The 4 mile cycle to Hackney Wick, the new location of the North London Cross Country Championships, was supposed to be a warm up. But, because of a bitterly cold headwind most of the way it didn’t provide much warming.
At the Hackney Marshes Centre runners huddled inside as numbers were passed out and I started to strategically de-layered as minutes went by. Spikes on, leggings off, with 13 minutes until the start the women couldn’t wait much longer and headed outside to the start.
Layers placed inside bin bags and stashed out of the way it was just our skin and the wind. Almost every woman was warming up, not to aid performance, but just to maintain minimum body temperature. I knew this was a flat course and decided to go out and race it. Run hard and push. I wouldn’t be leading, but wanted to race the women around me and get as many places ahead as possible over the 6k.
The 5 minute horn sounded and we gathered round the start for a quick course update (tall women watch out a tree has fallen near the end) and then *HONK* we were off. I set off running at the usual insane sub 6 minute mile pace for the first few hundred metres trying to find my place in the pack of 75 or so women. The course followed around the short fields loop twice and I made a few moves moving up a couple of places as we were running into the headwind. Not sure if this was good race strategy using up extra energy to run into the wind, I went back and forth a few times on if I should push when it felt good or be more strategic. I finally decided to go with my gut and learn the lessons either way and pushed on. The single track muddy trail was a delight to run on, even if my 12mm spikes were a bit hopeful (9mm would have been perfect) And another place gained after flying past a woman taking it easy around the puddles.
Back on the fields my spikes were finding the soft grass better and I kicked towards the next group. As I passed Sam, another Serpie, she gave me a nod of go-on and I tried to keep the passing speed going. At this point I was in that odd position of seeing no one ahead of me. I had to keep looking up for route markers and I’m not going to lie, I pretended I was leading the race. The leader can’t let anyone catch up so I kept my pace strong and ran fast.
Doing the tap-tap-tap-tap spike shuffle across the only concrete path in the course I made it to the last 1200m with a woman still close enough behind me so I could hear her breathing. The biggest rule in cross country is to never let someone pass you in the last 800m. Cross Country is a team sport and points are given out per place you finish. The team with the lowest total score wins, so you are running for your own finish place but also for the team. No team wants to have a top 3 finisher but then everyone else near the end of the field.
Having someone breathing behind me made me question my strategy. Did I go off too fast? Do I start my sprint now to keep her off? Then I went into what I call OK-mode. It’s OK if she passes me, I guess it’s not that big of a deal, I’m not going to be a huge scorer anyway for the team… NO! I was here to race, not be OK. So I kept pushing and gave it my all not to be passed in the last 800m. We came to the fallen tree and after a hard right turn saw the finish line 100m ahead. I found a sprint finish fuelled by cheers from the already finished women (from all teams, lovely atmosphere at xc) and crossed the line.
I stumbled along the finish chute with the dazed smile of someone who it equally elated to have finished but already misses the feeling of racing. Handing my finishers token to team captains and my name was added to the finishers list. 30 minutes of work done and time to go warm up.
Back to the start area to layer back up we shared around the cakes and told the men all our course tips. Their race was starting in 10 minutes, and their bare skin looked just as goosebumpy as ours. A cup of tea from the kiosk (more to warm the hands than anything) and another afternoon of English cross country was done.