It’s that time of year when runners don their club vests, split shorts, and spikes. Who cares about the clock - it’s all about outsprinting your rival to the line and earning your club points. Cross-country is running in its rawest form. GPS watches are either ditched or show crazy stats as your heart rate sores up the steepest and muddiest of hills. I’m going to think about the differences between cross-country and road running and try to offer some tips for those of you looking to dip your toe into the…mud.
Runningwear for road and cross-country largely differ. When running on the road, I normally wear t-shirts and long shorts with pockets for a card and keys. Race kit for tackling muddy cross-country courses normally includes a lightweight breathable vest and split shorts. As speed is the name of the game, the last thing you want to be is weighed down by heavy kit or annoyed by excess material. As road races are generally a lot longer in distance, most runners opt for stable, well-cushioned shoes. These would not be suitable for cross-country as it would be hard to gain traction. I once wore road shoes around the Isle of Wight Fell Half Marathon; I had very little confidence negotiating corners and the smallest of hills. A lot of my competitors zoomed passed me effortlessly - lesson learned. It makes a big difference wearing lightweight comfortable spikes or trail shoes with large lugs.
If you buy cross-country spikes, I would recommend testing them out on a few occasions before your first race. Road running is relatively straightforward as each stride is pretty much the same. Cross-country courses are generally uneven, hilly and wet. This means you will need to pull your feet out of the mud and your legs (especially your calves and Achilles) will be under greater strain.
As cross-country season runs from October to March the weather can be challenging to say the least. Sometimes the last thing you want to do is go outside and run when it is wet or cold, but once you’ve left that start line you’ll soon warm up, and the weather will be the last thing on your mind. Running cross-country in the lead up to a spring road race can be extremely beneficial. You will not only gain physical strength from competing with challenging courses but you will build mental resilience to keep pushing when the going gets tough.
As I took part in the Boston Marathon, which features Heartbreak Hill, earlier this year I reaped the rewards of getting through some tough cross-country races. I found racing cross-country incredibly refreshing after a fair few years of chasing times on the road.
Last year I took part in the Surrey cross-country league. I soon learned you can’t compare your times across different venues, like you can in road races, as they vary drastically. I remember in the first fixture thinking, “so if my 10k PB is (blank) and this course is 8k, I should aim for (blank) pace.” I soon realized I was wasting my time, and what I should have been doing was positioning myself nearer the front of the pack as the course was narrow from the start. Another important lesson learned, you’re better off starting a bit further forward than too far back, and get your elbows out to make yourself big.
I loved traveling to parts of London I hadn’t seen before to challenge myself and try to earn points for my club. It was exciting to wonder how hilly or wet the course was going to be and find out whether I had selected the right length of spikes. As opposed to “how far/fast did you run?”, conversations in clubhouses turn to “did you go for 12mm or 15mm spikes?”
Certain cross-country courses are famous for how tough they are. Having raced a couple of fixtures at the end of last year, I decided to sign up to the London XC Champs at Parliament Hill to see what the fuss was about. Having completed several marathons and ultras how hard could it be? Well, it was, without doubt, one of the hardest races I have taken part in. The combination of steep hills, boggy patches, and competitive club runners made it a tiring ten miles. I learned a lot that morning about myself and the competition and now I can’t wait to return to that course for another fixture. The feeling of finishing a brutal cross-country race is more rewarding than racing on the roads.
While pacing is relatively straightforward for road racing, it is incredibly difficult to pace cross-country well. Unless you have covered the course before, you won’t know what pace to run at across the flat sections or up and down the hills. Having ran for a few years now, I try to race cross-country to effort. I know if I am breathing heavy after a couple of kilometers, I’m going to struggle to maintain a relatively even pace. I always try to leave a little in the tank for the final few miles. Knowing that the mud and hills will sap everyone’s energy, you can make up quite a few places if you get it right.
Most cross-country courses require you to run a few laps. This can be a good or a bad thing. Personally, I like running laps because you get to know which sections you are stronger on and it helps to break it up i.e. “I’m going to work hard on this flat part or surge down the hill”.
It’s an incredibly rewarding feeling to have finished a cross-country race in the cold and rain and have gotten the best out of yourself on that day.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re fighting for points at the sharp end or near the back of the pack, there are competitions and battles going on everywhere. As runners, we all have those rivals. Some of them are great friends, that we need to beat whether it’s on the road, doing a Parkrun, or a cross-country race. In contrast to road racing, it is great fun to race on a regular basis and to see who comes out on top at the end of the cross-country season.
Racing on the road you know what times they’ve achieved and whether they are a fast starter or finisher. On the mud, it’s a completely different ball game; are they stronger going up or downhill? As every course is different it’s exciting to take part in a fixture, set goals, and race those familiar faces again.
Generally, when taking part in a road race everyone has a reference point whether it’s a PB or the time you achieved last year. On road it’s you versus the clock, what time can you achieve? Are you getting fitter and faster? Unless taking part in a club race or relays tactics are rarely needed or used.
Tactics are a big part of cross-country, and runners will have various race plans depending on conditions. Sometimes you may want to start conservatively, then pick up the pace and spring a surprise in the final few metres. On the other hand, you may be better off going out fast and holding onto a gap to the finish line (quite often sawdust on the ground).
After the race has been run, competitive club runners shake hands and congratulate rivals, whilst simultaneously screaming at their teammates to outsprint another runner in the “wrong” club vest. Everyone respects each other’s efforts and clubs celebrate their hard-earned results, normally with tea/coffee (or beer) and food put on by the host club. Cross-country is a special form of running. By racing, you become part of something bigger.
If you haven’t taken part in cross-country yet I recommend you invest in some comfortable kit, good washing detergent and brace yourself for a lot of fun.