The South of England Cross Country Championships – the ‘southerns’ – is a January barometer of fitness and fight, a race in which the weak of spirit can find themselves painfully exposed. South of England, in a running context, means everything below an imaginary line drawn between Bristol and The Wash. That swathe of England includes not only millions of people, but also some of the finest running clubs in the UK – Wells, Kent, Bedford, Aldershot, Highgate and so on, and, therefore, some supremely gifted athletes. The southerns remain special for that quality and by tradition: the race remains the only major cross country to retain a 9 mile distance.
After last year’s gloopy affair at Parliament Hill, the whole shebang relocated to a new venue, Stanmer Park, Brighton, for the 2012 edition today. On a cold afternoon under a blue sky, the gun went; the surge came – that inexorable near-sprint of the first 200 metres. We were sent straight up a hill, then down the other side, before beginning the first of three loops around the park.
My memories of these laps are blurred. There were two significant hills on each, the first a sharp scramble over exposed tree roots, the second a grim, long slog, albeit shallower than incline one. Even where I was running – somewhere in the late 100s – the pace was relentless. I would gain ground on the hillier, muddier stuff, only to lose positions on the flatter, grassier parts.
At the end of the first lap, I thought, how am I going to survive two more? But you do. Somehow. Besides, the Herne Hill Harriers’ team manager had shouted that I was 10th clubman and that 12 counted for the race to be best team in Surrey – words that I took as code: now you’re in this position, don’t you dare slow down.
Some 55 minutes in, as I churned up the final slope, pursued by a runner who sounded like he was having an asthma attack, I sneaked a glance back to see a Herne Hill vest. Not the asthmatic, fortunately for him, but a man who I knew was perfectly capable of winning a sprint, unfortunately for me.
I kept on, blasting downhill as fast as possible. With 200 metres to go, now on a flat, firm grass surface, I kicked hard, then harder still, even surprising myself. This is the virtue of finishing strongly on a set of track reps, I told myself – that you can do this in a race. Nevertheless, my troublesome right soleus was tight and I feared it would give way under these moments of stress. But, no. Nor did the red and black vest of a Herne Hill runner swoop past.
Emotions? Satisfied. Relieved. Thank goodness that’s over. Ben Tickner, an athlete I ran with at the University of Exeter while we were both undergraduates there, was collecting his first man’s prize as I wandered back to Herne Hill HQ. He was second last year and looked pleased with himself.
I was pretty pleased with myself too. The southerns had proved that I had some fight and some fitness, and if they are a true barometer, then the year ahead likes bright. January draws to a close with the Winter Tanners, the Box Hill fell race and the southerns, as well as some 200-plus miles, in my legs, and the once distant dreams of the Fellsman and the Bob Graham no longer seem so distant.
SUNDAY UPDATE: Results are now available. I was 206th out of 754, clocking 59 minutes, 50 seconds.