The Weekend Warrior on… Cross-country running

Our man Martyn Brunt on his annual love-hate (mainly hate) relationship with XC runs

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I realise I risk provoking the weather gods into dumping the equivalent of Carsington Water onto our heads, but after several days of staring skywards in search of that strange orange ball that is reputed to shine between April and September, I can confidently say that spring appears to be springing and the triathlon season is nearly upon us.

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Soon we’ll hear the comforting squeak of new pedals and the joyous rip of old tri shorts, and I can do away with my winter pastimes of fruitlessly waggling my feet on my turbo trainer, or imagining future races while leafing through the 250 pages of solid drivel that is the British Tri handbook.

Another sure sign that the tri season is impending is that I’ve just taken part in the National Cross Country Championships. This is one of my absolute favourite races of the year – because it’s the final XC race of the year.

As well as heralding the end of winter, it means that, after weeks of toiling in the mud like a gibbering 13th-century heretic, I can sling my spikes in the garage, leaving all the gunge to fall off in time for next October, dig out my Headsweats cap and racebelt and start feeling normal again.

I hate cross-country running. XC is the athletic equivalent of smoking, because it leaves you gasping like Darth Vader and is just as likely to kill you in cold blood. I suspect I’m not the only triathlete who does them merely because they’re good strength training, with the added bonus that they keep my expectations for the season ahead nice and low.

Martyn Brunt running off-road

Boggy troughs and uphill slogs

This year, the National XC Championships took place at Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath in London, a course that’s notorious for its boggy troughs and long uphill slogs. On the plus side, it does afford you splendid views of central London while you’re stumbling up a mudslide, and you can dreamily imagine yourself doing something more enjoyable – like leaping off Big Ben to your death.

The Nationals attract the best cross-country runners in the country, and in this company I resemble a runner as closely as I resemble Rustie Lee. Some people seem to glide effortlessly over the quagmires that constitute your average XC course, while I take corners with all the agility of an ocean liner. Normally I can hide my incompetence by taking part in ‘Masters’ races, but here we’re pitched in together with 20-somethings. They should be retitled ‘Timelords’ races.

Considering I’m unlikely to trouble the top 1,000 finishers, I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to get to this race. Being a Midlander, north London is about as unreachable as Shangri-La. As such I’ve foregone precious slumber in favour of a savagely inconvenient early start to beat the traffic.

Once at the race, I go through the annual ritual of wandering lost around the tented village for an hour before finally finding my teammates huddled out of the wind in a knot of tents that looks like Everest basecamp. I collect the ‘number of death’ from the team manager, strip off every piece of warm clothing I have on until I’m down to my undercrackers, and then join a bunch of complaining men standing in a field in a light drizzle, waiting for a gunshot.

Childhood dreams

It’s at moments like this that I realise I’m basically living out that recurring childhood dream where you turn up to school just wearing your vest and pants but the teacher makes you do PE anyway.

The race starts up a long hill, where the congestion means you can have a crafty walk without feeling any shame. After that, away you go through the ankle-deep morass for the next 50 minutes (ahem), on a course that seems to comprise 50% quicksand and 50% gravel paths which threaten to ram your spikes up through your feet. 

By my standards, I had a decent run and my strolling start meant I spent much of the race overtaking people – apart from the moment 2km from the end, which many a 220 reader would dearly love to have seen, when I misjudged a ditch at the bottom of a hill, fell flat on my face and slid luge-like across the one concrete path on the course. 

The finish is always a joyous moment, not only because the race is over, and not only because the season is over, but because I can start heckling clubmates finishing behind me, chief among them my Masters colleague Martin, who is toiling along on a surface as bouncy as his breasts. 

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Although the race is done, danger still lurks because there’s always someone thrusting flyers at you to tempt you into entering some daft race or other. Peril this time came in the form of my run club team manager Mike Peters, who interrupted my post-race efforts to scrape mud out of my armpits to ask me if I wanted to race in the British Masters XC Champs in a couple of weeks. Any resemblance between me and a cobra waiting to strike at this point was purely coincidental…