We raced without our flag at last weekend’s cross-country. Forgot to bring it.
For the uninitiated this won’t sound a big deal, but the club flag is a key part of the cross-country scene. It’s your muster point before the start of a race. It marks a grubby tarp where you sling your kit bag and warm clothes before the off. It’s the backdrop for the proud, muddy group photo when the race is done.
(we remembered the flag this fixture!)
I run for the Sheen Shufflers, a friendly middle of the pack club. We compete in the Thames Valley Cross Country league, a friendly middle of the pack cross-country series. The event in question was the second fixture of the winter near Sandhurst.
The UK cross-country season runs from October through to March. Across the country rival clubs of all levels meet below their banners to do battle. This is old school cross-country and far removed from the obstacle races currently in vogue. Forget the two metre walls, camouflage netting and old tyres. Instead you get naturally tough terrain and all the winter weather you can handle.
But back to Sandhurst. It’s a typical UK cross-country course. About 5 miles of muddy trails ducking and diving through dark forests and open heath land. Long stretches of strength sapping sand and sudden short climbs followed by treacherous descents.
As a vet I use every trick in my book compensate for declining speed. Cross-country is great for that. “Start steady and then work through the field. Rest up and don’t stress when boxed in on narrow sections. Run hard off the top of hills. Constantly seek the best terrain”. Good tactics will win you a few precious places, and places are what count in cross-country. Forget your time. It’s all about grabbing a few more hard earned points for your club and pushing your opponents further down the field.
After a race the host club, Sandhurst Joggers in this case, lay on a post race spread, typically from a gazebo in a muddy field. Expect sandwiches, homemade cakes and lashings of tea. It’s the perfect way to refuel, unwind and review race tactics with your club mates. And not an energy drink or protein shake in sight.
You don’t have to join a club to give cross-country a go, as there are growing numbers of “open” events. The excellent Runners Need G3 Winter Series, featured in our calendar, offers three stunning but challenging cross-country 10Ks in the Surrey Hills near Guildford. Elsewhere the regional running guides (scottishrunningguide.com, northernrunningguide.com, southernrunningguide.com etc) are a great source of race information.
The only specialist equipment you need is a decent pair of cross-country shoes. Deep rubber studs are preferable to spikes as many courses contain short stretches of tarmac. Inov-8 (www.inov-8.com) is a popular modern brand but if you really want to embrace the old school vibe it has to Walsh (www.walshcasual.com). You’ll also need warm weatherproof layers for before and after the race.
The benefits of cross-county are well established. In “The Art of Running Faster”, Julian Goater and Don Melvin provide an excellent summary. “Cross country is excellent for developing strength. The terrain forces you to run with your whole body. Your leg, stomach and overall core strength will improve.” Mental strength and determination are also developed in a way pure road running cannot match. Come spring you’ll reap the benefits in terms of speed, race tactics and overall confidence as a runner.
With any luck you will get hooked your first season. You’ll then want to join a to join a local club. Just make sure they have a decent flag!