The Joys of Cross Country Running

Camilla Allwood at Wormwood Scrubs. Photo credit: Sarah Maisie

Mud, wind, rain, and hills - cross-country has it all. Camilla Allwood gives us the low-down on XC from a beginner’s perspective.

The short clip on the Serpie FB page showed runners with grey legs and spattered race kit slipping and sliding across a grassy mud-slope on Hampstead Heath’s Parliament Hill while impassioned supporters roared encouragements. It appeared a singularly un-urban, un-21st century and, definitely, un-ladylike occupation, and there was something deliciously child-like and joyous about the competitors’ lack of concern for the usual social norms and capital city propriety. Even as my brain was forming the thought ‘that looks fun’, I had already made my mind up to try out the outside-in-all-conditions cardio-workout that is cross-country running.

For those of you also new to this discipline, cross-country is a middle-distance running sport that takes place on trails, roads and even golf courses. The sport is a trial which rewards not simply those who can run the fastest, but also those who can best master the terrain. Like all running though, what matters most is participating to the best of your ability.

After a summer of athletics, I was seeking a means of increasing my running and entering competitive events. Starting out in cross-country was surprisingly easy since many race series require no pre-registration. The Start Fitness Metropolitan League is one of these and I rocked up on a fine autumn day in a pair of ordinary old trainers to compete in my first cross-country run. The race was held at Claybury Park in Woodford, beyond Epping Forest, and Serpies stormed the field with almost 80 entrants. The undulating course covered grassy fields and pretty woodland, some flat and some hilly and, happily, all firm underfoot.

I had recently started to attend training sessions at Primrose Hill and my years of running up TfL escalators had, at last, found their purpose. I discovered that I rather enjoyed the hilly sections because, both on the way up and down, I was able to overtake a number of competitors who were faster than me on the flat. Watching the juniors and the men’s competition, devouring homemade cakes and hydrating at the local hostelry are standard components of every race so, I quickly learned there was plenty to enjoy about cross-country! At Claybury, Serpentine women won the most points across Divisions 1 and 2 and the men fared almost as well, so my season kicked off with a resounding success for the Club.

Photo credit: Charlie Frith

Races at Welwyn, Uxbridge and Wormwood Scrubs followed. Each venue was new to me and I enjoyed discovering the open parkland on London’s periphery. I was often the last Serpie to finish but consoled myself that I was one of the more mature racers, and there were always plenty of other, and younger, competitors behind me. Praise from supportive team members spurred me on.

Next came a Vets League match near Oxford, which provided fierce competition from other ‘oldies’ and wet feet from a shallow stream that had to be crossed twice. As the season progressed, temperatures dropped and many Serpies continued to run in only vest and shorts, but I was not that hardy. A lack of winter rain meant I encountered almost no mud and I had to miss the one boggy race at Trent Park.

New Year brought the last of the Met League series and I finally had my chance to run on Parliament Hill Fields at the English Nationals. This impressive-sounding race is, in fact, open to all comers and, with over 1000 women entrants, proved the largest ever turnout at Nationals, clearly signalling the increasing popularity of ‘XC’. With scores of clubs represented, one whole side of the hill was bedecked in rainbow-hued banners, gazebos and pennants. Many events are 6k but this was an 8k course and I was prepared for a struggle, both with myself and against my competitors. And there is pain indeed: cross-country miles are tougher than miles on the road or the track and, as such, they count for more. This type of running isn’t easy but does offer fantastic variety. The more challenging the terrain and the harder you have to push yourself, the greater the endorphin rush at the finish. Sure enough, Parliament Hill was steep, the race seemed long and my legs burned. Starting the long, final ascent, I felt as if my calf muscles would burst, but was utterly resolved to keep going. I pumped my arms hard to force my legs to keep moving and a gritty determination drove me upwards. With substantial relief I reached the top and loped down the final descent to the finish line.

Photo credit: Daniel de Palol

My last race was a county match at the end of March, held at Royston Heath in Hertfordshire. I had gained sufficient experience to feel confident that I could tackle and complete even a demanding course. Nevertheless, the portrayal, by one of our experienced runners, as ‘the hardest course I’ve ever run’ was unnerving. The race stretched up and down, then up and down, followed by many more ups and downs! When it seemed that I had finally climbed the last slope yet one more incline appeared, but the knowledge that this was the final race of the season propelled me forward. Afterwards, more experienced runners grumbled that the course length had been short, but I had no such complaint. I had completed my first cross- country season and my sense of achievement was almost tangible!

For me, cross-country running stirs up something from human primeval history: isn’t this exactly what our ancestors did across the plains and forests of antiquity? Others liken it to the experience of a medieval battle, albeit without chainmail or being hit with a mace! Cross-country is the original pursuit – where the fastest runner is the quarry. Something about the endeavour reaches deep into the soul and calls back down the ages. And, let’s face it, there aren’t many pastimes where you can get down and dirty in public or compete to find who has the filthiest thighs, the bloodiest scratches and the fewest items of footwear at the end! In truth, though, the dry winter meant I raced through neither bitter weather nor claggy quagmire. I was not properly ‘muddied’ and I muse that there is, perhaps, a cross-country rite of passage I have yet to undergo.

My running pace is far from being limited by my footwear, but I eventually bought some cross-country spikes. This means that I am already prepared, kit-wise at least, for next season. I find all running hard but cross-country comes as close to fun, for me, as any running can do. Escaping the city and experiencing the best of London’s Green Belt proves both an unequivocal and unexpected bonus. And XC is anything but elitist: the relatively short distances mean that participation is within reach of practically all runners and the hills provide a great technique training ground. The range of abilities is vast, from those with ambitions to qualify for the Championships to those happy to make it around the course without losing a shoe. Serpies also participate in a XC Sunday League series which, I am informed, is ‘less formal’. It has slightly longer race distances and also, crucially, less cake.

What I like best, and value most, is the Serpie friendship and encouragement that I encountered at cross-country and, indeed, have found at all competitive events. My first cross-country running season was truly very positive and I encourage all Serpies to try it out after the summer. Come out to play with team Serpentine, in the countryside, in rain or shine and with, or without, mud. And be prepared for hills.

Camilla Allwood has been running regularly with the club for over two years. She did not enjoy sport at school. Camilla’s recent failed attempt at a headstand on a paddle-board in Lanzarote did not dent her enthusiasm for new activities. She needs to increase her mileage to compete in the 10 mile Cabbage Patch race in October.