sharp turn and what will be the signature for the race : sections of ankle-deep sucking mud, made extra-tough to negotiate because of all the preceding age-group and women’s races which went off before ours and who had passed this point, sometimes repeatedly, to create this churned-up challenge (too bad if you haven’t tied your laces extra-tight, you’ll have fun finding that shoe while hundreds of runners splash past). Throw in some “undulations” too, keep dishing it up to us again and again for 12km (about 7.5ml) and that’s your razamatazz right there. No-frills classic cross-country running. For those who do our winter TVXC events, think of a cross between the new Reading Road Runners course and Tadley’s. Deepen the mud, add 50% to the length, and you’re close to what this run is like.
For all the prestige of the race, I’d say far more SJs could (and should) run it. We only had 4 men (Graham Robinson, Mark Fallowfield-Smith, Dave Breslin and myself) and one woman (fellow first-timer Sharon Burfield) enter and it would be great if we could get more. To give you an idea of the standard of the field as a guide, I finished in 1975th place out of 2300 and it took me 1:06. So that’s an awful lot of people behind me, with the last one taking 1:47. (In the womens’ race of 8k, the last runner was 1:15) I thoroughly enjoyed it. There were big crowds lining the route and particular thanks to Sharon, Jenny Robinson and Nikki Stanley for coming out and cheering me on, on all 3 laps.
So you can see I unfortunately didn’t win. (If I’d been English National Champion, my patriotic Mum might not have spoken to me. I told her I had to hold back to make very sure that wasn’t going to happen). But I ran my best, got to run with the best, and had a great experience. Why shouldn’t you too?