In the UK, the cross-country running season has almost begun. It’s time to slip on a pair of spikes and embrace the mud.
The start of an English National Cross Country Championships is unlike anything else you are likely to experience – unless, of course, you have witnessed firsthand a wildebeest migration across the plains of Africa.
Shielded from the cold by a human herd, amid a smell of nervous sweat and tiger balm, it’s a full on charge towards the first bend. Survival instinct kicks in as elbows jostle for position and eyes scan quickly for flailing heels equipped with nine-inch spikes. The ground ahead is likely to be reminiscent of a sludgy No Man’s Land.
Is it any surprise that cross-country running started in England, home of sadistic schoolmasters and extreme ironing? Michael Gove thought he was on to something when he proposed cross-country running as a type of corrective treatment for miscreants. What Mr Gove failed to understand, however, was that there’s joy to be had in such an unadorned and glamorous type of self-punishment.
Yes, cross-country is an acquired taste. However, say the experts, it’s also an unparalleled training ground. From Percy Cerutty and Arthur Lydiard, to Peter Coe and brother O’Connell in Kenya, world-famous coaches have put their charges through their cross-country paces with the intention to emerge stronger for the summer ahead.
Running through the mud improves strength endurance, maintains some sense of speed and offers a welcome diversion from the intensity of the road. Proof is in the roll call of athletes who’ve crossed over from cross-country to track or road: Paul Tergat, Kenenisa Bekele and Paula Radcliffe to name some of them. But it’s also open to the amateur plodder, through a host of local events running from October to February.
Running on soft surfaces demands a shorter stride, with a quick turnover and less push-off. Cross-country runners rely on picking their thighs up, as well as their abdominals to keep them upright. An efficient, gliding style is much less of an advantage here, as is a long stride.
There are many courses on which you can hone your technique. The National, as it’s commonly referred to, is at the apex of the cross-country calendar. Coming in February, just after Valentine’s Day, it marks the tail end of the British winter, when your muscles and bones have had to cope with endless weeks of being starved of vitamin D and your motivation has reached its elastic limit. Your running mojo is never far from the door, so it takes some resilience to be a cross-country runner of any persuasion.
Wales and Scotland have their own National Cross-Country Champs, also in February, and around Britain there is a number of local leagues to keep you busy throughout the winter. Most races are short, sharp shocks, ranging from 4K to 12K in distance, run as close to your limit as possible. These races are the bedrock of speed endurance: if you can keep pace through the mud, running on the flat tarmac will be a breeze.
Many runners like cross-country the most because no race is ever the same – you get mud, hills and it’s always great fun. And what do you think?