Sunday, 21 October 2012

Chiltern League XC 1, Oxford - I'd been here before…

Cross country is back
Shotover Park, November 1981. Oxford vs Cambridge second team, tortoises versus spartans. I was too rubbish to make the first team. The first teams raced in Richmond Park, we lesser mortals had to battle it out at Shotover, a hill a few miles to the east of Oxford. Back in ‘81 we had to start at the top of the hill, hurtle downhill, wade through a muddy bog, then struggle back up the hill. We did this three times, seven and half miles in all. Great fun. I cannot even remember if we won or lost. That probably means we lost. 

Shotover Park, October 2012. St Albans Striders versus the rest of the Chiltern League. Probably our strongest team yet in the Chiltern League? Certainly the best turnout since the St Albans fixture last December. How would we fare? 

The course was more challenging than Verulamium Park. Granted the Start and Finish were something out of a school sports day: a pancake-flat field with not a hint of mud. Even the grass where we dumped our bags was mud-free, a welcome change from some of the alfresco changing areas, aka quagmires, I have sunk into (Hillingdon, Alexandra Palace, Parliament Hill). There were changing rooms indoors, but the weather was too nice for those. 

After a lap of the nice flat sports field we had to exit the field via a ditch, 10 foot wide, two foot deep with a foot of water in it. There was a bridge about the width of a railway sleeper to help cross this, but it had sensibly been roped off to prevent the race being too easy. 

The ditch
The ditch itself was jumpable, I managed this three times in the warm-up without getting my feet wet, but the ditch was sufficiently wide to interrupt your running rhythm, i.e. you came to an abrupt stop whilst you regained your balance on landing. Surrounded by other runners in a race, you would not have much time or opportunity to choose the best landing spot, so I decided in the race I would take the alternative route through the ditch on the right hand side, where you could take two steps shin-deep in the water and keep running through and out the other side. Two wet feet, but momentum preserved. 

It was a good plan: I did not lose any time at the ditch in the race and could look forward now to the joys of the rest of the race. Unlike 1981, when we started at the top and ran downhill, in 2012 we started at the foot of the hill and made our way upwards, a long twisting climb, slightly reminiscent of the Ridgeway Run. At the top of the hill, it flattened out nicely into a broadish plain, with plenty of opportunities for overtaking. To my surprise, I caught a couple of slightly younger Striders here and then embarked on the descent. 

The descent was a blast. A twisty, muddy, rutted, quite steep path down through deciduous woodland. For some reason, I suddenly seemed to have no fear and started overtaking the sensible, timid people, who had started faster than I had and who did not fancy a reckless charge downhill. One wrong step and it would be a twisted ankle. At the bottom of the slope we took a sharp left into more woodland, which had a generous carpet of mud throughout. At this point, I surprisingly caught up with Ed, who I later learned did not have his spiked shoes with him. 

I was also gaining on the guy who has run every London Marathon in less than three hours. Did I dare catch him? Could I catch him? It would have to wait until lap two, which we were soon getting almost literally stuck into. Once more uphill. Several of the people I had overtaken on the downhill caught up with me again, Ed included. But I was just biding my time, getting ready for another bout of downhill madness. Four miles done with a mile and a half to go we hit the downhill again. I caught Ed and Mr 30+ Sub-3 marathons on the helter-skelter descent. I was not going to get caught again if I could help it. 

Dodging an impatient motorist at the foot of the hill, I turned left into the muddy woods for the second and last time. A few more bogs to negotiate, then it was a dash for the finish. School sports day all over again. Well, it felt something like it. 

I had just scraped in as eighth scoring Strider. The fast guys had had a good race, taking us to top of Division Two, and ahead of many Division One clubs. A great start to the season. Definitely more memorable than 1981. 

Colin Braybrook

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