The last time I ran in the ‘National’ I was about 10 years younger and a member of a club that ran in cross country leagues and championships week in, week out throughout the season. Fast forward a decade, a few years spent on the dark side (long-distance triathlon) and the desire to return to the shorter, lung-busting world of cross country was back. After a couple of seasons running in a local league, I felt the time had come to up the ante again. By co-incidence, the 2017 national championships were due to be held relatively locally, at Wollaton Park, and so a plan was formed; I would run in the Nottinghamshire championships to get used to the higher standard of racing again, as well as to familiarise myself with the terrain. It was to be held at the same venue, although as I later found out, the ‘National’ was to be a very different course indeed.
If I had to describe how I felt the night and morning before the race, the words ‘absolutely’ and ‘bricking it’ would feature in there somewhere. This was only exacerbated when we arrived in the grounds of the hall and the overwhelming championship atmosphere of the event washed over me; the quality of the athletes warming up, the slick organisation, the exhausted looking finishers from the junior events, covered in mud from head to foot, and the smell of competition in the air.
Having picked up my race number and pinned it on, I felt a little more like I belonged, so I jogged off to find myself a quiet corner of the park to warm up. After 25 minutes of drills, easy running and a few hard strides, I returned to the buzz of the race village and said my goodbyes to my family who had come to cheer me on. The start of the race is wide, very wide, and so once the senior women were released from the holding area, it was a case of running to find the right pen; 337 for me.
With the efficiency I remembered from a decade ago, an official checked our feet were behind the line and within seconds the starting gun fired. We were off. The pace was furious as over 750 women converged over the first couple of hundred metres and I remember glancing down at my watch and thinking ‘****, I can’t maintain this!’ It wasn’t long, though, before the first of the ‘water features’ we had been promised slowed the pace dramatically; a calf deep pool of watery mud caused the breaking up of the pack, as each runner tried to find the best route through, cheered along by the lively crowd. Onto slightly firmer terrain, the pace picked up again as we headed onwards and upwards onto the next, slightly less challenging section of the course. It was only then that I started to get into some kind of rhythm, one I felt I could maintain. That didn’t last long though, as we were soon approaching the steepest hill on the course; although it was not long, it went round a bend and was on a camber, increasing the effort required to keep going forwards. I managed to stay upright, unlike one poor soul ahead of me who slipped down, under the course marking tape and started to roll down the hill. I was impressed at her grace in getting back on her feet and back up to the top to carry on. A mile or so of fairly flat, albeit muddy, ground led us to yet more bogs and pools of water, before another ditch and the wettest, muddiest section of all. It was hard to pick an obvious route through the gloop, so I just ploughed in and hoped and prayed that I’d still have two shoes on when I came out the other side. It was here that all of the smart spectators had gathered, as they could see people run through one ‘water feature’ and then sprint across the field to see the same folks splash through another. I’ve never seen so many spectators running during a race! A long grind uphill on slippery grass brought us round to the halfway point, ready to tackle it all again. I glanced quickly at my watch and was pretty pleased with what I saw; if I could keep the pace up, I’d finish at least 15 minutes faster than I’d thought I would.
The second lap was tough, much tougher than the first. It was raining by now, windier, and the ground was even more churned up. All of the league races I’d run earlier in the season were about 2.5 to 3 miles long, but this was 5 miles and I really noticed the difference, despite the fact I am used to running much further than 5 miles off-road. Every step became a real effort in those conditions and I could feel my whole body tiring rapidly. Having tried really hard to maintain good form, it started to go out of the window. I worked hard to maintain a decent pace on the more runnable sections, but these were few and far between. In the bogs and mud pools, and over the ditches, the effort of lifting my legs was great and I started to lose time. On the last half mile, I was aware of people overtaking me but I could not go with them. I was spent and needed everything I had to get to the finish line, now only a couple of hundred metres away. As that last stretch was straight and very slightly downhill, I ran as fast as I possibly could, and with about 50m to go heard my stepson shout ‘Sprint now!’ I thought I was! By the time I crossed the timing mat there was nothing left in me, nothing. I had given it my all. Despite slowing on that second lap, I’d still finished nearly 10 minutes faster than I had predicted; I’ll take that.
I’m glad I returned to the ‘National’. It’s hard, very hard, and I’ve heard numerous people say that the 2017 course was one of the toughest ever. From the minute I arrived on site until the minute I crossed the line I was out of my comfort zone, as my 'face of pain' photos show, but sometimes we need that to remind ourselves just what we are capable of. My return won’t be a one-off; I’ll be back next year for sure.