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Wednesday 28 November 2012

Coombe 8 Race Report - Flippers, Free Soup & Bomb Craters

It was the morning after picking up The Mr from his work Christmas Do. I’d finally got him into the car and got us all back home … and now my alarm had gone off. Four hours later.

A month ago, an 8 mile Cross Country race had sounded a wonderful idea. It conjured up ideas of a jolly run in the countryside, rolling pastures and a whisky in the local pub afterwards. At no point, did I stop to consider it might involve 4 hours sleep, 50% of the course underwater and mud up to my eyeballs.

It had rained the night before SO heavily, I actually wrote a note to the organisers checking if it was still on. I was replied to (in the tone of one speaking to a small child or one of limited intelligence) that this was a CROSS COUNTRY race. Nothing short of the organisers closing the grounds of the park would stop this race. Or possibly an earthquake. With extra lava.

Navigating a couple of flooded roads to get to Coombe Abbey
Managed to un-zombie enough to get changed into running gear and after a quick re-change to get the capris on the right way round, I was ready to go. It had been raining very heavily all night, but I wasn’t prepared for the number of roads closed or the amount of floodwater I had to drive through to get to Coombe Abbey. I began to suspect I should have worn my wetsuit.

The marshals were all ready and waiting for the runners to arrive and were handing out free car parking passes which was a nice touch. The car park had a new lake in the middle of it, which I’m sure wasn’t there before. The ducks hadn’t spotted it yet though so there wasn’t the obligatory crowd of toddlers throwing Hovis in.

Here's the car park. Now where shall I leave the car?
Managed to build up the willpower to leave my nice warm car and dash to the building to retrieve my number. It was bright and the sky was periwinkle blue but the wind was very cold. I was asked my name by the lady with the numbers and she checked that I belonged to Northampton & Rugby AC. When I confirmed, there was a bit of a tumbleweed moment. Really lady, you don’t need to give me an evil look. I’m no competition here. Trust me. Look – I’m even wearing ROAD shoes for a cross country. Although judging by the conditions out there I should probably be wearing flippers.

Had a wander across to the crowd of yellow hi-viz jackets to have a look at the course and spot the ‘Start’ sign propped up against a tree. Ah. So it looks like the start is on the grass then. The grass under an inch of water. Thanks, guys. No really. 

The start is under the trees with the sun shining through them.
 About 5 minutes before the start all the runners moved forwards towards the start. Or possibly a couple started a huddle for warmth and we all joined in. The organisers gave out the safety briefing but it was impossible to hear anything over the crowd of 250 runners and the wind. Except the phrase “You’re not supposed to enjoy this, you know…” Well, that’s a nice positive start for my first proper cross country race. Set the tone early on …

I heard the cue to start – an air horn audible even over the wind and the crowd of runners started at a walk and then we all broke into a kind of a sloshy trot over the bumpy ground under an avenue of trees. It was an indicator of what was to come as the grass was already sodden and boggy from the people running in front and it was impossible to move without being splashed and kicked by the runners in front.

As we came towards the end of the avenue, the crowd separated out a bit and we all turned right at the end of the trees, around a marshal and a large tree stump and across a field to a fence with a narrow gate in it. The grass was even more sodden and boggy here and my feet were immediately drenched in icy brown water. We ran across the bottom of the field and around the perimeter following the fence. The grass was wet and under an inch of water in places. I was beginning to regret wearing road shoes … 

Am I allowed to stop running, yet? (Photo by Dave Storer)
I didn’t know have a clue what pace to keep as I’d never run an 8 mile race before ... or a cross country like this. I had decided beforehand to try to keep to about an 8 minute/mile which wouldn’t be particularly quick, but I wasn’t sure how much running on grass would affect the pace. My Garmin was showing about 7:45 m/mile when I finally got around to looking at it which was fine, but the Garmin miles were showing as about a half mile behind the mile markers on the course which was a bit worrying. I had a horrible feeling I would need to catch up that half a mile at some point …

We came right around the field and back the avenue of trees we had started under but going the other side of them and the other direction. Due to the numbers of people and the deep standing water, a few people had to jump the fence and run on the road. Me included. Back over the fence and diagonally towards some straw bales we had to jump onto to clear the fence, across the road and more straw bales. Down the soggy grass avoiding the patches of slippery mud where mole hills had been trodden flat by running feet. Splat! Splash!

The straw bales were fun ... the first time! (Photo by Dave Storer)
Through the bog which was usually a flat patch of grass and we arrived by the path where Three Year Old and I usually feed the ducks. However, there were no ducks … and more worrying there was no sign of the little bridge. It was completely underwater – only the concrete rails were showing.  

