Week six – The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

I love cross country. And I hate cross country. This isn’t a love/hate relationship. It is quite clear cut. My mind loves cross country, but my body hates it.

My first cross country season as an adult was 2005-6 and was blighted by severe calf pain in almost every race which made my performances far worse than they should have been. But I persisted, throwing myself into all races with gusto including battling my body around Parliament Hill on many occasions for the National, and the Southern Championships. Each time an absolute disaster ending in that familiar excrutiating pain in my calves as I struggled on the mud and the hills. It isn’t easy being a ‘bouncing bambi’ and tackling some of the toughest cross country courses.

In 2010 I dropped out of the National at Leeds due to calf pain whilst at the Southern my second lap was so awful due to calf pain that once it had eased on the final lap I improved my position by about 80 runners – yes I counted every single one! The county championships at Lloyd Park or Denbies Winery proved just as frustrating, and lets face it, pointless. I remember one year being told by ex-Ranelagh captain Andy Bickerstaff that as I passed, one of his fellow spectators remarked – ‘he has a good style, why is he jogging?’ Good point. I wish I knew the answer but every time my foot lands in mud it slips and I am ‘bambi on ice’, I struggle to keep my balance, my feet slide from underneath my body and I slow to what feels like a jog.

Whilst I have gradually said goodbye to most of the cross country events Ranelagh enter, there is one event that I cannot get enough of – the Surrey League.

It is almost tribal in its constitution. Nine clubs, and over 200 runners pushing themselves to exhaustion across the parks and common land of south London. The giddy excitement when you see your club’s best runners getting their spikes out, and the disappointment when you don’t. It has the best aspect of team sport combining team spirit, club rivalries, relegation and promotion. But it manages to maintain the value of individual performance. Can you beat your rivals? Can you get into the top 50, top 10, or win the race?  For me it was all about scoring for ‘the team’ (our first ten finishers), it took me 4 years to score for the first time and I have now scored in 21 Surrey League races.

These elements have always made the pain worthwhile, whilst the courses are generally less physically demanding than the championship courses that have left my body so brutally battered.

I would still like one more attempt at the National in Parliament Hill. One final hurrah to put the demons to bed and prove that I can get round without spending half the with one of my calves tighter than my wallet. Maybe next year.

Day 36 – Sunday 5 February

8.5 miles – 7:49 – 136bpm

Another tag parenting training morning. Early start for me to sneak my run in before J’s cycle and then we all jumped in the car and headed to Witney for lunch.

To mix things up a little I managed to cover 8.5 miles without ever being more than 1.5 miles from home. It went surprisingly quickly!

Day 37 – Monday 6 February

2.2 miles – 8:35 – 134bpm

Very light easy run. My legs are starting to feel loose again and I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s rep session with the club to get a bit of leg speed before Saturday’s xc race.

Day 38 – Tuesday 7 February

8.4 miles – 8:09 – 137bpm

Club night and the session was 8x3mins, alternating the pace between tempo and race pace. This is the standard pre-Surrey League race session and I love it. The session was on grass and despite not wanting to do any speedwork before the end of March, I just couldn’t resist!

My legs felt lethargic during the warm-up. I was very low on energy and had that strange feeling where my legs are moving as though they are independent from the rest of my body. All feeling is lost but my legs just keep moving at the same pace. They don’t speed up. They don’t slow down. It doesn’t happen very often, perhaps a few times a year and only lasts for 10-15 minutes. I was confident I would be fine once the session started but it did make the drills challenging and the usually fast movements were completed somewhere between the speed of sloth and snail.

As I expected, my legs felt fine by the time the session started although I was a bit disappointed with the speed of the tempo reps which is possibly why I pushed it too hard on the fast reps. I was also enjoying the pain. It has been many months since I last ran at that pace.

Day 39 – Wednesday 8 February

2 miles – 8:38 – 118bpm

I’m starting to get the hang running very slowly.

Day 40- Thursday 9 February

Run 1 – 3.8 miles – 8:01

That felt ok.

Run 2 – 4.2 miles – 8:24

Another afternoon spent sitting at a desk, getting tighter and tighter, more tired and not looking forward to the run home. It was a rubbish run.

Day 41- Friday 10 February

2.5 miles – 7:52 – 146bpm

My legs are feeling good, no, better than that. They’re feeling quite good. A very easy run and 4x20s strides. I am very excited about tomorrow’s cross country race.

Day 42- Saturday 11 February

11.4 miles – 8:20

Race day! I was really motivated for this race. A chance to push myself hard and check my improvement from the last race exactly four weeks ago.

I had three aims for this race.

  1. To finish in the top 110 – last time I was 133rd.
  2. Run under 32 minutes – I’ve run this course before and that would be a respectable time for me.
  3. Push as hard as I can – the last race I held back and made it comfortably hard but today I really wanted to test myself.
  4. Support Ranelagh to a record equalling second place finish in the final league table.

I made the most of the opening mile which started flat and ended with a fast downhill section which suits my strengths to find myself in a false position just outside the top 100. That quickly changed as the second mile took us up a long, gradual climb that also contained about 90% of the mud on the course. Everything my body hates about cross country. Step by step my body was drained of energy and strength and my mind of will, as nearly 20 runners jogged past beating me back to my rightful position, just outside the top 120.

But I still had the second lap and that downhill section which is always worth a few positions. I just don’t understand why everyone else seems to run so slowly downhill. I don’t even feel that I am putting in any additional effort. I just relax and let the gradient of the slope determine how fast my legs move and I feel like I am gliding past other runners who don’t appear to realise that we are now running downhill.

My current ‘low’ level of fitness means I can pick up places cheaply on downhill sections where my top-end pace is much faster than that of those running near me. However, once on the flat, and more specifically the uphill sections, I really noticed that my lack of leg speed and strength was making it very difficult for me to hold my position.

Fortunately, the gaps in the field that had opened up following the first lap meant I only lost one position on the uphill section of the second lap and I was very relieved not to be involved in a sprint finish. My legs had survived. The pains I felt were from racing hard, and not from my injuries and a sprint finish could have changed that. I was also exhausted and felt unable to generate enough power to increase my speed, never mind get involved in a sprint finish. I was happy to just hang on until the finish and maintain my position.

Regarding my goals, I finished 116th, in 31:35 and certainly pushed as hard as I could so a very satisfactory race. It was disappointing to only receive 73.6% from Ranelagh’s stats guru Ken, exactly the same as 4 week’s earlier at Mitcham, despite the additional effort I put in. Unfortunately, despite having 2 of the first 3 finishers and moving ahead of second placed South London Harriers, Ranelagh were unable to hold off the challenge from Hercules Wimbledon who had an incredibly strong finish to the season and pipped us to the second spot.

Weekly totals

  • 8 runs
  • 7 days
  • 43 miles
  • 5/10 leg freshness score

Yearly total

  • 48 runs
  • 42 days
  • 248.2 miles
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