Aykley Heads XC
Remember what I said about cross country running fixtures needing to be held in the vicinity of awful weather? It turns out that, if the stars align just right, and the gods of meteorology are smiling, this doesn't need to be strictly true.
The Aykley Heads XC fixture, organised in no small part by Elvet Striders (to which I belong), sees the thousand-odd clart-obsessed runners assemble under a bright blue sky, in thin angled sunlight, to race through mud and fallen leaves just for the hell of it.
I spend the morning directing traffic in the car park at County Hall, urging oversized BMW and Volvo SUVs into pint-sized parking bays. Car park full, I trudge up the hill to join the runners in various stages of warm-up. A man in a bright orange vest is pacing up and down along the start/finish line doing lunges; another, in yellow and black, is halfheartedly stretching his quads and keeps losing his balance on the uneven turf. I scarf the banana I've been carrying around all day and ruminate idly on whether I'm pressing my luck eating so shortly before a race. My ankle's a little sore, and my knees ache from standing around all day. I jog up and down a little bit.
The start of the men's race sneaks up on me: like a tide, runners drift towards the starting line. Our thousand bare shoulders are pale, pink with cold, babyish. There's a bit of a breeze but it's remarkably warm in the middle of the crowd. I'm reminded of penguins braving the Antarctic night. Someone smells powerfully of wintergreen. A whistle blows and we advance to the starting line. I'm pretty sure that I'm too near the front, but there's not a ton I can do about it now. I'm seized by the sudden concern that I've forgotten to pin my number on—but I look down, and it's there. The gun goes and we're off.
The run is: a run. I run, I pant, I sweat, I curse myself. The course at Aykley Heads is, in the jargon, very uppy-downy, but it's much less muddy than it was predicted to be. The climb at the end of the lap is predictably difficult but offers opportunity for overtaking to any with the legs to seize it. My pace slacks on the third lap—I choose, at the last minute, not to use the Garmin PacePro™ course that I'd meticulously set up ahead of time—but I'm pleased overall. At the very end, a man in a Morpeth Harriers vest threatens to pip me on the line, but I deny him with a burst of frantic speed.
Stray observation: I do a much better job of fuelling my body beforehand, this time around, and the difference is noticeable. At Druridge Bay, I'd only eaten a slice of toast and bag of Skittles before the race, and by the third lap my body had all but given up. This time, I had a big bowl of pasta the night before, and then some porridge on the morning, a few flapjacks throughout the day, a proper lunch, and that banana. I'd also made sure to hydrate properly. At a certain point, continuing to run becomes mostly a question of will + nutrition. Overindexing on the latter makes it remarkably easy to yield the former.
Results - maybe I'll finish in the top half before the end of the season!