I missed the race in 2007 and 2008 before coming back to run 2009 in the senior men's race at Hillingdon House farm. The Southern senior men's race is one of the greatest tests any XC runner will face. It's hard. Seriously hard. Most league races are 8k, the championships are 12k and many are broken men at the finishing line. The Southern is 15k (or longer if they get the course wrong!) - the longest major XC left. To make it worse - it's often run over Parliament Hill or a similar venue.
In 2009 and 2010 I ran in the senior men's race. It's a slog. Brutally boring and a complete mud-fest. No firm footing available. Most distance runners love the feeling of moving fast whether on the road, on the track or over trails. The Southern (by the time the junior and ladies races have broken up the course) has none of that enjoyment - you are running through the equivalent of ploughed fields for over an hour for most. Breaking the hour for the Southern is the mark of a good distance runner.
In 2009 and 2010 I slogged it out. Ran hard the whole way and finished 94th which led to me in May clocking 32:15 for my track 10,000 winning the British University B Final in probably the race I've enjoyed most in my life. In 2010 I improved by a place - and followed up with a 69:52 HM, 31:38 10k and 2:31 marathon in the following months. To make it clear - the big boys turn up and you have to be significantly better than winning your local 10k to get close to the top 100.
2011 I hit probably one of the lowest points in my running career - certainly with regards to XC. I've dropped out of very few races but in the middle of that race I didn't want to be there and it was a mistake going to the start line. My thoughts from the time are here but basically I haven't run a major XC race properly since.
So this year with my achilles (mostly) sorted, a couple of weeks training behind me for the first time in years and with a great group of Chasers going along we thought we would target the 12 to score competition - see how close to the top 5 we could get. I found myself for the first time in years seriously thinking about the race in the week ahead. I knew I was coming from an incredibly low fitness base (it was only in September I ran over 23 minutes for 6k (i.e. not breaking 19 for 5k, ~40 minutes for 10k) and I'd had a couple of injured weeks since then) so I wasn't expecting miracles or to get anywhere close to matching my top 100 performances but I thought I might be able to have a solid race.
I was back on the start line of a major XC, motivated and keen to run at my best.
The course was brilliant - all around one big hill in Brighton. It had some mud but was all runnable. One monster hill and a couple of shorter, sharper ones. Lots of tail-backs so you could see the competition and a nice long grass section from the end of the lap until about a km into the lap. A strong test without being the unrunnable bog you can end up with at the Southern. The course was one very short loop up the mound to begin with then 3 full laps.
The start was... unexpected to say the least. The gun went off without me realising that we'd even been expecting it in the next couple of minutes. If you've never gone off in a big XC before it's an odd experience (and some of our lads got held up way back). In most road races after 100m you're probably relatively clear of most runners and can run freely. In a big XC you're immersed in a sea of runners - all of whom are serious runners and looking to go at the same pace. Over the first little loop I found myself quite far back and basically jogging. The side-effect is that like a traffic jam you can think it's just started to get going and then the person in front can throw on the breaks and you come to a complete stop. I was far enough back that I was jogging and going through the field.
After the first short lap I started to get a bit of space and started moving up through the field - I couldn't see anyone I recognised but was going through runners pretty quickly - some already looked knackered! As we hit the big hill for the first time I went up easier than I expected with my legs fine and ready to run hard off the hill. As I went into the first switchback I deliberately eased off - just as bad as going off too fast in these races is going off slowly and then making all the distance back up over the course of a mile.
The rest of the first lap was a bit of a blur - keeping myself aerobic, going past runners and generally concentrating on a good running action. My Innovate X-talons were doing me proud and helping me move through well - despite my fears they might set of my achilles during the race it was holding up brilliantly.
Starting the second lap I looked up and could see some of my fellow Chasers for the first time - I knew they had gone off harder and those ahead would expect to finish ahead given their recent performances but I was hoping to close the gap. I could spot Dan's vest up ahead and beyond him Richard Peel. Up the hill for the second time my legs were definitely feeling it and once we hit the top another runner sprinted past me. Whlst individual runners had gone past this was the first time in the race I didn't feel like I was moving through the field as I was closing a big gap on my own to the group ahead.
After the switch-back I got a real boost going through the spectator area. Dan was now close but unexpectedly Rich jumped back onto the course ahead of me - he'd had lace problems and that had cost him 10-15 seconds. Rich kicked on immediately but I fixed on him and tried to bring him back in. He went away a touch on the downhill but as we hit the grass straight I caught him and moved past. Eyes now fixed back onto Dan as we started the last lap.
Dan by this point had caught Mick, a fellow Chaser, with Mike up ahead. I'd done a session with Mike on Thursday and could tell he was in great shape so this really convinced me I was having a good run. Still aerobic I finally picked it up and started whittling through the field and cutting down the 100m or so that Dan and Mick had on me. Going up the hill for the final time my legs were burning and it was a real struggle. I could see Dan was using a proper fell running walk to go up - I managed to keep running and closed it down to a couple of metres but at the top of the hill he sprinted off. I tried to push on but couldn't stay with him. Mick however was coming back rapidly and I moved past him on the switchback.
|Coming into the grass stretch - thanks Mike for the picture!|
The final hill was tough - I knew if I could get to the top I definitely would finish and was basically done though with just a long downhill and the grass stretch to go. I hit the top - gap closed to Dan again - only for him to absolutely fly on the downhill. I was catching people and could see Mike about 200m ahead of us.
As I came off the hill and onto the grass finishing straight I pushed - I knew I had a bit more in my legs and kicked past one runner. Over the final 100m I was flying and managed to take one more place from Mark Dooley (who competed with me at the BAL). Dan had managed to catch Mike on the line with both about 100m clear in the end.
I was 231st according to the official results in a time of 60:28. Looking at the results it suggests I'm about 4 minutes off my 93rd/94th best performance. To be honest though I'm pretty ecstatic - it's a genuinely decent result in a race for the first time in ages and a real indicator that I'm starting to get fit again. I know my current rate of improvement and whilst it'll be tough to match I think I'm on the right road now. To be able to get through a full 15k XC in light-weight trail shoes is a huge step forward.
Even better the Chasers took 12th unofficially in the 6-to-score competition - our best result in any Southern event apart from the Southern XC relays - and are looking good for a very comfortable top ten place in the 12 to score when they put out the results. Fingers crossed!