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Monday 5 November 2012

English National Cross Country Relay Championships: Mistaking the Starting Gun for an Ice Cream Van

I had agreed to run in the English Country Cross Country Relay Championships on the grounds that I enjoy running up hills and through mud. I didn’t really consider that it would be bloody freezing and an eyeballs-out, lung searing 3km of elbows, shoving and snot.

There was a bit of a mix up with the teams and I ended up being put into 2 different teams. Luckily this got picked up within 3 days of the race rather than on the day. After the day they realised I didn’t have a damn clue what I was supposed to be doing, so I expect next year they’ll be arguing about whose team doesn’t get me. 

Spectators at the start
My team members were Becca and Amy neither of whom I’d met before but they were lovely. They described themselves as beginners as they had started running in February but we had already decided that we were in for the experience rather than for the glory and we reckoned that so long as weren’t dead last we would count that as a win! So our goal … second to last!

We drove to Mansfield without any problems although there was no parking to be found anywhere so we camped out down a residential street and hoped we’d be able to find the car again.

Me with my baked bean sized bladder needed to find a toilet as soon as possible and as soon as we entered the field a line of blue loos were visible. Unfortunately the size of the queue was also visible from this distance. Chose a likely looking portaloo and hoped no-one in the queue in front of me had had a curry for tea the night before.

We found the Rugby & Northampton club flag next to a brick building containing (closed) loos. We accosted a chap to take a team ‘before’ photo. The before-we-cocked-it-all-up photo, before-we-got-covered-in-mud photo and before-the-run-while-we-were-still-optimistic-of-not-being-dead-last photo. 

Me, Amy and Becca

Had a chat to a runner’s Dad who was identifiable by the number of kit bags, jumpers and general running paraphernalia that parents always seem to get lumbered with. He said that his 17 year old son had run already and it was really competitive. Apparently all the competitors were using their elbows and there was a lot of pushing and shoving going on. Sounded a bit concerning but we reckoned that 17 year old boys get a bit competitive. Senior women would be a lot more sedate we reckoned. Stupid us.

I didn’t have a club vest so borrowed one from a 13 year old who had run in the relays earlier. I reckoned if I thoroughly disgraced myself with a very slow time, I could always blame it on not being able to breathe due to a tight top.

We went to watch the changeover for the relays as it sounded a bit complicated but were really none the wiser. We’d assumed that it would be similar to relays at school and there would be an aluminium baton that you tried to pass to your team mate without dropping it, without jabbing them in the kidneys and without too much fuss. Nope. Apparently you had to listen out for their number and then peg it out of the pen. No batons.

We weren’t quite sure what to do next so had a slow run around the top of the course to get an idea of what to expect. There seemed to be a lot of options of different ways to go, but we decided that unless we got hugely far behind there should be someone in front of us to follow. Mission objective: don’t be dead last. Or if we are dead last – don’t get so far behind you get lost.

15 minutes to go so I ran around in circles doing a quick warmup and attempting to get some feeling back into my feet. Heard some shouting and looked over to see my team mates pegging it over to me – apparently I was due to get herded into my pen. Moooo.

Ducked the tape and got into the pen with a lot of suspiciously young and eager looking ladies. They all seemed a bit too enthusiastic so I kept back and hoped it wasn’t contagious. The pen was about the width of a narrow country lane and we were queued about 8 deep and yours truly was right at the back.

The start signal sounded and everyone set off at a ridiculous pace… or tried to. The first third of the field did anyhow, but the rest of us stuck behind people were dodging around and tripping over people. Elbows were flying and there was quite a bit of shoving going on. I decided my best bet was probably to position myself in top third of the group and stick there as this is where I'd normally be in a race. Bad idea, Sarah. This is the Nationals. This is the first time you’ve raced this distance. This is the first time you’ve done a proper cross country. 

View across the field of different club flags
Looked at my watch and I was doing a 6 minute mile. I’d planned on aiming for a steady 6:45 the whole way round which I should be able to maintain but I made the rookie error of starting far too fast and by the time I’d slowed down enough to look at my Garmin this was the speed I was doing. Not good. Really not good.  

In most races I get 5 minutes in and think “Why the bloody hell do I put myself through this.” This time I got 30 seconds in and thought, “f**K”. It was not looking good. Coherent thought had ALREADY disappeared.

I got to where I thought was round about the halfway point and it felt like most of the field had already overtaken me. I was under the trees so the Garmin was telling me a pace I wasn’t doing and I had wet feet from a muddy puddle and an artificial bog the race organisers kindly provided for a real country feel. Thanks guys. No really.

I got out of the woods finally and got to the open fields and up to the point that we’d walked about half an hour earlier. I was breathing hard and my throat felt raw. There was drool. There was snot. It was probably not a photo opportunity. If a race photographer had appeared at that point, I may have been able to summon enough energy to fell him with a flying kick. No. Probably not actually.

Came down a hill and pushed the pace up a bit but couldn’t muster any enthusiasm and my legs were threatening to drop me on my bottom if I even considered asking for a sub-7 minute mile. A steep downhill, then an uphill and the finish funnel was in sight. Had a brief moment of enthusiasm as I realised as soon as I got there I could lie down. Any people coming up behind me could just hurdle me.

Made it back to the course to cheer Becca and Amy on. They did really, really well and even better there were competitors coming in behind Amy which meant that we achieved our objective! We weren’t last! Almost as good as a win! None of us could breathe properly, we were wearing snot as an additional racing accessory and we were covered in stinking black mud but we had competed – run – in the English Cross Country Championships! Get us! We’re practically racing professionals!

We had the obligatory coffee and made our way back to where we thought we’d parked the car. We passed a stand selling race t-shirts and decided to treat ourselves considering we didn’t get a goody bag. (Bloody club runs) Then spotted the hoodies. We all got a grey hoodies each and wore them proudly regardless of the fact we looked like a matching set. We even got the chap running the stand to take a photo of us. He was very helpful but I’m not entirely sure he’d used a camera before although he told me he’d seen a digital one once. He took a few photos of his fingers but we finally got one of the three of us.

The first 5 pictures taken by the helpful atand gentleman.
My actual run time was 13.51 over 3 km. I felt very disappointed with myself but knew that I’d cocked up the pacing. At least I knew what had gone wrong and could sort it out next time. Also I've been doing mainly long runs recently due to marathon and half-marathon training and no fast intervals at all so I couldn’t hope to do well with no proper practise. As long as I know what went wrong and can improve, then it’s not a dead loss. Also I wasn’t last. Quite.
A matching set!
I had a look at the stats and I was doing a 4:27 minute mile at one point. My legs don’t go sub-5 unless there’s an ice cream van around so it looks as though my ears had mistaken the starting gun for an ice cream jingle. I knew there must have been a reasonable explanation.

I’ve also just realised that as this was my first time running this distance, this race officially counts as a PB. See! I knew it was worth driving 62 miles to Mansfield to run 3 kilometres after all.

Results for English National Cross Country Relay Championships 


  1. How could you possibly be disappointed with that! well done Sarah :)

  2. Thanks Paul. In hindsight I'm really glad I did it, but I wished I'd managed to sort my pacing out a bit better. Although am now the proud owner of a grey hoodie so have proof I did it - so never need to again!! ;) Please tell me off if I enter again next year!! :)