A Northern England cross-country running event, it is said, is not official unless held 1) under an ominous sky and 2) either in the 2a) wake of, or 2b) midst of, a rainshower.
So it is at Wrekenton in Gateshead, where a thousand-odd people gather to run laps round a series of undulating fields, winding cinder tracks, and boggy trails, for fun & profit. Mostly for fun. Among them (but by no means expecting to finish foremost): yours truly, decked in a brand-spanking race vest in Elvet Striders purple and green, eyeing the clart1 ahead with anticipation.
I'm standing near the starting line, in a crowd of some 500 other men. In our club vests, we look a little bit like a big rainbow-patchwork animal with a thousand legs (and schizoid taste in footwear). The grass beneath my feet has been trodden flat; the loose mud underneath squishes. Plenty of clay in the mud, here, which means plenty of opportunity for slippage going up- or downhill.
Cross-country, in this part of the country anyway, is a remarkably democratic sport. The chief obstacle in participating is an aversion to clart. If you can get over that—or if, like me, you relish an excuse for puddle-splodging—then the North East Harrier League extends to you its open arms. Entry fees are nominal and distances are manageable: three laps of a two-mile circuit. Runners of all stripes are to be found here, from the impressively athletic to graduates of couch-to-5k programs to octogenarians whose running careers started in leather spikes. Probably running the same events as they do today—the other thing about cross-country is that it has a storied past.
When the starting gun goes off, the murmur of chat around me evaporates instantly, as if someone's dropped the Crowd Noise slider to zero. At road events, the sound of a start is the stochastic patter of hundreds of feet, but on the soft grass we move with almost no sound at all. A couple of folks around me puff a bit as we climb a short hill. Clay squidges under our feet. I slip but catch my balance. I'm focused on running slowly. I know that if I run as fast as I'd like to, I will be toast by the third lap. If I treat the first lap as a warm up—learning the course, navigating the crowd, admiring the colours on other club vests—then I'll have the upper hand later in the race when we've thinned out. Plus, I won't look like I'm melting in photographs, which I have a habit of doing.
We wind around the top of the hill and drop down the far side in a long, gradual descent over open, uneven ground. I try to be as light on my feet as possible. Tuck under some trees at a couple of sharp bends as the trail starts to rise again, through a gate.
At about this point, the first of the medium-pack runners start to pass us. In cross-country, runners are sorted into a slow pack, a medium pack, and a fast pack. The slow pack starts first, and then the medium pack after a couple of minutes, and the fast pack another few minutes later. In this way, fast runners are forced to fight their way through the (ostensibly) slower runners ahead. At each race, the top 10% are promoted to the pack above. When the first medium-pack runner comes racing through, dodging elbows and excursing briefly into a hedgerow, a big lad ahead of me shouts, "Show-off!"
When medium- and eventually fast-pack Striders pass me, I try to make a point of giving them a well done by name. I've long underestimated the motivational power of someone shouting your name while you're in extremis.
As we make our way back towards the start line, I can see a long string of colourful runners ahead of me cutting right, then left up a switchbacked gravel track. I briefly consider getting my phone out to take a picture, but almost slide into the back of the runner in front and think better of it. Before I know it, I'm climbing the hill myself, grateful for the grip of the loose gravel. I crest the hill and drop down the bank probably a little more enthusiastically than is strictly safe, then onto a long, straight embankment into a hairpin to close out the first lap.
I check in with myself on the front straight. I'm not breathing too heavily; my left foot, which had been a little sore during my warm-up, is feeling nice and loose. There's a bit of a gap to the runner in front. The sun briefly emerges from between the clouds. I wriggle my phone out from my running belt and take a picture.
The second lap is, predictably, more of the same. At the top of the first hill I look up and around me. You can see all the way over Gateshead and out to South Shields from here. The North Sea beyond, in the haze. It disappears over the tops of hedges and residential sprawl as I descend. The track has become at this point significantly more treacherous, clart-wise. I'm moving a bit faster, now, and still feeling alright. I've picked up the pace and I'm trading places with a man in a Newton Aycliffe vest. I pass him on the climbs but he passes me back on the flats. On the descent just before the end of the lap, I hurl myself (only a lil recklessly) towards the bottom to try and break loose. He doesn't pass me again, but I'm not sure whether I ever actually drop him. Looking back—looking anywhere but at the increasingly muddy ground—chances immediate, clarty Peril.
By the third lap I'm breathing more heavily and the hills are putting a serious damper on my ambitions for pace. My legs feel a little wobbly and I no longer have the bravery for hooning the descents. My pace drops off a little but my watch is still reading numbers I'm generally pleased with, so morale is high. I pass a couple of folks on the last hill. Striders who'd participated in an earlier race line the trail and shout my name as I go past. I put on a burst of speed, or try to crack wise if speed bursts are off the table. I slip in the mud again, but avoid tumbling. I weave back and forth across the trail, searching for stubborn clods of grass on which my parkrunning shoes can find purchase. I try to squeeze out the last bit of pace as the final kilometre closes in, but I suspect that other runners are doing the same. The gaps between us fluctuate.
I catch up with another Strider right at the very end. Between us, a Durham City Harrier in electric orange. He notices us and breaks into a sprint that neither of us can keep pace with. I wonder where he found all of that traction. My arms splay as I try to keep balance and momentum. The other Strider beats me by a second or two. I stumble into the little finish corral and clasp hands with those who finish around me.
- Mud, especially when applied to the body in the throes of outdoor pursuits, or otherwise when farming; chiefly Northern British.↩︎