It is New Year’s Day. I am trudging across an open field, decorated with wind-harassed red and white tape. The ground has slid away; the floor is a molten conveyor belt of liquidised mud. It writhes beneath the slap of ineffectual spikes. I am 15. I think I am in love. Love has brought me to Bourton-on-the-Water, to this running Armegeddon on the first day of a new year, to cross country.
I stagger to the finish. I am last.
I stand shivering by an open car boot, littered with safety pins. I fiddle with mud-drenched double knots, grow frantically impatient, haul the shoes off. I unpeel a vest. The wind reasserts itself. Hail falls. I invent some lavishly improbable lies about my New Year’s Eve activities. The girl nods. She says goodbye. I watch as the girl is driven away.
Cross country has got no less painful. Cross country retains the ability to ruin physically and emotionally. Nor am I any more adept at untying knots than I was 18 years ago.
The season does not wait for the clocks to go back; cross country is underway. The field, this time, is on Farthing Downs, an undulating swathe of greenness abutting Coulsdon in south London. Runners from the nine clubs that make up the first (and highest) division of the Surrey League assemble. We are a lean, lithe bunch. There are few passengers here. My aspirations are realistic. Two years previously, a week after winning the inaugural Broadway Tower Marathon by around 20 minutes, I came 75th in a field of 191 runners in a Surrey match in Richmond Park. Take this as a reflection of the league, not me.
We surge forward, jostling for space as a grass track cambered upward. I am running comfortably under six-minute mile pace. The leaders are running closer to five over the opening mile. Soon we are sent spinning downhill, spikes click-clacking on stone. Runners are everywhere. Cross country is as close to a contact sport as running can get. We are on shoulders, clipping toes, massing and swarming, overtaking, being overtaken, dodging and hopping here and there to find the optimum line. We are hurting; we know it will not be long – but it is long enough. We climb out of the ironically-named Happy Valley and return to the start. We have been running for 2.7 miles. I hear the time, 15.55, and contemplate the next 16 minutes of my life with horror. I am already on the rivet. I am painfully exhausted. I know it shows on my face. Yet here is a man who considers himself supremely fit. I am running 50-60 miles a week. I can comfortably hold six-minute mile pace for 90 minutes. But so can everyone else here. And more. And this is no normal race. This is among the best racing amateur athletics can offer.
I once ran a race called Hellrunner on an army camp in Hampshire. It is part of a breed of modern races that are pitched as masochistic and ‘tough’. The ground was frozen. The hills were modest. We waded through the Bog of Doom, a contrived trench of neck-deep water. It was cold, but provides the runner with a rest – a convenient break from what you came here to do. I finish fifth. They give you what is called a ‘survivor’s medal’ if you get round. Hellrunner? I have run in hell. It’s a place near Bourton-on-the-Water. It is Richmond Park when you are in 76th place a week after winning a marathon. It is the second lap of Farthing Downs.
I get on with it. I churn up the hill for a second time, wallowing in self-pity. Three or four runners pass, including one of my Herne Hill Harriers’ teammates. At this point, in this moment, I hate him more than anyone; I want to strike him. The second lap – the last lap – continues ugly: 180 or so slaughtered blokes salvaging seconds. Happy Valley is even unhappier; the climb out of Happy Valley ranks among my unhappiest moments. I long for the Bog of Doom. Life – my wife, my daughter, my home, my job – has gone; my existence has shrunk to nothing more than this race.
I am over the brow of the hill. The worst is over. I glance behind. I see a mob of multi-coloured vests. Go away, I think – or expletives to that effect. I accelerate, catch a runner in a Croydon vest, slip by on his right knowing how he feels, cross a road and enter the final 100 metres. I sprint, feeling heroic, light all of a sudden. Very soon, it is over.
Jon Pepper, who ran 2.19.59 at this year’s London Marathon, was the race winner; John Gilbert, who ran 2.16.46 to finish second Briton in the same race was runner-up; Paskar Owor, a Ugandan international with a 10k best of 29.28, was third; Christopher Greenwood, the fastest over-40 to run a 10,000 metres in 2014, was fourth; James Connor, who ran 30.34 to win the BUPA London 10k in May, was fifth. James McMullan – an England international in mountain running – could only finish eighth.
I was 67th.
There was no ‘survivor’s medal’.
I grapple with the double knots on my spikes. I poke and jiggle with one, give up and move onto the next one. Nor will this knot budge. I reach for my heels, wrench the shoes off in turn, and toss them aside.