My first cross-country race

A nervous Danny Coyle enters the forbidding world of club cross-country racing for the first time, and is pleasantly surprised by what he discovers

Get used to the cut and thrust of cross-country racing

The world of club cross-country racing can feel very exclusive to regular members of the running public. You need to be a member of a club to run, you need a club vest, and you need to be able to deal with the pressure of having to score points for your team. Average Joe Jogger need not apply. Or that’s what I thought.

Running clubs, you see, up until the last 12 months, had been something of a mystery to me. Then I got a parkrun off the ground with Dave, the secretary of Havering 90 Joggers, the biggest club local to me. I met more members of the club each week, as they made up the bulk of volunteers helping out every Saturday morning.

Club runners, it turns out, are the most likely to pitch in and help, because it’s what they do. Without a hardcore group of members willing to do the nitty gritty, things like club events, kit, social events and much more would never happen. And now, neither would my parkrun.


So, as we entered winter, I heard the likes of Dave, Ron, Keith, Roger and several other Havering Joggers who help almost every week at parkrun, talking about the coming cross-country season.

I tentatively approached them one morning after the parkrun and asked if I could have a go one Sunday, expecting a few glances at the floor, polite coughs and a guiding arm away from the group to a quiet part of the car park where I’d be told I wasn’t able to run in these races because I wasn’t in the club. “Sign up, son, and we’ll think about it.”

I was wrong. It turned out they could put me down as a guest, give me a T-shirt and I could turn up like the rest of them, pay my two quid (yes, £2 for a timed race about 4.5 miles long – beat that, race organisers), and off I could go.

My ‘club debut’ took place at Gloucester Park. Not in Gloucester, but in Basildon, Essex, tucked behind a sports centre. A legion of club flags fluttered in the stiff Sunday morning breeze as I squelched my way to the start, the course having been used 24 hours earlier for a county event. That event being a county horse race, judging by the state of it.

Essex, for the uninitiated, is not famed for its hills, but Gloucester Park constitutes a quad-busting exception. We ran one large loop of a course that threw at least three stiff gradients at us. As I quickly slid towards the back quarter of the field, the ground had also been churned up like a bad day at Glastonbury, making the slopes an even tougher feat, even in decent trail shoes. The more experienced/sensible people were shod in spikes.

On the second, smaller loop, I grew in confidence on the downhills, surmising the burning in my thighs would stop the sooner I finished, so I threw caution to the wind and hammered down the slopes, losing my balance and executing a knee slide Bruce Springsteen would’ve been proud of.

As the finish came into view, I put a mini-spurt on to pass the lady from Dagenham 88 I’d been tracking for a good few miles, and crossed the line to be handed finish token No. 133. I had no idea if that was good or not, but I gave it to a nice lady called Sue who was collating our results. She slipped it into her envelope and noted down my name. I hadn’t come in the top ten of our team, which meant I contributed no points. I was slightly crestfallen by this, but was immediately cheered by an instruction from Ron, the club chairman: “Go and get yourself a cup of tea,” he said.


I trudged round the corner to be faced with the sort of tea and cake spread you’d expect to find at the Champion of Champions final of the Great British Bake Off, minus the smirking judges fingering your crust disapprovingly.

I got stuck right into a slab of lemon drizzle and a steaming cup of coffee.

Club cross-country races, I concluded, are a hidden gem on the running calendar, full of nice people, cheap entry fees and enough cake to kill a small elephant. “I’ll let you know when the next one is,” said Ron. Too bloody right you will, Ron.


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David Castle

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