Tonky Talk Paul can give up cross-coun­try. No prob­lem

Runner's World (UK) - - In This Issue - BY PAUL TONK­IN­SON

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.

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