I was feeling pretty resentful as I walked to my local (Hampstead Heath) Parkrun on Saturday. Two pals from my running club were volunteering for the morning as they were running in the first Met League cross country race of the season that afternoon. I had decided that it would be incredibly foolish to attempt my first cross country race since secondary school a week before my big half marathon. What if I stumbled and sprained my ankle? What if I fell down the hill and broke my hip? All that training for nothing… Admittedly, road running is not without perils of its own. Uneven paving, London traffic and negligent dog walkers are all potentially bone-breaking hazards for the recreational runner. But with only a week to go until the big day I did not want to run in harm’s way any more than absolutely necessary and so I rocked up to Parkrun, trying to convince myself that the 5K over Parliament Hill would be as exciting as cross country in the woods near Claybury.
This was my last Parkrun before next weekend’s half marathon. I have been running them each week, using them as a tempo run. My pace has been incredibly reliable and, with the exception of a couple of hungover saturday mornings, I have finished in around 26 minutes every week making it a consistent 8:20 min/mile. This week was no exception and I completed the two lap, hilly course in 25:59, only 2 seconds longer than my PB. I felt that I had earned a croissant after that , especially as I had snoozed instead of eating breakfast that morning, and so headed to the cafe with some other Parkrun regulars and a couple of newbies. As I chatted with my running club pals about the afternoon’s cross country fixture I became really quite jealous. Being outside in the fresh air all morning had left me hating the idea of going back home to a pile of laundry, so I decided to go with them to Claybury and act as a cheerleader/photographer. This plan was short lived however. The temptation was too much and by the time we got there I was signing up and borrowing a boy’s club vest.
I had no idea what to expect from the race. I knew that it was two laps, I knew there was a big hill I would encounter twice and I knew that unless it rained it would be a mix of firm gravel and grass underfoot, but as I lined up at the start there was something about the atmosphere about this race that felt very different from all the others and I just didn’t know why. Perhaps it was the seriousness with which some of the other female participants approached the start line, wearing crop tops and knickers and fiddling with their Garmins. Perhaps it was seeing the spikes at the front of the crowd compared to my road shoes still on from the morning’s Parkrun race. Whatever it was I knew that this race would be different and, as we set off from the field and crowded onto the narrow path I realised why everyone was acting a little differently – the narrow winding paths, tight corners and constant pothole-dodging made cross country a very fighty kind of running. Running down that first narrow path everyone had stuck their elbows right out, laying claim to their position in the pack and refusing to let anyone overtake them.
After the first few corners we reached an open field where we were able to spread out according to our pace, but the undulating course meant that the fight for positions continued much longer than usual. This, coupled with the challenges of running on a constantly changing surface made cross country so much fun! It was playful and exciting, and even though it was physically harder than road running, it didn’t feel draining in the same way. The scenery changed constantly and the surface conditions needed my constant attention, so I was distracted from the usual aches and pains throughout the entire race.
Even better than the running was the atmosphere. Whilst the big events will always have a buzzing atmosphere, it does feel very artificial. Local radio DJs, minor celebrities leading mass warm ups and corporate sponsored tents normally dominate the runners’ villages, but at this smaller league fixture the only flags to be seen were the various flags being proudly flown by some of North London’s most-loved running clubs. The comradery and support that was offered to everyone – even rival teams! – made standing in a field in October drizzle the best afternoon I’ve had in ages.
Oh, and even better yet, I didn’t quite come last. I came 118th out of 130 women runners in the 6K race, in what I think is a respectable 32:13. These cross country runners are fast.