Nick Cohen is badly bitten by the cross-country bug
This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
The easy thing to say about cross-country runners is they are a warm and welcoming bunch, who offer encouragement to all new runners. That’s true but misses the point. You could also say that a cross-country race is as far from the slick, expensive world of big city marathons as it is possible to get while staying within the world of competitive running. That’s also true, but again it’s irrelevant.
The point about cross-country runners is that they are in love with mud. They wallow in it, wade through it, fall over and cake themselves in it. No mud. No cross-country. They make no secret of their fetish. The cross-country season runs from October to February when the chances of rain, snow and hail are at their highest. There’s no prospect of a hot spell drying out paths. Only a hard frost can deny runners the joy of mud.
The mud never stopped. There was never a moment when I could feel safe earth beneath my feet
My friend Martin, who introduced me to running, insisted I join him for a cross-country race. “You’re not a proper runner until you’ve done it,” he explained. “Can I use my trail shoes?” I asked warily. “Or will I have to buy cross-country shoes?”
I did not see how I could get away with buying more shoes. My wife was already muttering about Imelda Marcos’s shoe collection sparking revolution in the Philippines and Googling divorce lawyers. One more pair could push her through the door.
Of course, I had to buy cross-country shoes. I should have realised then what cross-country entailed. Trail shoes ought to have been fine. They have tough lugs that grip rough ground. You put them on when you want to run through woods or over the fells. Trail shoes take you across the best scenery in Britain.
But they are no use for cross-country. If you are running in the Lake District or along the South Downs, you encounter bare rock and stone or grass paths. For the committed cross-country runner therein lies the problem: those routes aren’t mud from start to finish.
We arrived at Merchant Taylors’ School in Hertfordshire in ferocious rain. I mean no disrespect to the pupils and staff when I say that there is nothing inspiring about the school’s 280 acres of grounds. Low-lying playing fields, streams, a small lake: they are good for nothing except mud.
I sat in the car hoping it would all go away. But the race grew nearer and I had no choice but to try my new shoes. The best way to imagine a cross-country shoe is to picture a board with nails sticking out of it. They are plastic slippers. Before you put them on, you must screw 12mm spikes into the soles. I screwed in, laced up, stepped out, and tottered over the tarmac towards the starting line.
On the way, we passed the young runners in the race before us. They were muddying up the already muddy course, whose designers had already maximised the chances of muddiness.
Instead of being straight, the route twisted over the fields like a drunk. At every corner, the mud built up, and young runners were slipping over as they tried to switch direction.
Naturally there was mud from the start. “Oh it will stop soon and I can build up speed on dry grass,” I said to myself. The mud never stopped. There was never a moment when I could feel safe earth beneath my feet. I should have run and believed the spikes would hold me upright. But I didn’t trust them. Instead of being a runner powering on, I gingerly put one foot in front of another, all the time expecting to be thrown to the floor. I looked like a ballet dancer crossing a minefield.
The only break in the mud came when we reached a river. I stared at the race marshal. “Go on,” he said, “you can run through it.” I didn’t run. I swore as if cursing the waters would make them part, and inched across. For the rest of the race, brackish water squelched out of my shoes.
If you have ever sat in a stationary train when the train on the next platform moves off, you will have an idea of how competitive my running was. As a Covid precaution, the organisers sent us off in groups of ten. Despite starting minutes behind, dozens of runners overtook me. At one point, I managed to pass a clearly injured man, who was almost doubled over with pain. But he recovered and overtook me back five minutes later.
Among the many lies he told me, Martin said that the great thing about cross-country running was you didn’t worry about your time but “just enjoyed the experience”.
He was wrong on both counts. I didn’t enjoy it the slightest. My time over 8km was 42 minutes and 14 seconds. At Merchant Taylor’s next race, I will be much faster.
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