I had a great cross country race on the weekend, running for the mighty Highgate Harriers.

I took up cross country last year as I was intrigued by the races, and running for a club. Before that I had only ran in road races for fun and was starting to cut my teeth on the ultra scene. My friend Leo told me about the cross country races that he had taken part in for the harriers the previous year.

Before I started on my first cross country I thought I was a pretty good runner. I was usually up in the top ten percent of races, I had a sub 40 10k under my belt! How wrong I was.

When I saw how fast the top club runners were it was a sharp wake up call. I realised I may never be in their league, it was a sobering experience. However it was also a good lesson, I’m not a professional runner. I do this for fun, the cross country races push me so hard and develop me as a runner, I could never replicate that in training.

And I love them.

I love the history. I love the fact that men and women have been lining up, rain, shine or snow, on cold British winter days for the last hundred years and more. Clapping their hands together, greeting team mates, eyeing up the competition, breath steaming on the frigid air as they toe the line. I love the sound as five hundred men’s feet churn up the ground as they charge off towards the first bend, a deep rumble with shouts of warning and encouragement getting lost in the maelstrom. Toes catching heels as the pack stretches out, every man or woman in their own private world of pain as they fight for every inch of the course. I love the intensity, there are no chats on the course, no pats on the back, spectators cheer for their own, no encouragement is wasted on the competition. I love the butterflies in my stomach, I know what is going to happen, it will not be an easy race. Cross country never is.

And it’s real, every place lost is a point down for your team, every man in front is a point clawed from the clutches of your rivals. The atmosphere is charged before a race. The ancient tribal need surfaces deep from our DNA, pushing men and women to huddle with their own, vests of the same colour and design group together on the start line. The best of them standing at the front, lesser members prepare to do what they can in support of their brethren.

And so it was I fought for 7.5 km over a rolling course at Trent Park. I found myself in a micro battle as I struggled to lead a pack for the entirety of the race. I battled for the lead with a balding man. I never saw his face, only the back of his head as we swapped position throughout the course. Behind me someone was breathing hard, he was from the Orion running club, I only know this from the shouts of support from his team mates watching.

I fought but failed, my legs didn’t have anything left, I gritted my teeth as the pack sped up and passed me with 500m to go. All I could do was try to maintain my form and cross the line for 57th, fighting off another runner in a final sprint to the finish.

My personal time was good though, I’d somehow managed to run my second fastest 5k somewhere on that muddy course. Last year I doubt I could have tussled with those runners, this year I’m in the mix. This year I’m scrapping.

I drove home with the contentment that you only find when you know you have given your all. It is a feeling of calmness, of knowing you can look yourself in the mirror, and knowing that when you sit down that evening, you have earned your rest. You don’t need to win to find this nirvana, you don’t need to be a top runner in the lead pack. I found it on a cold Saturday afternoon coming in 57th place in an English Park.

Join a club, support grass roots  athletics and experience the joy of cross country. It might just be the best thing you have ever done for your running.

Ben Wood.

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