DIARY: Cross-country dreamin’

Strange memories can come upon you unexpectedly when you are ‘on the road’. Returning from a round-trip to Enniscorthy yesterday, I first stopped at the Meeting’s Wood car park to check out the trail there (let me be succinct: give it a miss) before continuing to Avondale.

Wicklow Cross-Country course

As trotted through the entrance I saw the familiar face of Billy Porter – busy as ever putting up signs in preparation for today’s Wicklow Novice Cross-country. We shot the breeze briefly about everything from the growth of the sport to the state of affairs in mountain and road running. We also discussed the current initiative to setup an athletics club in Laragh/Glendalough and it looks like this development will be looked upon favourable by the Wicklow County Board – so now the hard work starts of putting together a Committee, fundraising and securing sponsorship and organising the strategy for years to come.

With pleasant ‘business’ concluded, I ran further into the park and was positively surprised to see the entire Wicklow cross-country course had been fully marked out already. I couldn’t resist having a run around – throwing in ‘one lap steady’ just to see how tough the course was (not as hilly as in previous years!). As I ran through the slushy grass, I felt the rush of my own cross-country experiences and I could almost see wiry runners around me in their colourful singlets and feel the rush of the tight battles. I imagined Alfred Shrubb running over the tough 10 mile cross-country course of the early 20th century with 2 miles of tough plough thrown in. When you see the fading leaves of a setting like Avondale it never comes more alive. It made me wish I was the one preparing for an Autumn of cross-country – I think it is no overstatement to say that it is the oldest and noblest of the running disciplines.

Only here do mountain, road, track and ultra runners all come together in a shared arena and you can truly measure your own standings in the overall running hierarchy with any false vanity stripped bare and where a man can aspire to be something greater than the sum of his PBs. Here the sport is again reduced down to essence of being the best man on the day under the conditions.

Shattered illusions or reality check?

I remember a time when I had begun to finish top-10 or top-20 in the hills and had what I then considered ‘decent’ times on the road. Towing the line of the Dublin Senior cross-country on a muddy, sloppy 10.5km course I finished dead-last in a time just over 40 minutes. Jason Kehoe ran with me that day (finishing two spots up) in his very first race. I have seen some runner’s destroyed or disillusioned by this experience (and certainly there is a time when it is too early for a beginner to contemplate) but in Jason’s case I knew it’d just spur him on as it did me. Being a master’s runner now, I look forward to 10 or 20 years of regular cross-country but with the way activities have panned out – 2014 will not be the year sadly.*

* Jason competed in the Dublin Novice today and while we don’t know final standings he finished in a solid 22:39 on a slightly redesigned course to the ‘old’ 6 km version. A knock had put him out of running for 11 days prior so on the back of the three weeks training that preceded it we consider this a solid start on which to build the long season ahead which will last until February 2015. Given his mountain running pretensions it’s impossible to taper for cross-country, and he instead has to use the winter for conditioning and make the cross-country part of that regime.

‘Project Laragh/Glendalough’

It is one of my personal hopes that our new athletics club in Laragh, while it will undoubtedly have a strong mountain running focus both now and in the future, will embrace all disciplines of running and produce many runners over time with the wide skillset and desire to run both mountain, road and cross-country. If within 12 months we can field a team in the Wicklow events, I would be absolutely delighted but knowing what awaits, I want to make absolutely sure that it becomes a challenging but not overwhelming experience.

Laragh might be small but I see definitive potential of creating a buzzing ‘running hub’ here in the very midst of the Wicklow Mountains. You do not create lasting success and a wide base of competitive runners overnight unless you go up and pick already-decent runners off the street – so this is not a project for the sake of harvesting glory tomorrow but rather something to patiently nurture and this process can take as much as a decade.

With years of professional coaching under my belt now, it’s exciting to be involved in a pure community project because I can see there is great local desire to see this succeed and great enthusiasm for the idea. So besides all other activities this will now be another on my list but I’m not complaining.