Peter Simpson reports on the day’s actions at the English National XC Champs:
The 125th year of the championships were held this winter and the venue was the Parliament Hill area of Hampstead Heath, north London, a traditional venue for championship cross country. The championships are open to all registered club runners with events from U13 Boys, U13 Girls up to the Senior Women and Senior Men’s events. For me it was about my 12th attendance at these champs that rotates between the three English regions: Southern (SEAA), Midlands Counties & Northern.
There were just John Bateson & myself representing VRUK which was rather disappointing but given many members are in training for marathons at this time of year it is understandable. Both John & myself were not in the best of fitness, both carrying injuries. It was John’s first cross country since he was 18 and is now a master using the modern term.
We met up at 1.30pm at the registration marquee, the championship having already been going since 11am, the men’s 12K race was not due until 3pm with the women’s event at 2.20pm. We walked up to the top of Parliament Hill and looked back down to the start by the Lido where the under-13 boys were lining up for their 3K starting at 2pm. Unsurprisingly given the relatively dry winter in this area the course looked dry with plenty of grass however, walking down to the far corner we bypassed a 10-20 metres of heavy mud coming off Parliament Hill. Looking back to Parliament Hill we awaited the appearance of the U-13 boys and we new they had arrived by the parents & club colleagues cheering them on. There is a photo above as they passed and another from the rear as they soon had to climb again.
Walking back down Parliament Hill on our way to the Lido for changing, the women were already lining up for their 8K and about to start so we waited and took more photos, one shown above. There were at least 600 women in the championship and it looked impressive as they were spread over the full width of the start. Given the mild conditions most athletes were getting changed in the Club’s tented village to the right of Parliament Hill otherwise clubs were organising their meeting points around the nearby track. Luckily I met my local Milton Keynes AC and in particular Jackson Ryan who immediately approached me once I arrived and invited us to leave our baggage in his club’s secure meeting point. Very kind of him otherwise we would have had to take a risk somewhere.
Not long to go we head down to the start where officials were checking that we were wearing our timing chips and after a short warm-up job, we walked through the marquee to the start. The wide start had the usual indicators for pen numbers (not for cattle) and we were allocated 119. That allowed members to line up together with the fastest member at the front. It was quite warm as we waited for the start time when we were told to go forward to the official start line. The gun went but a second later another two shots were heard and many thought there was a false start but we all continued, it was too late to stop the human herd of men!
Given the long climb to the top and remembering I was not particularly fit, I took it leisurely but as the climb began, it still felt tough. Nearing the top we ground to a halt due to the course narrowing and the right-hand turn. Breathing heavily the downhill stretch was a relief but we soon had to negiotiate the short stretch of heavy conditions and our shoes got their first covering of mud. The second climb a short time later is always difficult despite it only being a modest climb. Then it was modestly downhill for a while but we encountered another even heavier stretch where I nearly lost my right shoe. Nearing the back of the course we probably had the longest and most difficult stretch with a mixture of heavy & smelly conditions, running across a gradient and a sharp climb out of a small dyke.
Turning right, the surface was a lot firmer and drier for much of the remainder of the 1st of 2 laps. We did however have a long descent followed by at least as long climb on the other side otherwise the remainder of the lap was an opportunity to recover before it all began again. Unfortunately for me I began to feel the discomfort in the right knee where I have the injury but it was unlikely to get to the stage where I had to pull out. There still appeared to be a considerable number of runners behind me although I felt I was generally loosing places.
The climbs the second time round added to the injury making the course feel more difficult but managed to grind it out. It was a relief to get to the top of the last hill and know I was nearly home. Like at the Stanmer Park course for the Southern Champs at the end of January, there was a long descent off the other end of the Parliament Hill ridge but there was still a longish run to the line as we turned left at the bottom. I managed to keep up a good pace to the line but still lost a few places to the younger runners. I soon caught sight of John who had a modest performance by his standards for the reasons described.
Heading back down to the lido there was more pain to come when I experienced cramp taking off my right shoe. When inside the lido changing area I realised I had not taken a picture of us in our kit hence the two above. The showers were very cold. Results were posted that evening with John finishing in 863rd / 1688, time academic 49.46 and my position 1321st, time 55.59. Back home I took a picture of my Walsh shoes the next day before the cleaning job began!