A year later and the same three Harriers were taking on the Saucony English National Cross Country Championships, Steve Nicholls, Mark Morgan-Hillam and myself Mike Harris. This year they were being held at Wollaton Park Nottingham, ever since it was announced Steve had been saying what a great course it was, so it was hard to resist (well hard to resist if you are mad for a bit of XC!).
The previous month’s Northern XC Champs had dampened my enthusiasm slightly as the course was really tough and not pleasant or enjoyable in anyway. I hoped Steve’s pre-race talk about the course was accurate.
A two hour journey got us to the regal setting of Wollaton Hall. Rolling grassland with a herd of deer complete with an ornamental lake as a back drop. I carefully avoided the muddy patches of the car park after bad experiences of Arley Hall but this was an early indicator that the recent rains might have dampened the course a tad.
Overcoming dodgy mobile signals we eventually found each other and swapped pre-race excuses, nothing like having a team brimming with confidence. 😂
Walking across to the changing room marquee we saw a few younger lads completely covered in mud. Well, we are clever blokes and quickly realised that this was a sign of rather interesting conditions to come. The warm up realised the course to be grassy, undulating with a steep climb in the larger laps but we didn’t see much mud.
The start of the Nationals are always interesting. Last year the ground was firm enough so you could hear and feel the rumble of 1500+ runners storming across a field. This year tussocky grass dampened the enthusiasm of all but the most committed but Steve “my calf feels dodgy” Nicholls decided the best way to ease into the race was to try and get into the lead for the first bend, he nearly succeeded. Mark went off more conservatively (unusually) which meant I could still see him after 100 metres!
Being in amongst 1800 runners means it’s quite tricky to suss where you are on the course, concentration levels need to be sky high as frequently there are fallers you need to dodge. Anyone veering off course could have been followed by a 1000 blokes as we certainly couldn’t see the tapes. A few guys were in trail shoes, which were not coping well with the grassy slopes. After a few minutes we discovered why everyone had looked so muddy. A deep stinky muddy trench, impossible to avoid.💩 Photos afterwards showed people both submerged to their shoulders and face planted in this mud, nice! You will all be pleased to know your Harriers threesome avoided this fate. ☺️
Now the course turned out to be a sort of “inverted russian doll”, every lap got longer but kept all the interesting stuff like the hill and the stinky mud. A decent challenge but certainly very runnable.
Very early in the race an uncomfortable looking Steve came back to me, clearly bothered by his dodgy calf. It wasn’t long after I past Steve that he called it quits and joined the 100’s of spectators.
I was starting to enjoy the race as it became apparent that apart from a few hazards the rest of the course was very good. It was around three miles in that I spotted Steve on the sidelines, he shouted me on and said Mark was just ahead. Now Mark is clearly a much better runner than me so I just assumed he was running to a strategy. Around 3.5 miles I caught him, by this point I was slightly confused just how many laps we were doing. My watch clearly indicating there was a long way to go, plenty of time for GB Sticks to storm past.
Each lap took us past the spectators by the finish line and the noise they created was phenomenal. There was no chance of hearing an individual shout. Thankfully Mark’s family were positioned on the quieter stretch of the hill so provided a welcome morale boost before the lactic burn kicked in. It was clear now a few runners were starting to suffer and it was possible to gradually move through the field. Unlike a normal XC there were a lack of familiar faces to measure your performance against, you just had to try and keep pushing on.
The final lap meant one last big effort. The convoluted nature of the course meant it was far from clear how far you needed to travel to the finish but eventually it came. Not long after Mark crossed the line too to ensure 2/3 Harriers got round safely. 852th place in 53.18 was the reward for my efforts, not often you can be pleased with coming in the top 1000. Mark came 964th in 54.38. To put this into context there were circa 1800 runners and we both ran sub 7 minute miles for nearly 8 miles through plenty of bog. A good effort but the real challenge was still to come….cleaning the mud off. Not sure my toenails will ever be clean again. 😂