This weekend saw me swap the long run (although i havent done one of those for a while!) for the infamous Parliament Hill Fields cross country. This XC race is the South of England Cross Country Championships which is always staged at Parliament Hill. It's 15km in length through an extremely undulating and muddy Hampstead Park in London. All clubs in the South take part sending the best they have. Leighton Buzzard AC sent me! Oh dear... Luckily they sent one or two faster runners too! It was an awesome race but it didn't quite start like that...
The mens race kicked off at 2:50pm. I warmed up and picked up a pair of XC spikes from a friend. We had all been warned that anything other than 15mm spikes would see you going backwards not forwards on the climbs in the mud. These weren't just any pair of spikes either, but were kindly lent by my colleague Glenn Watts who runs for Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers and was gunning for a top 10 finish!!! Note that there were 885 finishers in this race which tells you the pedigree of this runner. I was therefore hoping that his old spikes would work their magic :-)
So all warmed up and spikes on I headed down to the start with 10 minutes to go. The start line is well over 50 metres in length with different number pens all the way down and hundreds of runners stetched out. We were in pen 31. However I had to get there first. And inbetween me and the start was a mass of runners all being made to filter through a tiny white tent where 3 people were checking that you had your number fastened, club vest on, and timing chip around ankle. There was well over half the field still trying to get in and through the tent as the start time approached. But they weren't of course going to start the race whilst half the field was still being hurded through. Surely not! And as I joked with a guy next to me that it was now 2:50 the air horn sounded and the race started!! Unbelievable! There was mild panic and shock all round at what had just happened, but now was not the time to ask why. I and hundreds of others vaulted the fence and joined into the back of the pack that had made the start line in time. Hilarious.
The first 500m goes straight up on a wide open field. It needed to be this wide to cope with the 900 or so starters. Despite the calamity of the start line I just laughed this minor inconvenience off and went about getting up the hill without overdoing it in an attempt to make up lost time.
I settled into my stride and tested the spikes for the first time. They are no where near as comfortable as my trail shoes (innov8s) but I wasn't wearing them for comfort but to get me through the thick mud and up the steep ascents. And that they did. Although with a very low heel cup I had to clench my foot a little to keep them from being sucked off by the mud. This course was relentless! 3 x 5km laps with nothing but undulating mud and grassy slopes. It was actually (so I'm told) in the best condition it had been in for years.
On the first lap I wasn't feeling amazing (you never do in XC - nor should you) but went about my business and tried to pace it so that I held enough back. This is the longest XC race in the calendar by far. I caught LBAC club captain Tom May on the 1st lap as he and I chop and changed our position with each other a few times. At the end of the lap there was a nice long descent which I released the brakes on and let gravity do the work. I passed Tom and several others on this section, rounded the corner and geared up for lap 2 heading back up the hill.
Checking my Garmin for my lap 1 pace I had a blank screen staring back at me. The battery had died on me. So stupid not to make sure I had charged it before hand. Oh well no splits for this one. To be honest though this didn't bother me during the race. I very rarely check the garmin during the actual XC race itself, as I much prefer to run to what my body is telling me I'm capable of. The data afterwards is useful to look back on though.
On lap 2 I felt much the same as in lap 1. I was putting in the effort and feeling every step for what it was. Tough going. I was slowing a little but was not being passed by many, and think I made up more places than I lost. However the head was down so it's always difficult to recollect exactly what was going on around you.
The lap was routed in a way that allowed you to see those out in front as it doubled back around half way with tape separating us mid packers from the front runners, and then on our out and back return to the back of the packers. This allowed me to catch a glimpse of Glenn (my colleague) who was in the front pack of around 10 runners. Way to go! The speed they were running was unbelieveable. Even on flat road it would be impressive, but on this course to be hitting 5:30 mpm pace is unreal! Anyway I had to stop dreaming and get back to my race.
During lap 2 and knowing how I was feeling I wondered if I had gone out too fast and not left enough in the tank for lap 3. Only time would tell. I do like the multi lap format as you start to love the course and learn what is coming next. This definitely helped me to visualise the next section and decide whether to hold back, or push on.
By lap 3 I was starting to really enjoy myself for the first time. And by this I mean the type of enjoyment that comes from knowing you are having a good race. In lap 1 you can not know as it's too early too tell, and in lap 2 you are just hurting so nothing feels right or like it's going your way even if it is. There is something about hitting Lap 3 though that brings it all into perspective. You can see for the first time how your race is really going. Where as I thought I would be on my last legs by now and really struggling, it was actually quite the opposite and I swear (although i don't have the data to prove it) that I was running my fastest miles during my last lap. Everything clicked and I felt more relaxed, and was able to flow much better with the course undulations rather than against them. By now I was pulling in many runners ahead of me. I have to be careful as the mind can do strange things. Perhaps it was just everyone else slowing and me just sustaining the same pace that enabled me to pass, but I defintely felt like I was running faster. In reality I think it was a bit of both.
There were not too many senior male LBAC runners at this race so I had far fewer known faces that I could spot on course and compare my performance with. I had only seen Tom up to now. But there in the distance was Pete Mackral. Pete is definitely no slouch (2:54 marathon time) so to be even near him let alone catching him was a real boost. He was about 100m metres ahead, and we were one or two km into the lap. I used this external factor as a signal to the brain to press the engage button and go for it. It's weird how at times you already think you are giving it everything but then some thing happens and suddenly you find a bit more.
This is exactly what happened and I was feeling the best I had all race. I could even ignore the discomfort that the spikes were now causing as I didn't care. I was flying (comparatively speaking of course as I was still mid pack). I passed runner after runner and closed in on Pete. This had happened at another XC Race in Stowe when I passed Pete in the final stretch of the final lap, thought I had passed only for him to respond and blast past me. I half expected the same to happen again. There was 1 or 2 km remaining. I didn't look back and continued pushing. Though more mud of course. Up and down more hills and around to the final down hill section where I left everything I had out there on the course. Turn the left hander and sprint the final 200m to the big red inflatable arch. Job done.
The only stat I have is my official chip time - 62:24. I finished in 321 place out of 885 finishers. I'm happy with that but what makes me happiest of all is not my time, or placing or even that I passed Pete :-) but of my all round race and how strong I felt in that final lap. It was that same feeling that I felt in the final 6 miles of London marathon last year - the feeling that nothing can stop you at that moment as your race strategy plays out exactly as you had planned. Perfect.
Now back to Glenn's race. This guy is on another planet, and I honestly can not comprehend his ability to run this course in the way that he did. Glenn finished in 6th place (49:24). Truly word class!! Way to go buddy! And thanks for the spikes - they did indeed work their magic :-D
Official results here - http://mcs.open.ac.uk/mkac/11seaaxc.htm