Pretty much right from the point of joining Saltwell back in July there were whispers of this thing called ‘the Cross Country season’. For me cross country was just dim and instant memory; plodding around muddy fields or tracks at secondary school on dark nights in the autumn months. As mid -September approached what to expect and how best to prepare was very much talk of Hoop’s training sessions, particularly what size spike to wear!
After a trip to ‘Start Fitness’ to buy the obligatory pair of spikes, I turned up with the family for the start of the Harrier League Cross Country season at Tanfield, a place I know well, what with living just down the road. For someone new to cross country the field made an immediate impression with tents and flags from different clubs creating an imposing backdrop, as we walked over from the carpark.
As we stood around waiting and talking, lines of tired and very muddy looking youngsters, the odd one in tears, trailed past the Saltwell tent area after their various races had finished. The collective butterflies in the group definitely began to build…
On the Saltwell front there was a huge turnout for both men’s and women’s races with faces old and new, as well as experienced cross country / fell racers right down to the slightly nervous group of cross country ‘virgins’, of which I was one, who had no idea about what to expect. As we cheered the Saltwell women over the line to complete their race, I spoke with various folk about what to expect. It seemed wearing spikes was definitely the best option. As 2pm approached it was time to warm up for the men’s race…
Just after 2pm we lined up in a large group, a good number deep and prepared to start. With a bang we were off, resembling something like a large group of stampeding animals. It was in at the deep end for those of us new to cross country as we quickly approached the first climb, which had a good covering of thick mud. Decisions had to made quickly, even instinctively, about which way to go; up through the middle and the deeper mud or alternatively take on the more uneven path at the edges of the route. I went straight for the edges. Again this was a new challenge learning to stay balanced in spikes which offered little support compared to that usually offered by road shoes.
After reaching the top and several twists and turns we turned sharply and began to descend. Before the race I’d heard talk of a ‘bit of a puddle’ that was too deep to just jump over. Not having taken that much notice or done a recky, the approaching water jump game as something of a surprise!
Again, instinct just seemed to take over at this point, as we jumped into the water and ran through. The benefits of spikes were again really clear as the water quickly drained through the thin material. Then came another steep climb back up into the woods, once again I managed to get to the edge and steadily work my way up. After more twists, turns and climbs the sound of the crowd began to build again; we ran out the woods and into a final loop back round to where we had started. The atmosphere was electric with shouts and cheers, accompanied by the frantic ringing of cow bells.
The second lap seemed to more about learning how to run in and amongst the crowd; overtaking on uneven surfaces, keeping your balance around tight corners – elbows at the ready – and listening out for the shouts of ‘coming through’ as members of the ‘fast pack’ came crashing past.
For me the final lap was about trying to sustain the pace I’d build over the first two laps. The legs were definitely beginning to tire. Entering the final loop once again, there was still enough left for a heavy legged sprint down to the finish. Again the atmosphere drove us on to the finish and the line.
After that first race I was definitely hooked! There were moments of intense competition: chasing down people in front or trying to look out for the next ‘hoop’ on the horizon to run towards. But this intense competition was mixed almost with something very different; a sense of fun, even laughter! When faced with a foot deep muddy climb or water jump what else is there to do, but just smile and run!