Sunday, 1 March 2015

Crossed legs

“COME OUT OF THE HEDGES NOW! WE WILL LOSE THE RACE VENUE!”

It was enough to give anyone stage fright. Seconds later, two women in brightly coloured club vests emerged sheepishly from the undergrowth to a large crowd of onlookers – who knows if they managed to go. Just moments into lining up for my first race I was learning that cross country is a serious business, and going to the loo in the right place even more so. I could only assume that shouting at the top of your voice attracts less attention from the locals than two women quietly having a tinkle in a bush and, after a series of complaints from residents last year, the hard-working race organiser was taking no chances. Luckily, I’d read that bit on the website and knew this wasn’t the done thing.

I’ve had the local cross country league on my radar for a while but had yet to make it along to a race; the people I’ve met at my running club love it and I think “are you doing the XC this weekend?” might come a close second to “how was your week?” in the questions most frequently asked at the club run. Today was the last round of our local series and so, inspired by the antics of my friends Laura and Laura, at the nationals last weekend, I decided to give it a go. Besides, I had a pair of leopard print spikes that I’d bought in a sale last year sitting there gaining suspicious glances from my boyfriend; space in the shoe cupboard is at a premium in my household and I needed to justify their existence by getting them as muddy as all of my other shoes.

Serious face, serious accessories.
(Photo credit: Emma Carter)
Thanks in part to all the shouting and, possibly, the misfortune of the two ladies now waiting to run with their legs crossed, the chat at the women’s start was all very light-hearted, with different clubs mingling happily. That was until the gun went, reminding us all we were there to race, and sending us on our way around the 6.5 km course. The Lauras had told me how cross country works: places matter, not times, and that’s why it’s such serious business. I wasn’t just racing for myself but for everyone wearing my club’s distinctive yellow vest; I was glad that I’d taken the time to pick out a hairband that matched in that case.

The course was less muddy than I’d expected. There was a large, fairly dry field to run around, with some bumps and long grass that got caught up in my spikes if I didn’t lift my feet. A couple of tarmac sections made me wish I’d spent less time accessorising and more time finding out about the course. Still, at least I’d read enough to know I should have a wee before leaving the house. There were two steep hilly sections, with enough mud at the bottom to vindicate my footwear decision; while tough on the legs, this tricky part of the course also attracted the most supporters. “You can catch her and work together,” came a cheer from a man in the crowd, reminding me that this was a race and every position counts. I’m a bit passive competitive at best, normally preferring to set my own targets than race others, but I tried to stay with the runner in front, and to push hard on the downhills. I even sprinted the last 100 m to try and hold off the girl behind me; I didn’t quite manage it but maybe I’m more competitive than I first thought.

I’ve rarely raced an event with all women. Ignore the drama in the bushes and my misplaced priorities over a hairband: standing at the start surrounded by club runners of all abilities, seeing the leading woman charge through the end of her second lap, and shaking hands with the girl who overtook me before the line, I realised that there is probably no better demonstration of strength in women’s amateur running than at a cross country race.

Forget my shoe choice – my only regret is not doing this sooner. I’ll be back. As long as we still have the venue.

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