“Cross Country Isn’t For Me” – or maybe it is…

Thornley Hall Farm Race Report, February 2018

by Stephen

“Cross Country isn’t for me” – this is what you would have heard if you’d asked me about taking part in the North East Harrier League before this year. As a runner with about 3-4 years’ experience under my belt, I was quite content with road running, and the best routes were (in my opinion at least) flat, fast, and preferably tarmacked. It was most likely a combination of curiosity, club-camaraderie, and cake that brought me along to the 2017-2018 NEHL season.


Despite myself, I’ve found a new love of challenging runs because of the Harrier League, but it hasn’t been easy. The competitor in me has had to learn to be OK with my pacing taking a knock, and being happier with consistency over speed. Mud and hills don’t fill me with dread quite as much as they used to – until it comes to cleaning my shoes, that is! From the start of this season at Wrekenton, I’ve found myself becoming more and more comfortable with the challenges XC throws at you, and I’ve learnt to take positives from all the different challenges that have come along; the wind at South Shields, the hills at Aykley Heads, the hangover at Redcar (more of a personal challenge than one for all runners), and the mud at Herrington. Looking back over these runs I had overcome them all and managed to muster a smile at the end, so I geared up for Thornley Hall Farm, traditionally the muddiest XC fixture of the year, complete with river/stream/mud-lake to contend with. With that in mind, I checked the forecast religiously from Monday onwards, praying that it would stay cold and dry to keep the ground firm underfoot. Sadly, my prayers went unanswered and as the week progressed temperatures rose, and it was raining more than I would have liked. Packing my bag the night before I continued to check the forecast maniacally, only to see that it was most likely going to rain from 10am onwards, with temperatures in the region of 2°C – I was not impressed.


Race day arrived and I was pleasantly surprised; while it was quite chilly, the rain was holding off and when we arrived at Thornley I managed to walk the entire way down to Tent City with the tent on my back without slipping – so far so good. The tent went up and we could relax, treating ourselves to tea and coffee before the run. At one point the sun even came out and we all agreed it was positively warm…the coats came off and we were down to three layers! (For those of you who know me well enough, you’ll be surprised to hear that I was only sporting 4 layers to begin with!) Talk turned to the course, and as someone who’d never ran it before I was trying my best to mentally prepare for what was to come – questions about the hills, gradient, and muddiness were all duly answered and I felt quite chipper – the likelihood of the river/stream/mud-lake being there was quite slim apparently, which was fine by me although I’m sure some XC and mud enthusiasts would disagree.


As the women set off, I stood at the top of hill number 1 to get a video and to see how it went underfoot – whilst the hill was steep, the footing looked good and I was feeling distinctly less worried about Thornley than I had earlier that morning. Back at our tent we were well-placed to see the women on Lap 2, just before they tackled the second hill. There were some smiles (possibly some grimaces) and more than one comment on how “not fun” this course was – all said with a laugh, possibly because they were enjoying it so much, or because they knew this was the last time they had to do it and we had 3 lots of it to come. After cheering all of our runners along, encouraging them to keep going, and to chase-down the runner just ahead, our attention turned to our preparation – in my case this involved keeping my layers firmly on for as long as possible, and squeezing in a cup of tea and 2x dark chocolate digestives about 25 minutes before we started. Anxiety had started to build, and this was either due to the impending run, or it might have been due to one of our runners having not yet arrived, and relying on one of the women to finish with enough time to give him a vest to wear (FYI, it all worked out fine; he arrived and got a vest in time – PHEW!) Before I knew it, it was time to go! Jogging over to the start, my trail shoes accumulated a fair amount of mud – this was the first sign of things to come. Having used a nearby tree to get some of the mud cleared from my shoes, I was good to go, and I made my way over to the starting line…off we went!

