RACES: Return to Stamullen (Star of the Seas cross-country 2016)

'That was the most horrible race I ever did.' Torben had only spoken the words a few seconds after I crossed the finish line and I knew the wait continued: the years had passed and still I had not met a runner enjoying their first cross-country race. 'But I am kind of enjoying it now,' he finished.

A big club trip had been planned to make this early-season cross-country run a general rehearsal for the upcoming back to back weekends of Wicklow County action. Injuries and other race commitments whittled our travelling squad down to just two: the two Danes, Torben and I.

The years roll by

Long years seem to pass between each of my trips here: 2007 saw my first outing and 2011 the second. Why it took me so long to return I don't know for it is a real classic. No medals, no t-shirts, no loud-speakers, no guided warm-up routines or goodie bags. Just good old-fashioned racing for €15 including the tea and brack afterwards. The field is placed as a cross-country course should be: in the middle of nowhere between Greenanstown, Julienstown and Stamullen in County Meath. This should not fool us into thinking the race is easy-going - this is a terrifically well-laid out cross-country over 4 x 1500m laps including 8 steep climbs (2 per lap), 8 descents and odd flat sections in between.

I stepped out off my car and into the heavy grass in brilliant sunshine. By the time I reached registration grey clouds had gathered and by the time we had made our way up the first hill and into the first descent a fierce rainy blaze hit us head-first. It was an odd wind almost sucking the air away from your lungs it seemed. This was the closest I was to Torben - less than 50 m back. He slowly made up more and more ground especially on the climbs to finish in a fine 22:30 for the 6 km.

My start was better than expected but then I hit a midway crisis and the usual thought of 'I'll have to drop out'. The fact a man over 60, running in his bare feet, was 100 m ahead of me quickly banished such thoughts and I steadied my own private ship and got stuck into the race again. I had lost 4-5 spaces here and would only regain one but on the other hand I would lose no more.

Age no barrier - at least for some of my competitors

Coming towards the finish my older co-competitor and a runner in yellow singlet were the only two in reach. I passed the Masters runner at the top of the hill and thought I'd be gone on the descent but he thought otherwise. Only in the last 100 metre could I let my lesser years count enough to secure the spot. Afterwards I thought how 37 is an odd age - too old to be young and too young to be old which I suppose is why we call it middle-age.

My time of 24:41 was slower than on the two previous outings here (23:53 in 2011 and 24:09 in 2007) but conditions were also much slower than on the previous occasions. Since early summer my VDOT has climbed from 48 to 52 and at this rate I will be back in PB shape by Spring next year. It's no coincidence that this coincides with giving up the day-job and being able to work full-time on 'the dream' - being content in life is the foundation for everything else - sporting or otherwise.

Now for the serious business...

As a dress rehearsal it was nice to get the cob-web blown off the lungs - my chest was markedly tired after. The Wicklow Novice awaits and with three of our top-4 club runners being absent, the rest of us will need to work a bit harder. I experimented with a new routine removing my easy run with strides in favour of 4 x 300m repeats with 200m float to try and prime the machine more. It worked well enough and I was happy how I kept working hard into the hills - an area I normally concede significant ground on.

I discussed the point on cross-country with Torben again after: it's training for other stuff we runners want to do - hills, road, track - at least for the majority. So the initial shock of doing, the general dislike of being part and the inevitable satisfaction of completing are part and parcel but also simply part of a training process. Cross-country is a strengthener for the winter training ahead and it hones largely neglected skills nowadays - racing man against man, picking a good line, dealing with the unexpected, bringing the intensity and keeping the spirits high in difficult conditions. Ok, there was no heavy plough and obstacles like in the old days but it wasn't a golf course either. My dad did not have much to work with - sporting wise- with me as I was both disinterested and without obvious talents as a child. Yet, he did lay a decent foundation for this dragging me through forest floors from the age of 5, running in dark forests during bitterly wet and cold Danish Autumn nights and having to cross river streams early on and spend the rest of the evening sitting wet in a car. We need this sort of stuff today - more than ever....

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