4 Dec

Tough Return To Cross Country

Cross country charge

I took part in my first cross country race in nearly seven years at the weekend. So what did I learn?

Well, firstly it is still a very tough discipline. Secondly, it was a harsh reminder that I am a little older than when I last raced on the country. But most of all, it all came flooding back what a superbly satisfying challenge it is.

Cross country running is the pounding heartbeat of competitive club athletics in the UK. At league events up and down the country - like the event I took part in Exeter - participants are entered by their clubs. It is the quintessential club event.

Indeed at the startline at my event, one runner without a club vest was collared by an agitated official. From what I could make out, he had simply forgotten his vest, but was roundly admonished like a naughty schoolboy forgetting his PE kit. Luckily, no-one came kitted out as Santa.

The race itself was around the back and to the side of Exeter Arena, where four-times Olympian Jo Pavey developed into one of Britain's best. The up and down four lap course was a held on a sloped open parkland and also dipped into some thicker bushland.

The long climb was a killer, a serial killer, given it attacked you on four occasions. But there was no opportunity for a respite, if I did I would have been swamped by the other runners. The thing is about this level is racing is that people there are serious runners. They train, they are fit and they are there to do their best.

It's not to say they don't enjoy the whole experience, but this is no fun run. The last time that I tackled these type of events, I used to fall into the biggest frenzy before the race. Mainly because everyone else looked so damn fit and strong, I thought I could be humiliated. I was no different at the weekend.

There they all were again, present and correct. The young and long limbed bounding around like greyhounds pre-race to the gnarled barrel-chested veterans with calves of oak. Where's the fat bloke in the Dunlop Green Flash when you need him?

All things considered I didn't do too badly, I had an arbitrary target of the top 100 in mind and I finished 112th. But what consoled me was knowing I had given everything. Most times in road races, I am able to pick off a few people in the final stretch, my sprint seems to be one of my stronger traits.

But this time I simply did not have it in me to overtake two runners within 10 metres of me, no matter how hard I tried. I think that's the best thing about cross country running. The mud, the hills and the opposition they all combine to really bring out the very best in yourself.

And surely that's the greatest satisfaction any runner can hope for? The knowledge that you have touched upon your personal limits and pushed them a little.