The X Country Season and its Part in my Downfall
My first X country season has ended and I have mixed feelings about mud, hills, elbows and running in general.
Of the seven fixtures, I ran in four: Cramlington, Aykley Heads, Wallington and Wrekenton.
Six months ago I lined up at Cramlington at my first ever X country. It was a hot day, the ground was firm and it was a fairly fast course, but it was tough – very tough. Cramlington was also the first time I ran in spikes, and it was to be the last. I found them very uncomfortable and so switched to Mudclaws for the remainder of the season. Thank goodness I did as Aykley Heads was muddy and I needed all the grip I could get! Still, I digress.
What have I learnt by running X country?
- The X country scene in the North East is booming. There must have been in excess of 1,000 runners plus spectators at each event.
- You don’t have to be a good runner to compete. It is accessible to all abilities and ages. All you need is a club membership and the £1 it costs to enter. One shiny pound for six races – where else do you receive that kind of value!
- Running in mud is not actually all that bad. As long as you wear appropriate footwear it’s not really a problem and can be great fun.
- Running in mud is awful. It saps your legs and tries to pull them from their sockets. Plus, dirty water can squirt in the most private of places.
- The tents spread out across the field are a sight to behold. I imagine it is how medieval jousting competitions used to look and it is quite a spectacle.
- You can never have enough Portaloos.
- The races are great practice for running in tightly packed groups. You do have to be careful of elbows in the chest though; one chap took the wind from my sails at the beginning of Wrekenton, but it is useful for learning how to navigate slower runners (not too much of a problem in my case if I am being honest) and getting out of the way of faster ones. As someone a little smaller than average I also had occasion to dodge the odd elbow to the eye but normal sized people should not find this too much of an issue.
- The races also teach you to pick where you place your feet. Uneven ground can catch the unwary and there were a couple of tumbles over the course of the season.
- There are a lot of hills and because the ground is usually soft and muddy these hills are much tougher than when road running. The downhill sections are usually pretty steep too. You can hurl yourself a little faster down them because the ground is softer, but running fast downhill remains a buttock clenching activity.
- Hills are character building and prepare you for summer racing.
- Hills are not character building but are places where grown men’s dreams are crushed.
- Women run two laps, men run three.
- You cannot tell how fast someone is by looking at them. Unless they pass you and you are looking at the back of them. I have seen slow skinny runners and fast not so skinny runners.
- All of the courses are three laps, at least the ones I did were. I personally find this adds to the challenge. Knowing that the hill I have conquered has to be tackled twice more saps my confidence and energy and I nearly pulled out at lap one on more than one occasion.
- There are three ‘packs’ in the men’s races. The slow pack sets off first, then the medium and finally the fast pack. Being passed by fast pack runners can be a little demoralising but I consoled myself by being bitter and muttering oaths as they flew past.
- As there are no age categories it means that older runners are competing with whippersnappers and coming 375th out of 500 is a sobering experience when you were under the illusion that you were a decent runner.
- Road running times do not translate to the fields. I don’t mean because running fields is harder, which it is, but running technique plays more of a part than I expected. Most of my races are long distance and tend to be flat; these races are short and hilly so you need to learn how to run fast downhill but you must be able to climb too if you want to do well. As an over-pronator with inserts, soft ground slows me a little more than normal. That’s my excuse and I have a note from my Mum confirming it.
- Friendly rivalry between clubs is well, friendly. Even though the running scene in the North East is large many runners know other club members and running against the same people week in week out builds mutual respect and friendships.
- Camaraderie between team mates is good. Spread over several hours with several different categories of racing, the fixtures allow you time to speak to team mates and get to know people a little. The tent acts as a meeting point and social hub which is lacking in other races.
- The support from others from the club is excellent. Cake baking, photography and cheering are all part of the day, and runners often help each other around the course by pacing or offering support as they pass. Whilst supporters mainly shout out for their own club there is no shortage of support generally, and most people are given encouragement if they are struggling a little.
Finally, cake is a fundamental ingredient of all runs and not just X country. The social nature of the races and the meeting at the tent prior to and following the races, mean that cake baking has become an event in itself. I know some of our club who have not run the race but have baked cakes and braved the freezing conditions to shout encouragement. It’s the same with those taking photographs and offering lifts, not to mention the club captains organising everyone. This is the real beauty of X country. The hills and mud may divide you and string you out across the course, but the cakes, the friendship and the feeling of belonging to the club unite everyone and this is what makes X country so special.
Will I be running next season? Probably, maybe… oh go on then, but I may have to work the weekend of Aykley Heads!