There are only two groups of people that do cross country: school children forced against their will and slightly strange skinny adults that enjoy pain.
Two Saturday’s ago I took part in the Birmingham League Division 1 fixture for my club, Cheltenham Harriers. It’s a very competitive league with the likes of Loughborough and Birmingham Uni, Tipton Harriers, Birchfield Harriers and so on, so it is a tough day out. But for some odd reason, we just keep turning up for the punishment!
This race was no different. Actually, it was! As I gathered myself on the start line, trying hard not to look around me for fear of feeling incredibly old alongside the numerous young and spritely university whipper-snappers, I was acutely aware of my incredibly tired legs. I’m taking part in the National Duathlon Champs at Ashridge this weekend then Powerman Spain in Majorca 4 weeks after that. It’s therefore been a crucial block of training for me with absolutely no room for a taper beyond an easy day on Friday. I was therefore pretty tired and the quads were about as fresh as a gone-off parsnip.
Anyway, this – I was told by my coach – was what it is all about: pushing hard on tired legs and developing resilience. The starter horn went off and the usual scrabbling of elbows and pushing of backs ensued. The opening 400m was all uphill and then we hit a section of flat before an 800m section of steady downhill. I tucked in behind the leaders, sitting in the front pack. So far, so good. We then hit a sharp rise at the bottom of the course and immediate the fatigue in the quads cane to the surface and hit me hard. Ouch. DIG IN! I lost a little bit of time to the main guys but managed to make this back up with some fast descending on the other side and then stuck in with the front pack – around 15th – as we completed the first of 4 laps on the 6-mile course.
It’s amazing what goes through your head in a race like this. The internal monologue flips wildly – in my case anyway – from moments of calmness, ‘You can do this, you’re feeling strong. You’ve got plenty more in the tank’, to serious self-doubt, ‘This is hurting. I can’t hack this for 3 more laps’, to positive self-persuasion, ‘If I back off a little I’ll still place high and could pull through towards the end’, to finally losing it with myself, ‘Just frickin’ man-up and smash it as hard as you can you pussy!’
As we reached the top of the climb at the start of the second lap I was definitely in the self-doubt phase. The top boys had started racing properly now and the pack had disintegrated. There were a few lads to chase just ahead of me and a decent gap behind. It was hurting and I wasn’t confident about maintaining it. I started breaking the race down into minor chunks, ‘get to the top of the next rise’, ‘stick in this group to the start of the last lap and then see how it is’. This worked well – thinking about how long left is not good for the morale! I even managed to pick up a few spots as people went backwards and found myself in 13th.
With one lap to go, I was gasping and it was clear that I wasn’t going to catch any of the guys in front. Suddenly I was aware of the pack behind – including my friend Joe Smith of Tipton – closing in on me. I entered the final stage of the internal monologue: I was fired up and determined to hold on, ‘They’re hurting too. This is a mental game now. You want it!’.
Through gritted teeth and probably a very ragged running style, I managed to hold it together and crossed the line in a heap in 13th place. Happy!
The warm down was excellent. It usually is! You’re running nice and easy around the course chatting to your mates and discussing each other’s race stories. For every one of us, it hurt! But we took great satisfaction from that and not giving in. For me, it was a really good race because it shows I’m developing greater strength and resilience which is all important for running off the bike in a duathlon. A good day!
Anyway, it’s a funny old sport. I can understand people not quite getting why we would go through it. But the fact is, the harder something is, the greater the reward afterwards. Roll on the next one!
Ben Price is a duathlete who has represented GB at elite level over the past two years. He came to the sport in his late 20s and since then has progressed through the age group ranks until he was selected for the elite team in 2017. You can follow Ben’s training on Instagram through his daily posts. You can read more of his blogs here.