Tonky Talk Paul can give up cross-country. No problem
Irecently ran my first cross-country race in 30 years and days later I still couldn’t stop smiling about the experience.
At my running club, cross-country devotees had rhapsodised about local races. These guys looked as fit as butchers’ dogs. They talked about the purity of it, its watch-free, animalistic essence. I started to feel its wild call and wondered if it was still the same as it was when I was a lad. That mass of freezing bodies sprinting for the first corner and then seemingly carrying on at the same reckless speed for the entire course – jumping over tree trunks, falling, twisting and turning through forests. I bought my first pair of spikes in three decades and signed up with glee.
The race was part of the London XC Championships at Parliament Hill Fields. It was a stripped-down affair – no communal warm-up or forced jollity. That’s not to say people weren’t happy – on the contrary, their eyes shone with a masochistic glee. Everyone was there to run hard.
Part of the thrill of cross-country is that the team factor changes the dynamic. You’re running for yourself, of course, but you’re also part of something bigger. As I jogged to the start I was reminded of Sunday football matches on Hackney marshes – the adrenaline, the shared identity. Another aspect of the race that stood out was the categories: I was in the senior men’s race so it was all blokes, massed together in vests. There was a rawness to it that, frankly, I found a bit unnerving.
When younger, I’d jog a lap of the course, stretch, put my spikes on, do some strides, line up and then leather it like a maniac for the first 400 metres. This time I took it more gently, as if I were tentatively meeting an old but notoriously feisty mate who might kick off at any moment. I edged to the back of the pack. As the chat softened to silence I took a deep breath; then the sound of the klaxon pierced the air and we were off.
The start was uphill, through soft clumps of grassy turf. I ran quite smoothly into the first corner, over the top and coasting down the other side. It felt exhilarating and combative, breezing past people on the outside of the line, then digging in up the other side of the hill. Just ahead I could see fellow club runners who, I knew, were much faster than I was. Maybe I could pace off them and spring a few surprises. Invigorated, I strode on.
If running in general is a drug, cross-country is its crack cocaine – jarring, euphoric, dangerous. There were blissful moments followed by crashing lows. I was searching in vain for rhythm over the constantly changing terrain. In retrospect, I was seriously overextending myself in a very hilly offroad race. The runners I’d recognised early on were well ahead now. Indeed, I was locked in a four-way battle with three clubmates whom I usually outpaced on the track on a Tuesday evening. I couldn’t get rid of one runner in particular. I’d pass him on the straight, only for him to overtake me on the next hill. With 600 metres to go I had 20 metres on him and, turning a corner, I saw defeat in his eyes – his face glowed a deep puce and he had no form to speak of.
With 150 metres to go he charged past like a gazelle and finished 30 metres ahead of me. As I look back now, I realise that I lost all my personal battles in the race. I’d been outsprinted, out-thought and outfought. The meditative, competing-against-myself marathon mentality had weakened me; I had forgotten the intense joy of fierce competition. Next day I was at home, pencilling in as many cross-country races as possible. I’m ready to go wild in the country.