The morning of the 28th January started by hearing the torrential rain outside. Rain from the same weather front had dumped a bucket load on the north-west of England over the last 24 hours and that was where we were heading for the Northerns by coach, leaving Gosforth at 7am for the 4 hour drive to Knowsley Safari Park. We had a stop half-way for breakfast – a decent bowl of porridge for me – and arrived at Knowsley at 11.30am, just in time to see the u-17 girls finish. We chose a relatively dry place for our tent and went on a recce of the course. It wasn’t a spectacular course by any means – a long downhill followed by a long uphill. The animals had been moved though! It already looked cut up in certain parts and the day had barely started. We saw the u-13s, including a couple of casualties and, I’m sorry to say, pretty inadequate first aid cover at the far end of the course. The u-15s ran, followed by the u-17 boys, u-20s and the women and then it was time for the men. Being a championship course, it was longer than the usual Harrier League courses, 3 laps totalling just over 7 miles for the men. There were almost 700 in the field and, after several thousand pairs of feet had already traipsed around the course, reports from the ladies were that it was now a complete mudbath from start to finish.
A lot of good-natured banter at the start line and the gun went, getting us going. This was a mass start – no pack handicaps in championship races and I was very much in the middle of the pack. Once off the starting straight, which wasn’t too bad, the course headed downhill through ankle deep mud. I tried to stick to the extreme left and the outside, where there was slightly better ground, but even that was rutted up. For the vast majority of the course, there was no escape. It was a full-on trudge. Most runners focus 20 or so yards in front of themselves, their brains sub-consciously looking for obstacles ahead, working out the best path, how their body needs to react to maintain speed, efficiency and poise. Not this run. It was heads down, working out where every single footstep was going to land, trying in vain to pick out a more efficient route. I couldn’t relax. My hands were gripped tight due to the mental concentration required just to stay upright.
Coming to the end of the first lap, I was very downbeat. I wasn’t enjoying it, not one little bit. There was nowhere that you could actually stretch out into a rhythm and get some speed, one of the joys of running. I have to admit to feeling like dropping out. It was the longest two and a bit miles I think I have ever run. Needless to say, I didn’t drop out. I had identified a target, another runner in a green and white top, not from Gosforth, and was trying desperately, although not succeeding, to keep up with him.
The condition of the course on the second lap was markedly worse than the first. Another 700 pairs of feet had been around, making their mark. A nightmare scenario for a cross-country runner is to lose their spikes, sucked off their feet by the mud. Mine were tied tightly, with tape wrapped around them. They weren’t going to come off, but you want to avoid your feet sinking so deep into the mud that you get that sucking feeling. It requires a lot more energy to pull your feet out of the mud when that happens. Normally I am very much a mid-foot striker but, when the mud is such that I feel the sucking effect, I try to forefoot strike more, landing on the balls of my feet and toes. I find this helps avoid the sucking effect and allows me to lift my feet easier onto the next stride. In most cross-country races, there may only be a few parts of the course where this is required. Here, it was every step. The result of so much of that though, was that the skin on the bottom of my toes of my right foot was becoming red-raw. Every stride was becoming painful, even if I returned to midfoot striking.
As you can imagine, the third lap saw the course deteriorate even further, if that was at all possible. My left thigh started cramping through the exertion of lifting my leg out of the mud with each step. My left leg is always my weakness in running. It’s normally the one that gets injured, and is tight at the best of times. I started losing places like there was no tomorrow. Then, for the first time all day, the sun came out. Was it a glorious ephereal light that made the world look beautiful again? No, it was so low that it dazzled you, reflecting off the standing water on the course and making it even harder to pick the next step. But we were coming to the end. The last 600 metres was all downhill. Once again, I picked a target and told myself he was not going to beat me. The finishing straight was the best condition of the whole course and I stretched out as fast as my legs would take me. I was so relieved to cross the line. No retching this time. Aerobically, I could have done the whole thing again. Physically, however, my legs were shot.
I headed back to the tent. I was the third Gosforth finisher and first vet. The two seniors who finished ahead of me were already there putting on warm clothes, comparing race stories very similar to mine. No real enjoyment, more of an ordeal. Other Gosforth runners started appearing, mostly relieved that it was over. One looked disorientated, heading off to the wrong tent before being called back. The traditional sharing of cake started, which makes everything so much better and the recovery so much faster.
The results came out quickly due to the chip timing. I came 308th out of 670 odd. Slightly better than 50%. I’m still not sure whether that’s good, bad or indifferent. I just hoped that the lack of skin on my toes was not going to impact too much on my marathon training!
There was no grass left in Tent City at all.
It was just a sea of mud. We packed the tent away and laboured back to the coach. It only took us an hour to get out of the car park! Not the best of days in my running career. The overwhelming comparison was that I knew a small bit about what life must have been like in the mud of the trenches in the first world war. Without the guns, shells, disease and all the other horrors of that time of course. Now, we could get in a coach, crack open a beer and have a kip while a driver took us back home for a good night’s sleep. Nothing like the trenches at all then, and it’s a very disrespectful comparison to those who braved them, but those who ran that day know what I mean.