Cross-Country for Beginners

By Garry

My attendance at the Herrington Park Cross-Country race of approx. 10k  was one of those things that seems to happens by-proxy! I definitely think the cake induced euphoria (NFR members bake exceptionally good treats) and endorphin rush of a five mile run played some part in confusing my senses and over inflating my confidence. By and large though, I admit I was distracted trying to sample all the different treats, greedily acquire a second pair of rainbow laces and…I think someone made a stirring comment about needing a volunteer for a local rugby team, which had me picturing myself holding George Ford’s kit bag (not the innuendo you might think)… Meaning I left that night with a vague memory of committing to something the following Saturday. It’s exactly this kind of lack of attention to detail that finds people driving home, face covered in chocolate, with an urgent need to buy trail shoes.

So I was only mildly surprised when I checked Facebook and found I’d been added to the Harriers cross-country team, or later, when instructions arrived by text about the Herrington Run, along with advice about which shoes might be good to buy.

I should clarify, up until this point I’d seen trail and cross-country runners as a group apart; hardier, athletic and often far more expressive about the joy of running than I have ever managed. Just look at the photo on the Harrier League homepage! Couple that with the fact I now routinely head indoors from October through March; and seem to only manage a ‘good’ outdoor run on a mild, breezy but sunny day, and you can see the disconnect between what was about to happen and what I was mentally prepared for. So, glucose-shame in toe, I headed to buy some cheap trail shoes (I was sure I would hate it, and I wasn’t about to invest in something I would try only once). It started to hail on my way to the shop but fortunately the svelte, sinewy and tall shop assistant fervently explained how great it was to run ‘off road’ in a manner that was actually quite infectious, but did nothing to convince me that my body shape isn’t designed for anything but tarmac.

I did a fair amount of pre-run ‘googling’ trying to allay my fears; finding extracts about runners first trail and off road experiences, which were overwhelmingly positive. I also did a quick practice run in my new shoes, which did seem excellent, despite being bought without the usual meta-analysis of reviews.

The day arrived and I’d convinced myself I’d be there for the start of the women’s race, but possibly only arrived just in time for the men’s to actually begin. There were already NFR members there, cheering everyone on. It was absolutely freezing but the team had a tent, picnic table and mulled wine! What more could you want on a wintery and muddy day? There were lots of treats, cakes and plenty of encouragement and supporting words from everyone. Although somehow the ‘run’ had become a ‘race’ in the time it took me to walk past ‘Hogg Heaven’ and regret not bringing actual money.

Herrington Park, has views of of my favourite landmarks including Penshaw Monument and Durham Cathedral, and is a really outstanding area; you probably couldn’t ask for a better place to have your first experience of cross country. When I arrived I could see the women’s race in the distance and hear the cheers. Most noticeable was the mud, which was everywhere and seemed to have a magnetic attraction to humans, particularly running shoes. Confirmed when some of our team came back looking like they were wearing camouflage and talking about how much messier things had been on the second lap. At this point I heard someone mention that the men’s race was actually three laps. I took this to be a macabre joke and we all set off for the start line.

Unbelievably, most people seemed to be wearing vests and racing shorts, which made me feel slightly out of place in three layers and a coat, but I was insulated and felt toasty warm! I joined the mess of people all waiting to run and a few more words of encouragement were issued (I may have looked terrified) before the race set off.

The initial lap felt ok/manageable/I didn’t cry or sneak away. It was incredibly muddy and I had never before realised how much I relied on the bounce and push-back of my trainers from the pavement; I’m only acutely aware of this now because 500 meters in, I wondered why my legs were so tired and realised I was actually having to lift them out of mud and clarts, which added far more work to the effort of running than I’m used to. There were a lot of uphill struggles and careering out of control on the downhill sections. I thought the man behind me was having an asthma attack until I realised I’d been listening to my own breathing.

The uphill sections wind their way around a number of small hills, but this meant the gradient was always on the lefthand side and caused an instability which was discomforting. One half of my body got a good workout though. At about 2.5k you start to run downhill and through a wooded trail, which actually felt exciting, especially as it was strewn with branches and logs to add additional, mildly-perilous obstacles to the whole experience. It was actually quite peaceful and dry in the wood, and you could hear the rhythmic breathing and pounding steps of the other runners. I seemed to be transported back to school cross country, and how much I disliked running then. But here today, part of a team, it felt great. The more athletic runners bounded through this section, vaulting over the logs and capering through as they overtook the slower amongst us. I felt it was enough to stay upright, having long abandoned my twin aims of staying dry and maintaining my dignity.

Emerging from the wooded area, I heard someone shouting my name and nearly fell with joy as I tried to scan the crowd for someone I might know. Taking my eyes off the ground to look at my vest, checking to see if my name was printed there, caused me to stumble and collide with a very attractive man; proving every catastrophe does indeed bring a small gift. I will, in future, always wear aftershave to race days. It occurred to me later that it was likely someone from the women’s team or another member, who had come to support the NFR runners; very dedicated on the cold and wintery Saturday. Perhaps they had knowledge of the mulled wine and brownie situation. Although my sense of the club so far suggests they didn’t, and would have been there wind or hail, to support their fellows. As I have only just joined, and am not well known nor been to many of the outdoor runs, socials or any other events, this felt incredibly kind and heartening. Unfortunately I didn’t catch who shouted, but your encouragement kept me going until at least kilometre five and I am very grateful.

At kilometre five I had the disheartening realisation that the person who mentioned the mens race is three laps was likely not lying. I had just started the second uphill section and it became painfully obvious that there was no way the remaining course, plus back to the start, would cover another 5k. I struggled for the remainder of the second lap and noted that things seemed to be getting muddier and wetter. I also seemed to be falling further behind. The green of the grass was now long lost to the brown and squelching mud, and there were far fewer ‘dryer’ spots to run on whilst going uphill. I found I was loosing my footing more on the approach to the wooded area, which was essentially waterlogged, with the ground now a good few centimetres below water in parts. I wasn’t brave enough to attempt to avoid these by pivoting or jumping around them, instead ploughing straight through but feeling quite jubilant about this, like a child jumping in puddles. Only children very rarely have to clean the mud out of their own thermal layers and coat, and might not take such an insouciant attitude to life if they did.

The third lap uphill sections were much more difficult again. My legs were aching, it felt hard to keep up even a jogging pace and my breathing, not great in lap one, now sounded like the wind section of a symphony orchestra. My watch had also started to chime in, warning me that a heart rate of more than 200 is unlikely a sign of great health or physical prowess. However, it was the last lap, and there was mulled wine and coffee to be had! The people around me seemed to be finding their energy and drawing upon their reserves as we raced to the finish. In the glade I found my own second wind and sped up a little, running in the tracks made by the other runners. I could see the evidence and work of hundreds of runners before me, compacting the ground and mud. Sadly I lost this little reserve from my own, undersized, tank when I rounded the corner before the finish line and noticed another 600-700m of uphill to go. I heard cheering, saw the jubilant celebrations (read: relief) of those already finished and thought about the hot tub of my gym. I chose to ignore the older lady who was running up the hill, her cool down pace outstripping my own race finish by miles. Finally it was over and I was welcomed back by the runners who had already finished and were staying to cheer those still to come.

I’ve still not made sense of how I felt abut the whole experience. It was equal parts much harder than I thought, exhilarating and yet also reminded me of times I was younger and things were novel, or when I’ve been walking (saying nothing about my pace) outdoors with friends or family, collectively working together to achieve something, or be part of something that is just inherently good fun. I guess I don’t need to decide now, and will instead take the advice of everyone I’ve spoke to since…just wait until Thornley Hall Farm in February…