If you pick your races carefully, it’s easy to convince yourself you’re quite the running talent. A poorly attended parkrun here, a provincial 10K there: the opportunities for ego-massaging are myriad. Before you know it, you’re thinking of yourself firmly as a ‘Top 10’ type of guy.
Cross-country crushes those illusions. I, a seasoned runner who, lest we forget, once finished second at the Sumo Run 5K, have to fight just to get into the top half of the field.
Take last weekend’s Surrey League Cross-Country in Coulsdon, South London. A cursory glance at the start line revealed about as much body fat on show as at the Milan Fashion Week. And while there were a few runners the other side of 60, past experience has taught me that advancing years doesn’t always correlate to receding pace.
Sensing instinctively that I was unlikely to replicate my silver-medal-winning Sumo Run performance, I took my place about two-thirds of the way back. The early pace was classic cross-country (i.e. suicidal) and the remaining five miles were spent locked in a maddening internal conversation that went a little like this: “You can’t sustain this pace” – Shut up! – “You’re going to have to stop after one lap” – Shut up! – “That guy in front is over 60 years of age” – Shut up!
In the end, I narrowly missed out on a podium finish, coming in 140th out of 193 runners. I’ll be the first to admit it, reader: it wasn’t my finest performance. However, my time of 36:39, recorded over an unrelentingly hilly and frequently boggy 5-mile course, works out at a little over 7min/miling. That’s how competitive cross-country races can be.
And while there’s part of me that longs to be among the medals in the smaller road races, there’s seems to me something more honourable about being middle of the pack in the mud. Which is why I’ll be skipping the parkrun this Saturday to take part in the London Cross-Country Championships at Parliament Hill. If you’re looking for an ego-bruising experience among the quick and the dead quick, join me.