My first Cross-Country season with Wigan Harriers by Kevin Rex.
I have been a member of Wigan Harriers for almost 18 months now. I love running and the sense of achievement and satisfaction you get from racing and competing. Being a member of this club, whilst wearing the black and red colours and representing Wigan Harriers, is a great feeling.
So imagine my surprise on one Thursday night after training in late October 2016, when I was informed by Mike Harris, Gary Wane and Mark Morgan-Hillam that, if I wanted, I could come along to and take part in the Mid Lancs Cross Country League and represent Wigan Harriers.
I, like a lot of members of Wigan Harriers, assumed that the cross country league was for, shall I say, the more elite members of the club. However, I was advised that this was not the case, and that all paid members of Wigan Harriers are welcome to come along and compete for the club. As Mike Harris said, “No-one is invited, all club members are entered and can take part. Why pay X amount for a race when you can do it for FREE once a month throughout the cross-country season”.
Needless to say, I was sold and so I decided that Cuerden Valley in Bamber Bridge, Preston, would be my first attempt at doing an XC, as I now call them. The day of the race started early as I had already previously agreed to go along to Haigh Hall Park Run with some of my running buddies to celebrate their 1st birthday. I took the run very slowly as I wanted to save my legs for the XC race that afternoon.
When I got home, I fuelled up on some banana porridge and changed into my Wigan Harriers running kit. Before I set off I was a little unsure on a few details. So I messaged Mark Morgan Hillam who was more than helpful and advised me on what I needed to do and where I needed to go when I got there. I was even involved in a bit of team banter when I, being the newbie, stupidly asked the question that shouldn’t be asked to experienced XC runners. I asked, “Can I were a T-shirt under my vest?” The response was hilarious and this little bit of banter made me feel like I was part of the team and helped to settle some of my pre-race nerves.
When I arrived at the event there was already a race going on. I watched a bit of this whilst trying to find the Wigan Harriers flag and tent in the crowd. When I got there, members from the men’s and ladies teams helped me find my race number. They informed me that I needed to keep this number and use it again for future Mid Lancs XC events. I put my number on and I was ready to race.
Before the race started Mark and the guys took me to one side and showed me the route and explained what conditions and terrain to expect during the race. From where I was stood it looked like a tough and very hilly course. I was informed that I had in fact picked one of the toughest courses in the mid lancs fixtures for my first go at cross country.
With that said the pre-race nerves came back. However they were settled again by the encouraging words and comments from everyone. We then had a little warm up and went to cheer on the ladies team in their race. Then it was time for the team photograph and, yes, I still had my t-shirt on under my vest. What can I say? It was cold out there…
Race time arrived in no time and, before I knew it, I was on the start line waiting to go. There were some last words of motivation from Gary Wane – and then something terrible happened that could only happen to me. Whilst limbering up, I stepped backwards only to hear some guys behind me shout, “Watch out!” I wondered what was going on – I had only gone and trodden on a field mouse… it had the whole of Cuerdon Valley to roam around, but it had to go and choose to stand behind my shoe. I was mortified, and a little embarrassed, but at least it took my mind off the nerves and amused my teammates…
Moments later, the starting gun went and we were off. Immediately I was slipping everywhere as, being the inexperienced and less equipped member of the team, I had no spikes to wear. I got around the first corner and was headed straight towards and through a ditch of thick mud. As I stomped through the muddy ditch I almost lost one of my trainers. I just about managed to keep it on and I was off and running.
After the first lap I felt like I was starting to finding my stride and I began to relax and enjoy it. My favourite part of the course was running through the stream. The ice cold water cooled my feet and made it feel like a proper cross country race for me.
After four hilly laps (one short, one medium and two long,) of what is probably one of the toughest runs I have taken part in, I approached the finish line. I could see and hear the rest of the XC team cheering me on. This made me feel good and I pushed myself all the way across the finish line.
Even though on the day I finished last out of the men’s team they thanked me and congratulated me for my performance. I left the race feeling included and proud of myself for getting through what was a very muddy and tough race.
The positive experience of the day, and the fun I had, made me want to try more XC fixtures. However, before I did, the more experienced members of the team advised me that I really needed to get some spikes. So with that I was off to the sweatshop to buy myself a pair.
My second, and the next race of the season, was a British Athletics Cross Country event at Sefton Park in Liverpool. This was an event where professional athletes took part and competed alongside amateurs. I learnt from some of my fellow Harriers that apparently, in the past, Olympic champion Mo Farah competed in this event. So of course I was going to go along and compete, if only to say I ran on the same field as Mo Farah.
The weather on the day was absolutely freezing. So needless to say it was t-shirt under the vest again for me. However, the more experienced members of the team still went out there in the freezing cold in just their vests.
I was more at home this time around and felt a lot more relaxed. I knew what to do and how things worked. The nerves I felt at Cuerden Valley Park were gone. So I focused on trying to put in a good performance for the team.
Before the race we did a warm up run and watched the some of the ladies race. I was pleased to see that the course was flat and not as muddy as Cuerden Valley. It was boggy in some parts, but overall it was a lot better.
After the warm up we made our way back to the tent for the team photograph. There were a lot more people representing Harriers for the men’s team at this one – 14 to be exact. This made it possible to have an A and B team, meaning more points for the team.
After the photographs we all went to the start line as a team. There were lots of pats on back and encouraging word from fellow team members. This made me more confident and pumped up for this one. I was determined to run as hard and as fast as I could for the team.
As the race went on it was lovely to see flat surface after flat surface in front of me, not a hill in sight. You could even see some of the faster athletes in the distance. I continued to push on and felt like I was keeping my composure well. That along with support from some of the ladies team spurred me on for the final couple of miles.
Approaching the final stretch I pushed hard and move my little legs as fast as I could over the finish line. I stopped my watch and got my breath back. I felt as though I had run well and gave everything I had for the team. Little did I know that I had actually smashed my PB for this distance on all surfaces by just over three minutes, clocking an official time of 46 minutes and 6 seconds.
To say I was gobsmacked is an understatement. I still to this day do not know where I got that performance from. It still stands to this day as my personal best running performance ever and probably will for some time. If I can put my performance down to anything, I think a mixture of the atmosphere of the day, the flat course, wearing spikes for the first time and the amazing support and encouragement from my fellow Wigan Harriers XC team was the main reasons for my mind blowing results.
After Sefton Park I’m sad to say that I missed the next two races in Towneley Park, Burnley, and Cleveleys School, Rossall, due to family commitments and a race clash with the Parbold Hill race which I had entered before I started taking part in Mid Lancs XC events.
The next race I would compete in would be the final XC fixture of the season at Leigh Sports Village. Rather worryingly, a few weeks prior to this race taking place, I was suffering with tendonitis of the Achilles. However I was determined I was going to make it to the last race of the season and I am happy to say I did.
Although my performance was not as strong as I would have liked, I still enjoyed being back with the XC gang and competing in the black and red once again. The appreciation I received from fellow Harriers for coming and taking part again reminded me of why I now love these events so much.
Lastly, because of the positive experiences and feeling of inclusion I received in my first two XC races, I took it upon myself to return the favour and try and encourage some of my running buddies at Downhill Runners to come along and give an XC a try. I am glad to say one of them did. So Jayne Salloum became the newest member of Wigan Harriers ladies XC team.
She was a great addition, and she really enjoyed it. I know Jayne, and hopefully some other new members, will be there competing next season. Needless to say, so will I…..