Looking for a new running experience? George Allan gives us the scoop on Sunday League Cross Country.
Sunday mornings in autumn and winter are certainly a challenge. My natural inclination is to sleep in, have a huge, late breakfast and veg out for the morning with a Sunday paper. Fortunately, on five Sundays a year, I do the complete opposite: I go for a run and put lots of self-awarded brownie points in the bank for the week ahead. But it’s no ordinary run. A small but dedicated bunch of Serpies take part in a series of five friendly and informal gatherings of hundreds of club runners in a muddy field somewhere in north London or Hertfordshire. Yes, it’s the Sunday (cross-country) League!
If you did cross country running at school, the odds are you hated it. It was the cold, the mud, the compulsion and the sense that it was yet another form of torture inflicted by unfeeling teachers on their victims. I was one of them. Fortunately, taking part with hundreds of other friendly and enthusiastic club runners makes the Sunday League the perfect antidote to these youthful memories.
An extra bonus is the huge training value of cross country running. It’s worth recalling what these are.
Most of the courses are hilly, or “undulating”, so it’s hill training, the strength and endurance benefits of which are well known.
They’re also on soft ground, so it’s low impact. You will naturally lift your feet higher. Your feet and ankles benefit from being able to cope with uneven surfaces and you soon work out how to pick a course through a rough area of grass or mud. Doing something completely different from your routine runs is always a good idea and your road running will benefit.
It’s low cost too: most Sunday League courses are suitable for ordinary training shoes and gear unless the conditions are very wet, although a pair of trail shoes, or spiked cross-country shoes (with interchangeable spike lengths for different conditions) is a sound investment if you get into it.
Then there’s the random fun element. The terrain and ground conditions mean that even the best runners don’t always disappear into the distance. You can find you have strengths you never knew you had. I am regularly surprised by my performance (downhill, anyway). I get a particular boost from starting well down the field and then trying to overtake as many other runners as possible, sometimes helped by having the right footwear to go straight through a muddy patch as others skirt around it. Another regular thrill for me is a sprint finish with a rival runner for the coveted 165th place!
The Serpentine website is also full of information and tips. All I would add is that you can never bring too many bin bags: to put your kitbag in during the race, and afterwards, your muddy shoes. A change of socks and a towel are also good ideas.
There’s a good deal of camaraderie, and you make friends not just among Serpies but also in some of the other dozen competing north London and Hertfordshire clubs. The standard is hugely varied and runners of every ability compete.
The five regular venues themselves vary from the gentle (Cheshunt) to the tough but dry (Royston) and everything in between. They are all accessible by Tube or rail so getting there is usually straightforward. Facilities vary from the basic to excellent. In fact, all the venues have loos, on site or nearby, and two even have bars and places to eat on site. Serpies sometimes end up having an early Sunday lunch in a nearby pub.
I think it’s a pity that, among Serpies anyway, the Sunday League seems to have fallen into the shadow of its more competitive Saturday companion, the Metropolitan League, whose standards, and atmosphere, can appear less welcoming to the newcomer and slower competitor. The number of Serpies taking part in a Sunday League event has fallen significantly over the last 10 years. In the same time, attendance by our rivals London Heathside has doubled, partly because it actively promotes participation in the Sunday League to its members. But think of the Sunday League as a friendly introduction to cross country, and a great way to add to your training mix. You can move on to Metropolitan League – or do both if you’re keen.
There are many other differences from the Metropolitan League. Men and women all run the same distances (8k-10k) together. It’s a turn-up-and go event, with no pre-entry requirements and no bib to remember to bring (just a club vest). Your run is timed and the results are published, but somehow it all feels a lot more friendly.
Preparations for this year’s cross country season have already started in earnest with Laura Stewart’s preparation session in Finsbury Park on 28th September and an introductory talk in the clubroom on 18th September. So, if you missed the first (8k) event, which was at Cheshunt Golf Club, Hertfordshire, why not try one of the races below?
The other events start at 10:30am and are:
December 1st 2019 at Trent Park, Cockfosters (8k)
December 22nd 2019 at Fairlands Valley Park, Stevenage (8k)
January 12th 2020 at Cassiobury Park, Watford (10k)
February 9th 2020 at Royston Heath, Hertfordshire (8.8k)
Before you know it, Sundays will seem very different!
George Allan spent most of his career as a corporate lawyer in the telecoms industry, turning to local politics in his native Islington later on. Now retired, he is active in building conservation. He took up running after an interval of 50 years and now takes part in Sunday League cross country, club handicaps and the occasional triathlon.