On Saturday the 28th of January I took part in the Southern XC Championships. After watching the race in 2016 I decided I wanted to get involved, mainly because of the challenging course and standard of competition. In recent months I have been taking part in the Surrey XC League with Advent Running, it’s been a lot of fun and I’m glad I’d got a few cross-country races under my belt ahead of the 15k of mud on Parliament Hill. Having only recently started training more seriously for the Boston Marathon I knew I wouldn’t be in great shape to place highly but I wanted to race to gain some strength and enjoy the experience.
I had been looking forward to the race since signing up in December. In the week leading up to the race I was keeping a closer eye on the weather than normal, I was wondering whether the course would be super wet and muddy. On the morning of the race I got a bit of a lie in and relaxed, the few hours flew by and I was soon making the trip up to Parliament Hill.
With a few friends taking part in the women’s race I arrived at around 1:30pm that gave me time to pick up my race number and chat with the rest of Team Run-Fast. I also met up with the Advent Running group and had a quick catch up before watching the start of the women’s race. The men’s race started at 2:50pm so James Poole and I headed to the registration tent to sort our race numbers and put on our spikes. It was a shame we missed the majority of the women’s race but we did catch the sprint finish from the first four runners. Hannah Walker representing Run-Fast ran well and came third, it’s amazing how quick she is and how she can pull a result like that out the bag after not racing cross-country for a while.
James and I ran to the start line. It felt as though I had been looking forward to this race for ages and then all of a sudden it was upon us. I was really excited; it felt as though it was FA Cup final day (I used to get excited about that). I definitely prefer taking part in races with friends and having people around prior to the race to distract me from thinking about every eventuality. We positioned ourselves a couple of rows from the front knowing that there were some seriously quick club runners around us.
The gun went off and the herd of over 1,000 runners stampeded up the first big hill. There was so many people lining the course and the noise got louder as you made the climb. It is rather quiet at the beginning near the athletics track but soon the cowbells are ringing in your ears and you’re trying to listen out for familiar voices. With the first hill conquered at “start strong but pace yourself as you’ve got 15k to go pace” you take a sharp right before winding your way down through a particularly muddy section to then tackle a steady longish climb up through some trees. Due to the tough climb a lot of supporters and coaches positioned themselves there to encourage their runners. Some of the AR lot were there to cheer myself and James on and take photos.
Having not raced the southerns before I decided I was going to take it relatively steady over the first 5k and then up it if I could for the final 10k. I also figured that being three laps of 5k it would give me a chance to work out which lines were best to take and where you could push the pace and where you had to work hard up the hills. The fact that there was such a big field forced me to take it steady over the first lap; it was especially busy around the first few corners. I really enjoyed the first lap, my legs were feeling good and I was enjoying the variety of the course.
Having raced a couple of club races I recognised quite a few faces. It was good to have some friendly competition, I knew if I could stick with them or go passed them I’d have a good race. Whilst on the first lap I was really focussing on where I was placing my feet, there were a few really muddy sections which were tricky to negotiate. Some runners would take a slightly wider route to go around the wet patches whereas other would fly straight through and trust their balance. I was still finding my feet and working out which was the best approach for each section of the course.
Despite focusing on foot placement I remember thinking “I can’t wait to see Lorna and the Advent Running guys!” They always make so much noise. The group had positioned themselves just before a downhill section to finish the 5k lap.
This part of the course was a lot of fun because of the support and the adrenaline from running fast downhill through the mud. It was the perfect position for supporters to be in because it acted as motivation to get round the lap quicker. As well as having the AR guys cheering there was a handful of Run-Fast runners/supporters on the first hill. It was great to have them at that point offering advice and cheering me on, they let me know I was “coasting” and that I should pump my arms and get up the hills quicker. I’m not sure I was coasting but maybe I was holding a little back for the final 5k or so.
As everyone had spread out I found the second lap a lot easier than the first. I had locked onto a good pace and could break the lap up into chunks mentally; I worked harder up the hills and let the legs do the work on the nice downhill sections. I was moving up through the field and started to pin point certain runners to catch. This is what cross-country is all about, there is no point wasting energy/time worrying about the pace or distance you need to knuckle down and race the course and try to finish as highly as possible. After completing the second 5k I was still feeling strong and ready to chase people down. I was making small gains on the climbs but slipped back on some of the downhills. One of the runners I was tracking down was Neil from VPH; we have finished close together on a few occasions. He is really strong in cross-country/fell races in particular and has run the Comrades Marathon on numerous occasions. I knew if I could finish near him or pass him I’d had a decent run. There was a bit of toing and froing as I went passed him on a couple of the hills and he flew passed me on one of the downhill boggy sections. With 2k or so to go I started to increase my pace and then passed Neil with about 1k left, knowing the final section was downhill and then on the flat to the finish I opened up my stride and sprinted to the line overtaking a couple of other runners in the process.
I managed to finish in 58:20 in 235th place, which I am happy with. Hopefully over the next few years I can take part in more cross-country races and improve, I think some specific hill training and more trail running is required. After crossing the finish line I caught up with Lorna and the AR crew and put on some warm clothes.
Thank you so much for the support everyone, you made my race really enjoyable. Over the next couple of weeks I’m going to be back running on the road the majority of the time in training for Boston; however I do have the last Surrey XC League fixture on the 11th which I’m really looking forward to.
I hope those of you that ran the Southerns enjoyed it as much as I did and I hope everyone’s training is going well for the busy race season ahead.
See a lot of you soon