I’m three races into the cross country season now and feeling much happier about it. My first race on October 13th had been much harder, both physically and mentally, than I had been expecting and by the time the second one on October 27th came around I was seriously considering pulling out to avoid a repeat performance. My teammates had been trying to reassure me that I had done a good job on the first run but I really didn’t feel that way. Also, I had been warned by people who had run in previous years that the course for the second run was harder than the first. If I hadn’t been able to cope with the first one, how on Earth would I deal with a more difficult one?!
On the day of the second race, I was dreading it. I travelled there with two of my teammates and we discussed the previous race and our plans for this one. My main plan was to finish in under 30 minutes. I was so disappointed that I had been outside of that time in the first race and I needed to prove to myself that I could run 5K in less than 30 minutes, even a tough hilly cross-country one. The course map itself had been fairly incomprehensible. There were loops that didn’t appear to connect to one another and ambiguous pathways on the hand-drawn diagram, and I don’t like not knowing what to expect. Getting there and seeing the area helped a bit although the entire course wasn’t visible from the start area, and I had been warned about but couldn’t see the two big hills on the course. One, I was told, was a long incline at the back of the course, and the other was a short sharp hill towards the end of the run.
We warmed up and I started to get nervous, and was physically shaking by the time I lined up at the start. Nothing more for it now but to get to the end. The race started and everyone set off, again much faster than I would usually run and I had to remind myself not to set off too fast. The course started with a short lap around the start/finish area before striking out across the fields. I hadn’t gone more than a few hundred metres when I noticed my right shoe felt strange and, glancing down, I was annoyed that my shoelace was loose. What to do? To stop and tie it but probably get left behind for the rest of the race, or to run on and hope it stayed put? By the end of that first small lap, I knew I couldn’t leave it alone. Even if my shoe stayed on – the ground was dry, not muddy, but the shoe already felt loose – I knew I’d be more likely to trip over the flapping lace and end up flat on my face. I moved to the side, crouched down, retied the lace and then joined back in, trying to ignore the eight or so women who had passed me while I was stopped. Lesson learned for next time, check your laces before the starting gun. Running on and out towards the long loop around the course now, so I started concentrating on how to deal with the long upward climb that the coach had warned us about. I think I was almost at the top of it before I noticed that that slight slope must have been that long uphill. That wasn’t so bad. There was a section of path that doubled back on itself at the end of that incline, the return stretch being above the outbound stretch, and as I saw the turn at the end I also saw one of my teammates above me on the return. I could visualise where I was on the map now and the combination of knowing I was making progress and knowing I was part of a team out there spurred me on. I soon reached the return and some flat and even downhill stretches and I managed to pick up some speed and pass some other runners. It was still hard-going but I wasn’t finding this anywhere near as horrendous as the first cross country run had been.
The next section was misleading as I saw that I was running back towards the start, but I knew it couldn’t be coming to the finish. I hadn’t been running anywhere near long enough, and then I saw that, while the start/finish were to the left, the other runners were all turning right. OK, last mile, into the trees, and then I saw The Hill. That was the short sharp one that I’d been told about for sure. I passed two other runners who were walking now, and saw that most people were walking up the hill itself. I took a look at it from the bottom, started trying to run it, but it was so steep and so muddy that I very quickly worked out that walking it would not only be easier but faster so I power walked up that steep hill and soon emerged over the top. Not far now, and I knew after that that it was downhill all the way to the finish. I tried to relax and let gravity carry me down the hill but my legs were starting to turn to jelly. Two women passed me and I tried to keep up with them but I didn’t have the strength left. There was just an S-shaped path left and then straight ahead to the finish. I could see the other women ahead of me and really tried to chase them down. I did manage a sprint finish but couldn’t catch them, but I was much happier with my performance, and had finished two minutes faster than I finished the first race.
Two weeks later and it was time for the third race in the series, which was conveniently held in my local park. It’s so close I could even walk there, and I’m familiar enough with it that I could picture the route easily from the course map. Amazingly for November, it was still a mild enough day that I could run in my club vest and shorts quite comfortably. This course was three laps, one long one and then two shorter ones, all three being downhill at the start and then uphill on the return. It had rained hard the night before and the ground was muddy and slippery with wet leaves. The first long lap wasn’t too bad, although fast (as all these cross country runs seem to be!). On the second one I really started to feel the uphills. The race series includes runs for men, women and juniors, but there are five events and each category runs four and this one was only for women and juniors. Our male coach, Tony, was there in the middle of the uphill stretch cheering us all on, and I really appreciated his encouragement on the second lap, reminding me I had a downhill coming soon and to relax there ready to run the final uphill stretch next time around.
The route overall took us downhill through trees, then along the side of the lake before heading uphill across grass before turning left onto a slightly steeper long uphill stretch to complete the lap. On the third lap, I started to realise that the section along the lake which looks pretty flat was actually slightly uphill. My local parkrun actually runs along that same pathway but in the opposite direction which is probably why I never noticed the incline before. You don’t necessarily notice a very shallow slope down but run up it three times and you start to notice it. I had gone into the race with no particular finish time in mind, but with a goal of finishing before a specific other runner. I had noticed that the woman who had finished in front of me on the second run had also finished just two places in front of me on the first one. I decided that, this time, I wanted to beat her. I passed a few other runners and started to look for the runner I wanted to beat, assuming she was in front of me but couldn’t see her although I had definitely seen her at the start line. On the long uphill stretch three other women passed me. I was struggling now and kept looking ahead of me trying to spot the finish. It seemed even further this time than the previous two laps. I managed to catch up one of the women who had passed by me not long before, and then I saw my teammates who had already finished cheering me on. I couldn’t see the actual finish though. I could see the tapes marking the route to it but not the actual finish line. I thought I could hear someone coming up behind me but didn’t want to turn around. Just keep going, keep going, and I ran as hard as I could, how much further, then I saw the tapes narrowing and the timing mats on the floor right at the end of the finish funnel. Finally I crossed the timing mats. I’d done it. Even faster than the previous one, and I’d beaten the lady I wanted to finish in front of!