Thursday, 10 December 2015

First Cross Country Race

I haven't done any cross country running since school. All I really remember was being made to run 5km along local footpaths and alleyways to the country park and back again. I vaguely remember being able to occasionally get into the top group, while the slower runners looked for every opportunity to hide somewhere along the route and then re-join on the way back.

It was therefore with some trepidation that I agreed to make my first outing for my new club (Team Kennet) at a cross country event. The chosen event was the Berks, Bucks and Oxen Cross Country Championships, held at Horspath Sports Ground in Oxford.

The morning of the event dawned fairly bright but cold, with a very strong wind gusting to over 50km/h. Temperature was only a few degrees centigrade and the wind chill made it feel much colder. Pretty much perfect weather for cross country running ;-)

I'd intended to run in just shorts, club running vest and gloves. However at the last moment I decided to add a long sleeved base layer to counter the cold wind. With hindsight this wasn't the best decision as I was rather warm during the race. For shoes I went with my Saucony Peregrine 4 trail shoes as these were the best (only) thing I had for running off-road.

The senior mens' race was made up of 106 runners of all age groups from 18 years and up. All the entrants were serious club runners so I knew it was going to be a tough event.

The course was pretty challenging. It started with a run across some fields and over a dry ditch. Then it was two laps round the main loop - starting with an uphill section on a reasonable gravel/packed mud path; then a flat slightly muddy section followed by a downhill on similar gravel/packed mud; finally a section across some rather wet and muddy fields back to the start of the loop. After the second lap was a very muddy footpath and a final sprint back across a field.

The uphill section was a bit of a killer: one of those hills that you go up and then, just as you think you are at the top, you turn a corner and there's more hill left to go and it's even steeper than what went before! I'm pretty strong up hills so I was able to push it to the top on the first ascent. Second time round I approached it with a bit more respect and adopted a slightly slower pace right from the bottom.

I found the downhill section much more challenging. The secret to going downhill fast is to just go with it and move your legs quickly underneath you to keep from falling head-over-heels. Trying to hold back or control speed through leaning back just doesn't work and tires you out really quickly. Unfortunately I found that running downhill fast aggravated my slightly tight achilles. Also, I wasn't confident with the grip of my trail shoes on the steeper parts. I therefore lost quite a bit of time and a couple of places on the two downhill sections. Running downhill will certainly be part of my training as soon as I get my achilles back in full working order!

The other sections where I really struggled were those where there was a lot of mud. While my trail shoes had reasonable grip on the grassy and packed sections, as soon as I hit a section of deeper mud I found myself sliding all over the place. The last section was a very muddy footpath and I found it really hard work keeping on my feet through here – not what you want in the last 2km of a hard 9km race!

One other thing that I found very different is that in all the races I've done previously, I've been able to make great use of the data from my GPS running watch. I've been able to ensure that I'm maintaining a sensible pace, not going off too fast while at the same time not letting the speed drop too much. In the cross country race this information source was pretty much useless!

Firstly it was really difficult to get a chance to look at my watch as I was so busy trying to stay on my feet and pick good lines through the roots and mud. Secondly, the constantly varying terrain and gradients made any sort of pacing plan almost totally redundant. All I could really do was run to RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) and just use the watch data for post-race analysis.

I completed the 9km race in 42:14, which I was fairly happy with given that my flat 10km PB is only just under 40 minutes. I managed 69th place out of the 106 starters, and 22nd in the veterans (40+) category out of 42 runners. Happy with that in my first cross country event which was also a county level championship.

Learnings from the race:

  • Don't make last minute kit or clothing changes, stick with what I know works for me
  • Trail shoes don't really cut in when it's really muddy and that lack of grip affected my confidence going downhill. I've added some cross country spikes to my Christmas list!
  • Trying to use GPS watch data for pacing decisions is pointless, just race using perceived exertion
  • I need to do much more practice running downhill fast and letting myself flow rather than holding myself back

I really enjoyed cross country. It's nothing like I remember it from school, and I will definitely be doing some more of these races for my club in the future.

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