Cross country: Challenge and Reward

Photo credit: Lars Menken

Our men’s cross-country captain reflects on the feeling of giving it your all in a cross-country race.

Fraser Johnson takes us into the mind of a cross-country runner as they push themselves to the limit. If you would like to race off-road then find out more about cross country or email our captains, Fraser Johnson and Jo Beak.

Racing hard

It’s a dull, cold, November Saturday afternoon. Rather than clearing, the mist of the morning seems to have become a thin drizzle. At least it feels like you are getting damp as you wait on the line for the gun. The sunshine and autumn colours of the first fixture in October seem to have been replaced by an almost monochrome palette. You shiver slightly and glance round at your teammates by your side. Someone to your left shouts “Come on Serpies” and seconds later, the gun goes. All hell breaks loose as you charge across the rough grass, fighting for position as you approach an all-too-narrow gap in the hedge. Slowing as you funnel through, you look down to ensure you don’t tread on the heels of other runners, and hope no-one does the same to you. Emerging into the next field, you look up to see two of your rivals, the ones you swore you would put to the sword today. They are already twenty metres ahead and moving effortlessly, despite the quagmire below your feet. Looks like it is going to be one of those days.

“Come on Serpies”

Ok, no need to panic. Head up, get focused and pick a good line through the mud. This never gets any easier…why does it look like everyone else has a better line, or is sinking into the mud less than you? Through another hedge gap and into a much drier field. At least now it feels like you are running a bit more efficiently. Still people coming past, but also you start to overtake a few who have maybe started a bit too fast. Breathing more under control now, and legs feeling a bit stronger on the firm ground. You push the pace just a fraction and start to feel like you’ve got a decent rhythm. Stay focused…this is no time to let concentration drift.

Photo credit: Lars Menken

Round the outside of the next field, you are holding your own pretty well. You hit the bottom of the first big hill. How is this going to feel? You want to run it conservatively but not give up ground to those around you. Get those arms moving. Breathing hard, you crest the hill. That wasn’t too bad. Into the downhill, you try not to brake to get as much advantage as you can, without going into the red. Round a bend and there’s the finish line. End of the first lap, two to go. Suddenly this feels ok. Your breathing is back under control and your legs feel good. You realise the sun has broken through the fog with just a hint of warmth on your back. This next lap is important. Keep it sensible and under control. The mud feels better this time, perhaps you chose a better line or maybe the mad sprint from the start was the problem on the first lap. Looking ahead, you spy a Highgate runner about 50m ahead, with half a dozen runners between you and them. There’s a good target. Can you reel them in, slowly and steadily? Up the hill the second time feels like the first. This time you are more aware of the supporters at the top, calling your name as you approach.

You pass a couple of runners on the downhill. Into the final lap. Wow, this suddenly feels great. This time you dance through the mud. Round the field, you pass four or five more runners who are starting to feel the pace. Fantastic. Feeling strong you push on again, just a bit, conscious of the final hill coming up. Looking ahead, there are the rivals you saw disappearing just after the start. Closer than you expected. Surely not…

Head up, arms swinging, lungs burning, legs screaming.

Now the hill. Time to give it everything. Head up, arms swinging, lungs burning, legs screaming. They’re coming back to you. Over the top and it is all about the downhill and run into the finish. Nothing left at the top. Keep moving, keep breathing. As you start the descent, you feel your strength returning. Your rivals haven’t run the hill well. They are spent. As you accelerate down the hill they are coming back to you faster and faster with each stride. This feels incredible. You round the corner at the bottom just a few metres behind them. It’s all about the run into the finish, 200m to go. Let’s get the job done now. You push on, past one, past the other. They look up and respond. Now it’s the three of you approaching the finish together. From somewhere, you find a last kick, a last roll of the dice 50 metres out. Where did that come from? They try to react but they can’t match your acceleration. Suddenly, you are out on your own, sweat stinging your eyes, the crowd in your ears, willing you on. Can’t feel your legs now. Yes. Oh yes. There is no other feeling like that.

Out of the funnel, hand in your finishing disc and then there’s cake and stories from the race whilst you recover. Sounds like most of your teammates ran well too. That should help in the league. Remembering to warm down for once, you jog half a lap with your buddies. Later in the pub, there is a lot of conversation about the race as the mud dries on your legs and starts to itch a bit. As darkness falls outside, you take a moment to look around. Your people. Some old friends, some you met for the first time today. With a smile you decide to stay a little longer and head to the bar. You have earned one more drink today.

Fraser Johnson is the captain of the men’s cross country team but is not as fast as he used to be. A 400m runner in his youth, no-one was more surprised than him when he won silver in the 2012 Middlesex County Marathon Championship.