South of England Cross Country Championships - Parliament Hill
26 January 2019
I really enjoyed the National Running Show last week, helping out for a couple of hours each day at the NoblePro stand, by showing what the treadmills were capable of. I have to say I thought it would be pretty straight forward, but I hadn't considered that there would be no ventilation and I'd get very hot indeed. It was really tough work, but the time passed quite quickly by chatting to other runners about the treadmills and their own training. Loads of people had the same issues that they lives in rural areas so getting the training in (particularly during the winter) was difficult. Having a treadmill has really helped my wife and I balance family, work and training and I'm sure it can for others too.
This weekend was a whole other challenge and one I absolutely loved. It was the 125th running of the historic South of England Cross Country Championships at Parliament Hill in London. It is a world away from a lot of modern races with their high entrance prices, selfie sticks and finisher t-shirts. It costs £7 to enter (you have to be a member of a running club, but this can be done for £20 a year at some clubs), which MKAC covered; compare this to (and I'm not joking) £79 for Tough Mudder 'Classic', £56 for the Great North Run and £55 for Wolf Run. Keeping fit, challenging yourself and having a great time does not need to cost the earth!
The men's race is 15km* (although course changes this year meant it was closer to 14km) of hilly, muddy, twisty terrain and over 1,000 (in the men's race) athletes give it their all. The only other entry criteria is that you can complete the course in 90 minutes, this should be achievable for the majority of the population. A lad in our team is (at least) 65 and finished in 1.12; awesome.
I'd done the race 3 times before, with my best finish 58th in 2017 and knew exactly what to expect. I've run in horrific conditions at PH and also (relatively) dry ones. On a wet day you can spend the whole race not being able to relax for a second it is so boggy, fortunately this race wasn't one of those times. Some people have described it as the driest Parliament Hill race they've done, but I'm sure it was dryer in 2017. There were a few boggy patches and it definitely was slippy and 15mm spikes were required; this was no flat road race!
We set off at 14.50 and the start is one of the most iconic images in running; over 1,000 men charging up Parliament Hill with the City of London in the background. I was cautious not to start too quickly as 3 laps is a long way and the terrain can be punishing, but I also didn't want to be too far back and give myself too much to do. At the top of the hill which lasts for around 500m my heart was thumping and I felt exhausted! We quickly swept round a field and I was right with my teammates Woody (who came 5th at the Junior nationals here in 2012) and Miz. I knew if I could stay near them I'd have a good run and be near my position in 2017. I still felt knackered, but looked forward to see a steep muddy downhill jammed with other runners giving their all. All I could think it 'there's nowhere I'd rather be', it was awesome. I got through the first lap unscathed and heard someone shout out I was around 90th. I was determined to make the top 100, but thought there was a good chance people had gone off too hard and I'd be able to move up over the 2nd and 3rd laps. I was right.
On the second lap I saw first hand why you can never relax, up in the woodland section a fellow runner completely lost his footing and ended up on his face, I managed to hurdle him as he went over, he shouted to say he was ok; phew! Encouraged by my brother Owen and teammates James and Thomas I pushed on and really felt confident. On the third lap I felt like I was barely moving up the hills, but kept overtaking people. The atmosphere was great with supporters lined along much of the course cheering on friends, teammates and complete strangers. I could still see Woody and was passing runners of a really high caliber including the champion last year John Gilbert. The finish is absolutely rapid with a long (muddy) downhill section of around 600m and then a sprint on the bottom field of around 150m. I gave it absolutely everything I had and finished in 62nd; completely elated. After all the (running) lows of 2018 it was so great to be running well again, but also feeling like I've got so much more to come.
Woody ran a brilliant 56th 16 seconds ahead of me, but Miz had a day to forget coming in 138th. The quality of the race is so high that if you have an off day you can lose dozens of places in a few seconds.
So where does that leave me? Finishing 58th in 2017 gave me the confidence to push for a 2nd placed Chiltern League finish and then 83rd at the National Cross Country Championships, unfortunately I can't do either this year, but I've got a 10k road race in a month, half marathon in March and hopefully this should be enough to get the call up to run for Buckinghamshire at the InterCounties Championships in mid March.
One thing it does tell me is that Dave's training is working and I'm getting the balance between family, work and running right. After a month and 3 good races I'm excited to see what else 2019 has in store.
Someone else who's getting their training spot on is my mate Rachel Robinson, who backed up winning her first senior England vest recently by finishing 6th; 30 places higher than last year! What an inspiration she is.
*Despite the fact it's 2019 Women are still only allowed to run shorter distances in most cross country races. The race at Parliament Hill was just under 8km with the winner (superb Pippa Woolven) finishing in 26 minutes. This compares to the men's 14km won (by also superb Henry Pearce) in 45 minutes. Why is our society still telling women they are not as capable as men? This just doesn't make sense to me. I'm not saying women should be forced to run 14km, but surely we could meet in the middle somewhere or race different distances but so we are running for around the same time (more and more cross country races are 10km for both sexes)? Thousands of women run marathons every year (42.2km) and nobody in the running world could have missed the inspiring Jasmin Paris winning the 430km Montane Spine race, beating all the men and destroying the course record (when also pumping milk for her 14 month old daughter at 4 of the 5 checkpoints!); the cross country world needs to wake up.