RACES: My First Cross

"If you do the cross-country, you may be able to go for top 10 in the hills, next year"

This welcome encouragement from Gerry Brady still sounds as slightly over-optimistic to me as it did when I first received it about a month ago, but I was not going to let that piece of advice slip, and today I got my first taste of the mucky scene of Cross-Country Running.

See all the pics here.

Star of the Seas
The Star of the Seas club (beautifully named after Stella Maris, I suppose) at home in County Meath are hosting the County Meath Novices Cross-Country next week, and as their annual warm-up host an open Cross-Country Race.

Keith Daly, a well-known quantity and prodigy on the hill-running scene, highly recommended this race, so I wasn't slow to encourage my regular partner-in-crime Conor Murray to take the jeep out for a spin and test ourselves against the fierce warriors of "Cross" as we call it in Denmark.

The Village Fair
As the Challenger drove in through the narrow hole in the wild hedges marking out the field that had been converted into the parking spot for the day, there was much to marvel at, seeing the jeep rip easily through the terrain, the huge and well-organised carpark, and, most of all, the feeling of traditional village harvest fair that was emanating the place.

We had plenty of time to study the event unfolding, having arrived almost an hour early, and after paying the cheap entrance fee, we could check out the course first-hand as the juniors where already competing with gusto.

At this stage Conor was hit by trepidation of the sort that can only be described as "pre-race jitters" (which I don't seem to get too much myself any more, my only pre-race thoughts surrounded whether or not I would tear a fibre from over-use at some stage).

"They are faster than you René," Conor said, his voice heavy with anxiety, as the girls under-14 sprung off from the start line. Not a funny comment!

The Course
Our sights had been set on the not unimpressive green hilllscape that dominates this area of County Meath, but the route did not need such natural diversions to strike an imposing figure.

The hilly grass-field had not only been roped in to an impressive circuit featuring two harsh climbs and following good descents, but had also been cut down. It looked mean and lean, that's for sure, and so did the runners warming up.

Old-fashioned Racing
As we skipped over a few ropes to make our way to the start line, I was surprised at the small size of the field. The Seniors and Masters would be running together, but we where no more than 30-35 hardy souls as far as I could see.

The harsh rains that had plagued Dublin this morning where nowhere to be seen, a fact Conor and I bemoaned to Keith Daly as it would have slowed the race down.

Looking around there was no modern fitness enthusiast in sight. Not a single pumped-up orange gym-junkie, no Nike air shoes, no ipods, oh no, this was pure old-fashioned racing, and looking at the lads in the line-up there was not two runners who didn't look like they'd be right back choring away on the farm after the race.

"Competition is fierce", Gerry Brady had said, I knew he would be proven right today.

"Don't kill yourself on the first hill," advised Keith, "and use the tippy-steps (red: the small steps!), good for the hill runs as well!"

Now, this was pretty much what I wanted to hear, I had planned to go slow out anyway. The 5.5k trail race from yesterday would most likely come back to haunt me at some stage of the race, and the 20k cool-down had left residues of acid and shadow cramp in my right leg.

Overall, though, I didn't feel too bad, considering the weekend's exertions, so Friday's resting day had done some good after all, although Billy Bland, where he dead, would have been spinning in his grave at this stage.

A Duel of Wills
Conor and I positioned ourselves at the back of the line-up, shook hands with Keith and Tony Collins, who raced with the Irish team on Snowdon earlier this year. Tony complained about the endless pints he'd consumed the day before. I managed to stick to his tail for only 200m....

As the race went off, I was relieved that the pace was fast, but not as fast as I had feared, turning into the first curve and up the hill, the ascent ate into the legs straight away. I decided to try and keep at 90% going up until I was confident that I had enough left in me to get through without a collapse.

The field was moving viciously, stout looking runners, a high majority of which seemed to feature grey whiskers, where attacking left right and centre. Gerry Brady was right, the pressure was constant, and unlike the hill runs, there was no hiding place on this course, no place to get back your bearings or to recover. There could be no mistake, I had to get my speed exactly right, a collapse on this race would leave me trailing with a mile within a few minutes.

Nearing midway, I felt the field behind me diminishing dangerously, and the field in front of me increasing ominously. The familiar fear of humiliation crept in, and I remember thinking "they are taking me to school here."

Split Wide Open
We lost track of the leaders midway through the first lap, and I joined a 5 or 6 man group who repeated a pattern of changing, or almost changing positions, as we went up and down over the next two laps. I was in trouble at the midway point, and as we came off the third lap, I had been split from my group. Throughout the race, I had tried to claw back on the lads in front of me on the downhill, but each time, I had been narrowly fended off. One older runner in particular, had dismissed my challenge by a strong sprint as we hit the flat. He looked strong, and would have none of it.

On the final lap, I decided to do the "tippy-toeing" up the first climb, and changed from my usual longer slower gear to a much shorter, faster gait. I was doing decent speed, enough to keep a straggler that had fallen through from the earlier group behind me, but more importantly, I arrived at the top somewhat refreshed.

Bombing down the descent, I once again caught my strong-hearted adversary, but this time I was immediately spurred on. His breathing was erratic, almost asthmatic, and I decided that this was the time to strike a knock-out blow. When you're struggling, nothing hurts like being overtaken, loss of morale saps as much strength as fading form, and I pulled up beside him, only to see him fighting on. Into the curve we went, our duel now so frenetic that we rushed past two other runners from our "group" and where moving onto a third, a muscular Masters runner in white and red kit.

At the small descent in the curve, I struck away arriving at the foot of the last climb first and pushing up slightly harder than before, but still conserving a bit. To my astonishment not only did the red-white wearing runner launch a counter-attack, my grey adversary dashed up like a hare, literally, in what seemed like a last act of desperation, a charge of the Light Brigade.

There was no room left for hesitation, or conservation this time, so I engaged the best hill-gear I could muster and to my surprise, my final attack left the group in tatters: As I passed by my grey and red-white competitors, there was no response, and for a moment, coming off the final descent before the elongated curve to the finish, I had a go at a balding runner in red striding strongly in front of me, unchallenged, so far, by our duelling band behind him.

"Good run René," I heard someone shout, and there was Keith standing at the final bend, cheering us on after his earlier finish. "How'd you do," I asked him later, "I don't know", said he.

It took me only a hundred metres to realise that I didn't have what it took, though, and while a great burst of fast-twitch fibres at the very end saw me in comfortably ahead of my earlier rivals, I had to concede defeat to this particular runner, but he deserved it richly, and was quick to turn around shake my hand and congratulate me on the race.

Out of the Fields
The one's behind me, looked haggard and displeased as they arrived, and resisted the urge to pass on the gesture to them. Instead I jogged up to cheer Conor in. "This race showed me my own limitations as an athlete," he said with the uplifted spirits of someone who has taken well to a hard learned lesson.

For me: 24:09 for a 5.9km race with good climbs. Not so bad for a second hard race in two days, but a bar was set today, and I need to pull my head a lot higher above it than now!

On one thing we both agreed: It was fast. So in buoyant mood we enjoyed some tea and cake (free!) at the finish, before riding the Challenger into the sunset. "Give her a good go," said Conor, " and with no hesitation I put the pedal to the metal in the thick grass of the field." Before Conor could protest, the Challenger had ripped it's way effortlessly through the field. Not a swirl, not a hesitation. Oh, it's good to be a jeep, and how I wish I had grippers like that when I plough through mucky fields.

"Isn't cross-country running the stuff," screamed Keith hanging out of the window of his car further up the field. It is indeed. The stuff. Mucky stuff. Fast stuff.