Forget the London Marathon or Great North Run, a muddy golf course on the southern fringe of Inverness was the place to be on Saturday. At 2pm sharp (amazingly), with the light already fading, 50 hardy souls – and a similar number of impish Scottish university students – were off, fighting for honours in the North District Cross Country Championships.
The prize? For individuals and teams to call themselves the best in not just the Highlands, but also Moray and the Western Isles. What greater motivation, what greater honour, could there be?
You could tell this was bigger than a typical Highland race. Runners were actually warming up. The race actually started on time. There was actually somewhere under cover, out of the rain to get changed. There were actually more than two people watching. I’m surprised some of the running purists didn’t turn their back on such niceties in disgust.
The course – the senior men’s course at least – is an almost 10km route around Loch Ness golf course, known locally as Fairways. Golf course – sounds easy doesn’t it? All that manicured grass and gentle undulations. Not a bit of it. The principal feature of the course is a 150ft, four-minute or so climb, which brings the runner onto an uneven, filthy track that infuriatingly continues to rise ever so slightly.
The course then takes a sharp left and sends you plummeting downhill. There’s chance for a quick glance at the Moray Firth and Inverness below, before eyes are glued to the ground, ensuring that hurtling progress across grass, mud and gravel does not end in an embarrassing fall.
At the bottom, you climb again for a short while – always into the face of the prevailing wind – and reach a track that takes you to the finish line, where lots of people helpfully shout at you to ‘dig in’. I’m digging like mad, I thought. Alas, this isn’t the finish line yet; there’s another two laps to go.
I dug in.
Inverness Harriers were second team home, so silver medals all round. That means my grandchildren won’t think I was a total loser. We were outgunned by Forres Harriers. I’d like to say that the Forres/Inverness rivalry is like Coe/Evett, Manchester United/Liverpool or Federer/Nadal.
It’s not, and no amount of poetic licence can change that. Apart from a wee bit of blether and gamesmanship pre-gun, there were no elbows in the charge for the first corner and no spikes down shins. Perhaps we should have resorted to those tactics, because we were walloped by Forres. Clearly we didn’t dig in enough.