South of England XC Champs, 30/1/10

The SEAA XC Champs were back at their regular venue this year at Parliament Hill, Hampstead Heath, London where the English National Champs took place in February 2009. Given weather conditions in December & January, the course could have been potentially more difficult under foot but still a great challenge for all participants with hills a plenty. In fact I estimate that there were about 25 hills with only a significant breather for about the last kilometre of each lap.

The Women’s 8K Race

Vanessa Hudson took a leap into the unknown, her previous off-road experience mainly being on say Clapham Common or in dry summer conditions. Turning up in her road shoes, I feared for Vanessa’s well-being, imagining that she would be regularly slipping over on the mud (at least a soft landing!). The women’s race was over 8K rather than the 15K for men which I always assume is due to the limited daylight with various junior races before the senior events in the afternoon. Starting off behind the Lido on good ground, Vanessa was looking & feeling confident but that was just before the long ascent of Parliament Hill where due to non-participants crossing the course, it became very muddy and was a sign of things to come. Reaching the top, runners started a 2-lap course consisting of small & large laps.

Getting ready for my event less than an hour later, I did not manage to see the runners as they approached the end of their first lap. There was a tented area for the clubs who wanted a secure area & meeting point for their runners. It had become very muddy here also near the top of Parliament Hill.

Later after my race, I heard from Vanessa that she miraculously managed to stay upright throughout the race and run continuously (a major achievement I thought!) but considered pulling out especially with the opportunity after the first lap. Vanessa bravely managed to continue and thought she was close to being the last runner in a competitive field but as it turned out, there were still 15 other female runners behind Vanessa as she finished in 53 minutes. Vanessa also felt she was a bad example of a vegan so removed her vest, still suitably covered but not for the weather conditions. The temperature was something like 2-3C with frozen patches in the shady areas and there had been a light snowfall overnight. Vanessa was obviously very cold at the finish and with the support of Marco, her baggage handler she was able to quickly get changed and visit the comfort of the warm park cafe nearby where they cater for vegans.

The Men’s 15K Race

I have been a regular competitor in this event since 1997 including visits to Devon (twice), Norfolk and last year Hillingdon (Middlesex) so, obviously enjoy the tough challenges of cross country, assuming any stream crossings are not to deep. This winter I had missed training for most of November and December so was not approaching this event with any thoughts of a good time or position. Even on a good day, the competition is tough and I am usually well down the field. Fortunately as I waited for Vanessa in the park cafe I did not spend time getting cold supporting the other races. Taking precautions I wore VRUK’s running top over the vest, gloves and hat. Just before the women’s race we met member Colin Braybrook who was running for St Albans Striders, his local club.

The start line as usual had its individual pen numbers where clubs were assigned to line-up, giving the fastest members of each club the opportunity for a good start. I was quite content to stand at the rear, still only a matter of a few metres from the line. Off we went, taking easy I thought but as we gradually approached the summit of Parliament Hill, the going was tougher than I expected and relieved to get to the top. After a short recovery going downhill we were soon confronted by the worst of the conditions even before we could begin climbing again. The climb was not particular notable, it was just that we were still trying to recover from the first hill and lift our legs out of the deep mud, a triple whammy! Things could and to be positive will only get better I thought, especially as I know the course well.

Given my lack of training, recovery after each hill was slow but once I settled down, I appeared to be holding my position, certainly not at the back as the course doubled back in places. At the back of the course there was the familiar slippery section where runners had to run across a gradient and at any moment I thought I could fall over. Managed to survive that on each of three occasions only to be confronted by the difficult ditch and the sharp climb, standard practice!

Towards the end of the second lap, as expected we were overtaken by the impressive leaders and about 15 or more of them by the start of my third lap. On the last lap, I seemed to be growing in confidence and having paced it well seemed to be moving up the field. The cold conditions and dropping temperature towards the end of the afternoon had its impact facially, feeling numb. Finished the last kilometre or so well helped by the downhill section (off Parliament Hill ridge) despite being very muddy. It was only on finishing and trying to take off the chip that I realised how tired I was feeling and found it difficult to speak normally when I met Colin Braybrook due to the impact of the cold conditions. Colin had another impressive performance finishing nearly 20 minutes ahead of me in 1 hour 1 minute, 193 / 806 as compared to my 672nd. It was then back to the tented area and hopefully retrieve my personal belongings and get to the relative warmth of the lido to get cleaned up, etc.

Vanessa & Marco were waiting in the car park patiently given the long queue for the still warm showers where in the recent past they soon went cold for the later finishers. We found a nearby cafe to continue the day’s reflections.