A lone duck returns once the horde of lunatic cross country runners have vanished ...
I followed the pack splashing through it up to about mid calf and thoroughly drenching my shoes. At least the water was washing the mud and layer of leaves off … I may be soaking wet but I’m sparkly clean! In a muddy brown river water kind of a way…

Turned left through the water and up onto the arched bridge which usually goes over a tinkling stream, today turned into a raging torrent of brown water sweeping branches and leaves downstream. 
Running wellies are the way forward! (Photo by Dave Storer)
Up and into the woods, brown slippery leaves and treacherous mud underfoot, splashing through puddles and trying not to slip. Following the person in front and trying to pick people off one at a time. Down a steep hill and back up again …  trying to keep momentum going so you didn’t slide back down to the bottom of the hill again. 

Over a green grassy area in single file, the land around the path bumpy and ridged. Slippery, wet grass, the thump of feet and the panting of the other runners.

Through the trees, trying to pick your steps through the puddles while keeping the same pace. Splash!

It looks so peaceful and un-boggy from here ...
Under the trees, leaving footprints in the mud, pumping arms. The water in your shoes unnoticed now. Over a bridge and a stream which I remembered as peaceful and tranquil, now turned into a racing, splashing flood of water. Turning a sharp corner and through deep puddles. No energy to waste jumping puddles. Back round to the flooded bridge again and over the sodden grass, now thick and muddy and boggy.

Up past the start again and again the jumps over the straw bales ... no longer fun ... now just exhausting...

Up to the tree trunk and the marshal shouting encouragement. Round to the right... again and follow the path down to the bottom of the field and following the long train of runners into the distance. Picking people off more slowly. A chap in front keeps walking, then picking up the pace. I’m getting closer. My next target.

Round a marshal and he shouts that I am 15th woman. Out of a crowded field of club runners and for my first long cross country run, I am happy with that. Just need to maintain it ... I look ahead but there are no women visible to pick off.

Legs aren’t working so well now and the slippery mud and sliding grass take a lot of effort to move over. No-one is passing me – we’re all struggling with our own run. I keep telling myself that this is my first time at this distance and I need to run my own race. Stop trying to chase people. But this is how I keep myself going on a run. Pick the next target. Just get past that person... and that one. Mile 6 sign ... past it and that means only a mile (plus not quite another mile) to go.

Round to the bottom of the field and around a large circular hole in the ground – a bomb crater left over from the war. Following the striped tape around the edges and then down into the crater and back up the other side trying to keep momentum.

Back onto the grass and following the path left by muddy running feet, splash! Through the mud. Splash! Through the puddles. Overtaken by a woman in pink, the first woman to overtake me although I know there are others in front of me. Keeping her in sight, but my pace is slowing from the effort to stop my feet sinking and sliding into the mud. Why didn’t I add the spikes to my shoes today? Splash! Slide!

Past the Mile 7 sign... thankful for this as it means only a mile to go, but I’m worried that my Garmin is only clocking 6.5 miles. Look ahead across the field to the spread out line of runners in front.

Another crater, this time skirting the edge as the bottom is full of water, the sides treacherous and slippery. A man in front of me slips towards the edge and the woman in pink cries out as she nearly falls backwards trying to scramble out. I take big steps out, walking rather than running and still maintain speed and keep up with these too.

Lines of runners criss-cross the field and I can see the avenue of trees which marked the start ... and the finish. Just focus on those. Coming up to the narrow gate, I am overtaken by a woman in a Hatton Darts teeshirt. I keep her in my sights and stay about 10 metres behind. My legs do not want to move faster but as we pass into the avenue of trees with the finish funnel – unseen – somewhere into the distance I urge them to go faster. I slowly make up distance on the woman in front. As I draw up to her right shoulder she sees my shadow mirroring hers and she ups her pace. There is no way to honestly call this a sprint finish, it is a very, very slow version of one. I push my legs into a parody of one – I feel as though I am running through treacle - and draw past and into the finish funnel.

Finally finished ... triumphantly holding my cup of free soup
I stop running, but keep walking otherwise I will start feeling sick. I walk around to the brick building and smell a delicious food smell and spot a sign. “Free soup for runners.” Free soup? That cheers me up immediately. Free food GOOD. They even let me into the café without insisting on me being hosed down EVEN though I looked I’d been tarred and feathered with mud and leaves. GOOD café.

I enjoy running cross country on my training runs. But this was brutal. The flooding and the slippery mud made this a tough run for me. But the feeling of satisfaction after completing it lasted all day. 

Hmmm ... I wonder where the socks ended ...
However, it did give me an idea. Running wellies. I think if these haven’t been invented they really should be. I would DEFINITELY invest in a pair of those bad boys. Anyone fancy inventing some? Give me 5% royalties and I will be able to give up the office job and live a life of luxury relying on the Cross Country runners to keep me in lattes and hobnobs. 

The Coombe 8 - organised by Sphinx AC 


  1. Haha Sarah, great post and a tough old run well done :) Hope the Mr has recovered too!

  2. Thanks Paul! :) I've been assured that his headache has gone!