Setting off on that first lap, I was primarily concerned with getting into space, knowing from my limited XC experience that once things get muddy, my arms tend to flail and my feet move from underneath my body about 1m in any, random direction – I wasn’t going to take anyone down with me if I fell! The first hill came and went, grassy and fairly firm underfoot – the cheers kept me going up and over it, and before I knew it I was running past Tent City, bracing myself for the second climb of the day. This one proved to be decidedly muddier, and I made a mental note to stick to the edges next time round. As I came along to top of the tree line and made my way into the wooded section, I was not prepared for the sheerness of the next hill (mercifully running down it) – given that this year we ran the course in reverse I can only assume that in previous years crampons, picks, and ropes have been a requirement for all runners attempting to scale it! Once down the hill/cliff, I was pleased to see grass, but my gaze stayed firmly down as I tried to navigate a good route through the uneven terrain. Before I knew it, I was at “the gates” – anyone who’s ran at Thornley will know the gates, and as a Thornley first-timer this is where I’m told the river/stream/mud-lake could be found given more adverse weather conditions. The pass here seemed to be getting fairly muddy and claggy, and this was only lap 1, so the best was yet to come…Lap one rounded out with a climb and swift descent back down to the start line, ready to do it all again.

Lap 2 is always the hardest one for me – you’ve not got the rush of the start of the race, nor the joy of knowing it’s your last time up a hill or through some mud. Nevertheless I was feeling quite good all things considered, and the gloves were off (literally) as I passed Tent City and women from the club, trying to say “please hold these” while throwing them AND keeping my footing. (The hat came off at the same point on Lap 3) Lap 2 continued with the added challenge of getting a sizeable stick caught in my laces – a few tactical kicks as I ran couldn’t dislodge it so I had to stop to pull it out, swearing at it as I did so, which I’m sure made dislodging it a much quicker process. As predicted, the mud at the gates had become claggier and more liquidated after 380+ runners had made their way through it. One step saw my foot and leg disappear as far as my mid-shin, and pulling my foot back out nearly cost me a shoe, but my laces held-fast and I was off again, trying not to lose momentum. It was getting harder to keep my head up, not only because I needed to watch my footing vigilantly, but because the course was taking its toll, and by the end of Lap 2 I needed as much “Last Lap Joy” as I could muster to keep me going. Thankfully the Last Lap Joy was forthcoming, especially when my watch beeped I knew I had no more than a mile to go. I could feel myself lift and it made the final stretch easier – the cheers from the spectators as I approached the finish line kept me going, despite the fact they weren’t necessarily for me! One group of supporters cheering for another Stephen (they were all in club colours I didn’t recognise) can’t know how much of a boost I got from just hearing my name being cheered – one final push and I was over the line, I was finished!

Once out of the finish funnel and back around to the sides I could look down and see quite how much mud my shoes had picked up on the way round – it was a shocking amount and the grips were nowhere to be seen; no wonder it had felt like I was running in clogs! With heavy and muddy feet, I glued myself to the spot and cheered the other runners from the club across the line, all of us finishing with a mixture of relief and fatigue. With everyone back across the line, we made our way back to the tent to warm-up and refresh ourselves with the remaining hot drinks, cakes, and biscuits. Team photos were taken as proof that we went and conquered Thornley, as well as to document the amount of mud we were taking away with us. Despite its challenges, we could all muster a smile and laugh about it in the end, proving that as hard as it might be, XC really can be good fun!

Thornley Hall Farm may not be the superlative for hilliness, nor muddiness in the Harrier League (certainly Herrington’s course had much more mud from start to finish this year) but it seems to have certain qualities to make it stand out from the rest. Perhaps it’s the reputation, maybe the setting (being nestled in a valley) or a combination of these things, but Thornley Hall Farm typifies Cross-Country running; to paraphrase Animal Farm (and possibly rename it Thornley Hall Farm):


“All Harrier League fixtures are Cross-Country, but some are more Cross-Country than others.”


While I might not have enjoyed it in the moment, I can safely say that running at Thornley (and running XC in general) has made me a better runner. It’s also an amazing atmosphere, and something I would highly recommend for any local runners. Incidentally, it’s also an absolute bargain – £2 to enter for the whole season…you’re getting a fair bit of mileage for your buck! Bring on Alnwick and bring on the 2018-2019 season!